Does the new Pentagon Memorial work as a monument?

What we build.
Sept. 24 2008 7:13 AM

The Pentagon Memorial

It tells us more than we need to know—and, at the same time, not enough.

'Memorial units' at the Pentagon Memorial. Click image to expand.
'Memorial units' at the Pentagon Memorial

The $22 million memorial commemorating the 184 people who perished in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was dedicated two weeks ago. A memorial may be beautiful or homely, sophisticated or crude, monumental or unassuming: That's not really the point. A rough stone stele can be as effective as an intricately carved marble catafalque. But, as Andrew Butterfield wrote in the New Republic a few years ago in the context of a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a memorial does need to do three things: It marks a spot, it says who, and it says so forever. How does the Pentagon Memorial fulfill these requirements?

The Pentagon is a surprisingly low building whose immense bulk only becomes apparent as you walk around it, which you must do to get from the nearest Metro stop to the memorial. The two-acre site is immediately adjacent to the place where American Airlines Flight 77 struck. Hence, much of the power of this particular memorial derives from the simple fact that it marks the actual place where the event occurred. Because each of the victims is commemorated by an individual marker—which the designers of the memorial, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, refer to as "memorial units" but which everyone else calls "benches"—the place resembles a cemetery. Intervening rows of maple trees create the impression of an ancient burial grove. The allusion seems fitting. At dusk, when I was there, the cluster of softly illuminated benches, on which people had left flowers and notes, was a distinctly moving sight. Every few minutes, the roar of an outgoing flight from nearby Reagan National Airport added to the poignancy.

The Pentagon Memorial at night. Click image to expand.
The Pentagon Memorial at night
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The benches are arranged in rows according to the year of birth of the victim, the years (which are indicated on adjacent sitting walls) ranging from 1998 to 1930. In addition, an encircling wall rises from 3 inches tall, representing the youngest person killed—a 3-year-old child—to a height of 71 inches, the age of the oldest victim. The rows of benches are arranged parallel to the trajectory of Flight 77, and the benches face one way or the other, depending on whether the individual died on the plane or in the building. This may be more than we need to know—and not enough. The design of the Pentagon Memorial is Minimalist and avoids the deplorable contemporary fashion of using memorials as excuses for education, as if the public needed to be told what and how to remember. But unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which tells us "who" but also has an underlying structure—a beginning and an end, a descent and an ascent, the implied promise of redemption—the Pentagon Memorial merely provides statistics. How many people died, who was in the plane and who in the building, how old they were. Moving as the ensemble is, the overall effect is also oddly unresolved, almost nihilistic. "This happened," the memorial seems to say. "We don't know why, and we don't know what it means."

The benches of the Pentagon Memorial are cast from stainless steel, and each bench cantilevers over an individual pool of water. It is unclear whether the water is intended to suggest a common thread tying the victims together or is there merely to diffuse a glowing light that comes from an underwater lamp. In addition, the water is rippling, though the gurgling sound is barely perceptible due to the drone of traffic on nearby I-395. It all struck me as contrived—and impractical. The evening I was there, although the memorial was barely two weeks old, a crew of maintenance workers was painstakingly removing stones and debris that had made their way into the pools—most of the walking surfaces are composed of loose gravel. Memorials are traditionally made out of granite, marble, or bronze, not only to last "forever," but also to convey a sense of perpetuity. On that score, the Pentagon Memorial seems more like an art installation than a monument for the ages.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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