Monuments to the facts

Observations on remembering 9/11

Michael Arad's design for the 9/11 memorial in New York, announ-ced as the winner of a competition on 6 January, has the merit of simplicity, and that is probably why it won. It consists of two sunken pools on the sites of the former World Trade Center towers, with the names of the victims carved on a low wall around them. But you will search in vain for any idea of the meaning or significance of 11 September 2001. The losses are represented as a "void" that cannot be grasped or explained - as water rushing down into the earth.

The other contestants looked as if they had printouts of statistics to hand as they designed their proposals: the time of the attacks, the numbers killed, their ages, the buildings in which they died. One proposed representing each of the 2,982 victims with a hanging votive that would be suspended at different heights according to the victims' ages. Another finalist proposed glass columns to represent each person who died as well as a "natural stone wall inlaid with 2,982 randomly protruding polished squares". Yet another wanted to use the footprint of one tower to mark with lights the individuals who died, and the other to mark with trees the 92 nations from which they came.

In a similar spirit, the memorial to the attacks at the Pentagon will feature 184 lighted benches, one for each victim, positioned according to the victims' ages, and according to whether they died in the Pentagon or in the aeroplane.

This preoccupation with facts and figures is a characteristic feature of modern memorials. The memorial to the Oklahoma bomb included 168 chairs, laid out in nine rows, evoking the nine floors of the Murrah Building. The entrance and exit are "time arches", one bearing the time 9.01 and the other 9.03 - the architects said that they wanted to "freeze the time of the bombing in space".

This idea of marking the times of terrible events surfaces again in proposals for memorials to 11 September. One of the New York designs included a garden that would open every day between 8.46am, the time when the first plane hit, and 10.28am, when the second tower collapsed. Daniel Libeskind, in his design for the World Trade Center site, plans a spot on which, between those same times, the sun will shine without shadow (the "wedge of light") on 11 September each year. The memorial planned for Monmouth County, New Jersey, includes a walkway with a chronology of 9/11 carved into the stones.

Why do all these numbers and facts matter so much? Often, it is hard to see the point of them. The memorial to the Second World War proposed for the National Mall in Washington included 56 pillars, representing the US states and territories during the war. What has the number of states to do with it? The Second World War was fought by America as a nation.

Facts are attractive because they are an abstraction from the substance of the event. It is a way of representing the event that avoids saying what it meant. The initial design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington did not even mention Vietnam; it simply listed the names of dead soldiers, in the order in which they died. One veteran complained: "For all anybody knew, the 58,000 dead might have been killed in traffic accidents or some awful natural cataclysm." Numbers and facts betray a difficulty in deciding just how to represent and remember events.

Arad, by limiting himself to footprints and the names of the dead, avoided the pointless lists of facts. But although this may be more satisfying aesthetically, it still removes all pretence of trying to understand what happened.

The meaning of 11 September could have been represented by showing the heroism of rescue workers, the ways in which people in the towers helped and supported each other, the rebuilding of New York, or the defence of liberty. Yet none of these interpretations has won wide public support. Rescue workers' demands that their sacrifice be recognised has put them at loggerheads with victims' families; businesses have fought it out with survivors. In these circumstances, designers have taken the easy route and avoided interpreting the event at all.

Josie Appleton is culture editor for spiked-online