To a new World Trade Center
Manhattan with the new World Trade Center, rendering, 2013
Lecture, held at the Academy of Architecture, Amsterdam, and ARCAM, September 11, 2014
The Beginning or the End of Understanding?
Last summer, the subject of my lecture unfortunately seemed more relevant than ever.
Watching the devastation of Gaza, the death of thousands of innocent people, and great parts of Gaza City being destroyed, I couldn't help thinking back to other sites of destruction, like the Trade Center, but also the Balkan towns and bridges in the nineties, and the German city of Dresden in 1945.
And Gaza is only one example. Every day we read in the newspaper and on the internet the vandalizing of archeological sites and ancient towns and monuments in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State.
Whatever the political, religious or military motives may be, whatever the circumstances and interests of the fighting parties – architecture is also under attack here. And this leads to the question, what role architecture, and urban planning, and landmark preservation, could play in the collective remembrance of these traumatic events. When a vanished world – be it a city, a single building, or a complete community – recovers, in what way should the memory of the past be expressed? What is the content, what should be the message? And what does this say about those who commission the rebuilding and remembrance?
Personally, I don’t dare to think of a monument to the poor victims and their devastated homes of Gaza City. It will cost at least twenty years to rebuild this town, due to lack of materials, supplies and money. Here, memory is a luxury.
Thinking about another disaster this summer, the crash of MH17 in Ukraine, one has to remind that the collective memory of such an event can be spontaneous and individual, or organized and well planned by the state, a foundation, whatsoever. The reasons may be different, but this says nothing about the effect and the impact.
When I visited Memorial Plaza in New York, I was impressed by the grand lay-out and detailing of the Memory Fountains, where once the Twin Towers stood. But I was really moved by the drawings, messages, pictures and personal belongings in St. Paul’s Chapel, the little church at the edge of Ground Zero.
This church has been a shelter and a refuge for survivors, rescue workers, firemen, local residents etc., from the moment the towers fell, up to this day. A real peoples memorial.
To put it in other words: it’s possible to analyze and understand the design of Memorial Plaza, but it’s impossible to do the same with the spontaneous and for me far more impressive memorial in St. Paul’s Chapel.
Why do we need organized remembrance anyway? When we plan monuments, politics and esthetics come marching in.
The silence of artists
Daniel Libeskind’s mother once said to her son, when he didn’t know what to choose: a musician, or an architect, she said: ’Music is an art form, Architecture is a trade’.
I think she’s right, but only to a certain level. Architecture can be an art form, and when you accept this, it can be very useful comparing the response of artists and architects to traumatic events, and which role they play in preserving collective memory.
Three years ago, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition, which concentrated on the issue of the almost complete absence of visual art dedicated to 9/11. Why didn’t artists react on this event? Why wasn’t there any significant art, made by important artists, about 9/11? Why were they silent? One art critic even said: ‘The story of the arts and 9/11 has largely been a story told in negatives – of inhibitions and avoidance and empty spaces.’
Where was the Picasso of 2001? Picasso, who painted the world famous representation of the slaughter of the village Guernica by German bombers, during the Spanish Civil war in 1937.
If there wasn’t any significant art, how to make an exhibition about this subject, ten years after the attacks?
Well, the only way was to compose this exhibition from works of art, that were made before 9/11. And that somehow refer to this day. Because of the meaning we, who are all witnesses, give these older works of art.
For example, a video still by Jem Cohen, 1991. What we see is the stuff of the ticker tape parade held after America’s victory in the First Gulf War. Does it look like something else?
Or the picture by William Egglestone, a renowned photographer, 1965. I think the most disturbing image: because you can picture the passengers of the tragic planes, sipping their drinks and looking to the Atlantic blue sky, that morning on 9/11.
Jem Cohen, Little Flags, videostill, 1991
Remains the question: how come? Why did dozens of architects and other designers immediately respond to the official and non-official competitions that were held to rebuild the World Trade Center, in the wake of 9/11? Why didn’t they have the reserve, or the need to avoid the subject, that visual artists felt? There were architects, by the way, who did feel it was much too early in the years after 2001 to design a new plan. They did feel the need to restraint.
In the past, artists didn’t have this reserve at all. On the contrary. But in the past, it was only imagination. It was still a nightmare. Virtual reality, so to speak.
Long before 9/11, Manhattan, has been the battlefield of many a war. In literature, movies, paintings this city has been under attack of foreign armies, aliens, monsters, lunatics.
Who wants to understand the history of New York and what this history means, should take notice of this. The architectural historian Max Page has put it this way: ‘We will have missed a central element of New York City history and American popular culture, if we ignore the fantasies of this city’s demise.’
The question is: where does this self-fulfilling prophecies come from? Max Page points out, that New York has always embodied the most troubling and longstanding tensions in American history and life: the double attitude toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology, and the tensions between natural and human-made disaster.
In this sense, the terrorists of 9/11 knew exactly where to hit their enemy. It was done by those who knew well the films and programs depicting New York’s destruction. They succeeded in making the American fantasies and nightmares horrible reality, turning the great symbols of the city into burning signs of terror.
Bin Laden threw a stone in an ocean of imagination.
The Towers off course were well chosen targets. They were symbols of America’s economic, political and cultural dominance. 9/11 therefore was a public humiliation, an execution, not only of those who happened to be in the buildings, but the buildings themselves as prideful personifications of American unbelief, materialism, and corruption.
And only because the Towers were seen as being part of America’s identity, 9/11 was an assault with a long lasting psychological impact.
The cities identity
In the aftermath of 9/11 the future of Ground Zero was heavily discussed, by numerous architects, engineers, urban planners, politicians, critics, and ordinary New Yorkers. The main issue was: should we rebuild the towers, or, is it a better option to leave this sacred place open, to create a permanent and natural place of remembrance. A fundamental point was made by the great American artist Ellsworth Kelly. Responding to the mount of ideas and plans that were published, he sent his solution to The New York Times. Being an old fashioned minimalist painter, he proposed a spiritual vision for this site: a vision for the future, as he called it. His design was based upon traditional Indian burial mounds in the Midwest, but we shouldn’t take this all too literally. What he did want to say, is that all this plans actually missed the point. He said, ‘Our attention was drawn away from the nightmare that hit New York. The plans to rebuild blocked a real, psychological understanding of what had happened.’
What Kelly suggested, was a site of free contemplation, to learn how to understand, and how to cope.
Kelly’s proposal didn’t make it, although the idea of the open, green space returned more or less in the final design.
Another proposal to commemorate the victims and the Twin Towers, which was realized, was ‘A Tribute in Light’, consisting of beams of light, not exactly at the original site of the towers, but somewhere in the neighbourhood. ‘A Tribute in Light’ was an idea of several New York designers and architects, who wanted to do something immediately after 9/11, and hit upon the same idea at the same time, and worked together as a team for this occasion. It was put into operation for the first time months after the attacks, and today it was put into operation again after being out of order for several years due to lack of money. Over the years it has become the emblem of the remembrance of 9/11. As one of the designers, Gustavo Bonevardi, wrote: ‘It was something that was born out of a desire to heal the city quickly.’ It wasn’t meant as much as monument, but, as he puts it, ‘an after image frozen in time.’ To heal the cities identity, ‘In a medium that’s bigger than life.’
Julian LaVerdiere & Paul Myoda, Towers of Light, 2002
These are beautiful statements, which testify to the importance of the Twin Towers. However, the towers were not the cities diamonds one might think they were.
The plans for the World Trade Center raised a lot of anger in New York, back in the sixties. They were part of a large scale redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, that was said to be declining. To revitalize old neighbourhoods and put the harbours back in business, the city authorities ordered urban renewal projects. In fact it was slum clearance: more than 100.000 locals were put out of their homes, 40 % black or Latino. Because ghettos had to vanish, and with them, the visible memory of poverty and hunger. The side-effect was, that much small-scale business and jobs disappeared, and unemployment exploded. As was the case with the neighbourhood where the new World Trade Center was soon to rise. In the words of the city of New York: ‘The TradeCenter will dramatically revitalize a drab and decaying area of lower Manhattan, and transform it into a magnificent international Marketplace for people from all over the World.’
The chief city planner was the famous Robert Moses. He justified the demolition of Lower Manhattan with the unforgettable sentence: 'When you operate in an over-built metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.’
But, not everybody agreed. Many New Yorkers didn’t want these old, but lively neighbourhoods to disappear, and protested. Some of them undoubtedly inspired by the ideas of Jane Jacobs and her famous book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’.
Searching for information which would give me a glimpse of Lower Manhattans past, I found an intriguing book title: ‘The Destruction of Lower Manhattan’. Years before I found it, I read a horrifying book with almost the same title, ‘The Destruction of Dresden’, about the allied bombing in February 1945 of this magnificent Baroque city. For me, ‘The Destruction of Lower Manhattan’, had to describe the attack on the Trade Center in 2001. But, it didn’t.
The original book is from 1969. It’s a photobook, by Danny Lyon, a renowned photographer in the US of social photography. The series in this book were his first commission, and he made them in the summers of 1966 and 1967, when Lower Manhattan was demolished. Lyon lived in this neighbourhood himself, because it was cheap. His pictures show how this neighbourhood looked like, just before it disappeared, the inhabitants and employees already gone. A very moderate Manhattan neighbourhood, 16 acres – that’s the size of a modest European city centre. With some very interesting buildings of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, for example one of the first skyscrapers in the city.
A reason to mourn? I don’t know. Still, when you walk nowadays through the adjacent streets which survived, you can feel the atmosphere that was blown away with it. And you can imagine what could have been if the protesters had won the game. And it’s useful to realize, that neighbourhoods like Soho and Greenwich Village, so popular and so much admired today, and so valuable in terms of real estate property now, were also blacklisted by the New York City planners in the fifties and sixties.
The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1966-1967
When completed, the World Trade Center counted up to seven high rise office buildings. The Twin Towers were finished in 1973. The last building of the complex, World Trade Center number 7, only in 1987. As foreseen by the protesters in the sixties, the whole group of buildings was never loved much, to put it mildly. Robert Stern said: ‘It’s the Building everybody loved to hate and hated to love.’
The main reason for this was, that the complex had no connection with the city whatsoever. To build it, streets had been cut off. Who wanted to enter the complex, had to descend first in the basement, where there was a huge shopping mall, and take one of the elevators into the towers. Leaving the buildings was just as complicated. The Towers rose from a wide, immense plaza, where concerts and festivities were held, but which was frightening after closing time, the wind sweeping the cold stone.
One author wrote in a biography of the Twin Towers: ‘The trade centre’s scale and form had exploded the structure beyond any relationship to its surroundings. No longer can Lower Manhattan be experienced as a unified geographic whole.’
Moreover, despite the aspirations of the city planners to make profit of the site, economically and socially the World Trade Center never functioned well. The capacity of offices was never fully used. The Towers could exist because of the financial advantages the local government created. A few years later they would never have been built this way.
Still, the architect himself thought he had done a good job.
The architect was Minoru Yamasaki. He was an outsider. Son of Japanese immigrants. Been working at the office that designed the Empire State Building, back in the thirties. Moreover, he wasn’t a big name. He didn’t work in the International Style, but cultivated a formalist variant, based on historical principles. He was a gothic modernist, so to speak.
He said: ‘Beyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the co-operation of men, and through co-operation, his ability to find his greatness.’
He’s talking about a very, very commercial project here. Which for the city planners was an instrument of slum clearance. Yamasaki was a humble, willing man.
He also said: ‘As an architect, if I had no economic or social limitations, I’d solve all my problems with one story buildings. Imagine how pleasant it would be to always work and plan spaces overlooking lovely gardens filled with flowers.’
But that was impossible on Lower Manhattan.
In a way, Yamasaki was a genius. The Twin Towers owed their unique structure and architectural look to a fundamental decision he made: instead of the conventional structure of the skyscraper, with its internal skeleton, he took the hollow structure of the bamboo stalk as a model. Shaping the tube into a square. The outer walls carrying the building. He explained: ‘Then you can build prairie upon prairie of column less stories, as high as you want to go. No limit.’
That’s what he did. The Twin Towers were bamboo stalks.
The New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1966, that’s to say, before the construction started: ‘The Trade center towers could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.’
It’s tragic, they have become graves after all.
World Trade Center, 1973
The fight over the future of Ground Zero between the memorialisers and the rebuilders, ended undecided. As one author put it: 'Thousands of people died on a very valuable piece of real estate.' A whole city, a whole nation, was traumatized on the most expensive piece of land in America. No wonder, the redevelopment took a long time. No wonder, there was a fight between developers, politicians, architects and urban planners, and this fight was difficult, tough and sometimes mean. Ego’s, money, emotions – a highly dangerous mix. And it all happened on ‘America’s most sacred place’, as someone characterized Ground Zero.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin was Daniel Libeskind’s first major project. Although the first stone was laid in 1991,it took years to build the museum, mainly because of political controversy. The same day that it finally opened its doors, with its exhibitions, collections and facilities, believe it or not, was the 11th of September 2001.
When I first heard this, I almost couldn’t believe it. 9/11 was going on, Libeskind celebrating the opening of his Jewish Museum. And then, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘Like everything else in the world, it shut down again.’
And he was to win the competition for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, organized some time later. Coincidence? What else could it be? But it keeps on lingering in my mind.
It does, I think, because in the life of this architect, major historical developments of prosecution and terror come together. He emigrated with his parents to Manhattan in the fifties. A large part of his family was murdered in Poland, his native country, by the Nazis during World War Two. He is fully aware of his Jewish roots. He is proud of it, he is inspired by his Jewishness, and whenever he can, he will let the world know. Attending Art Academy in New York, fighting his way up, publishing theories on architecture, history and modern urban life – he became a long-time favourite of curators and editors, thanks to his extraordinary designs, drawings and articles. And then, finally, breaking through with the Berlin Jewish Museum. Since then, a star architect, with commissions all over the world.
A designer truly conscious of history, with a deeply felt personal commitment to both urban life and collective memory – who else would be able to reconcile commemoration and urban recovery?
In fact, a lot of his colleagues would be, I’m sure. But he won this competition. The right man in the right place, I guess.
The debate about the rebuilding of Ground Zero concentrated on several options: balance between memory and reconstruction of the lost office space; giving back the site to the city by creating public space; and, restoring the old street grid, which had been aborted by Yamasaki’s plan. Now that reconstruction was needed, the opportunity presented itself to correct urbanistic problems.
But, at the same time, there was a deep rooted belief, at least by some critics and designers, that the real challenge was not a technical urban reconstruction. The problem was far more bigger than that, and was beyond the urban planning of New York. As one critic said: ‘Any hope today for a meaningful reconstruction of cities and for their “reinvention”, including that of New York in the wake of 9/11, must take into account the global forces that have led to their destruction.’
In other words, the new Trade Center had not to deny the political and terrorist past, but tell this story.
The answers of the participants of the competition covered the wide range between reconstruction and memory, between pragmatism and poetry.
Daniel Libeskind won with his master plan the design competition, which was organized by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Actually, he didn’t win it, but he was chosen by George Pataki, Governor of New York, who overruled the jury, because the jury was cheating. Pataki said.
True or not true, perhaps more important, Libeskind got a lot of positive response from the public. The reason for this wide acclaim was, that his master plan combined several important elements of the other plans. First: it appealed in a very direct way to the general feeling of the public, with the main tower of the program being 1776 feet high: a reference to the year of America’s independence. This tower was immediately called by George Pataki, Freedom Tower. Second, in contrast to many other plans the new complex fits well into the skyline of Manhattan, even creates a new, organic climax to it. Third, he created a new public square around the footprints of the Twin Towers, which he left free, using these footprints for remembrance. Fourth, his aim was to restore the original streets of Lower Manhattan.
Masterplan for a new World Trade Center , 2003
So, here we have a mix of restoring, functionality and remembering. He called his design: ‘Memory Foundations’.
That was 2003. In the course of the planning process, things have changed, and that’s an understatement, although the grand lay out of the original plan survived.
Freedom Tower is still standing. In a complete, much more conventional shape. Not designed by Libeskind, but by David Childs, from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. But still 1776 feet high, even though Childs, an iron man of modernism, didn’t want to. Freedom Tower reached its highest point last year, and is still under construction.
A couple of high rise office buildings at the edge of the site. Not designed by Libeskind, but by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Maki and associates. All in different stages of the building process now.
The site where the Twin Towers stood, left open. Accessible from all sides, furnished with trees. The footprints of the towers visible, and transformed into pools with cascades.
A new transportation hub, the core of subway lines, by Santiago Calatrava.
It has been said, that Libeskind brought with his master plan a foreign consciousness to Lower Manhattan. Well, Calatrava certainly brought something wild to it. It will be completed next year.
The advantage of Libeskind is, that he has very strong personal memories of Lower Manhattan in the fifties and sixties. He grew up there, went to school there, he saw the old Trade Center being built. One of his main premises was, he explained, ‘to spread the density of office space’.
In his autobiography he writes: ‘I often thought about my mother and father who worked in sweat shops around Lower Manhattan. Where would they be? They would not be in the high-rise towers. They’d be on the streets of New York, in the subways, in the trains. What do we give them? What do we give the people of New York? Give them a space that is beautiful, that is inspiring, that is connected to the history, and of course that history will always be there.’
a sense of
what is needed
in public space
of a city. Libeskind, the hero of the masses? I’m not fully convinced Libeskinds sense of tradition always works out fine. We shouldn’t forget that his master plan was realized, only when other architects joined in. He thinks, argues and designs in a very conceptual manner. It’s his strength, but when there is no counter-pressure, or not enough, accidents might happen, like his recent extension of the Military Museum in Dresden shows. It’s the artist in his soul, okay. But in certain situations things may go wrong.
The design for Memorial Plaza was made by the New York architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker. They followed the broad outlines of the master plan, but gave it their own twist.
The center of Memorial Plaza is formed by the two pools of reflection, that’s to say, the former footprints of the towers. They are called: ‘Memory Fountains’. The water falling down, and down again, in a black void.
The bronze balustrades around them, carved with the names of the almost 3000 victims of 9/11, and of the earlier terrorist attack of 1993, when a bomb exploded in the basement of the Trade Center. It took a year to collect all the names and organize them according to families, friends, colleagues, office departments, fire engines, etcetera.
All very thoroughly done. All names are there. But are they?
Recently, I heard that since 9/11, more than 2000 firemen, policemen, rescue workers etc. who did their job on 9/11 and the days after, have died of cancer, or other diseases related to the toxins which covered Ground Zero and the adjacent streets. They are victims too, but their names are not here.
Last May, a very important building of Memorial Plaza opened its doors, the Memorial Museum, designed by the Norwegian office Snohetta.
In the entrance hall, the neo-gothic pillars remind of the Twin Towers. Of course, the main part of the collection forms the gallery with victims' names and their pictures.
The museum reaches seven stories beneath street level. You can descend, if you want to, along a concrete stairs, which people used to escape the burning towers. There is a vast collection of video footage, with a time line, and all kinds of objects, fragments, documents, personal belongings, and so on.
World Trade Center, rendering, 2012
From the beginning, and that is what is so special about this project, the blending of recovery and memory, functionality and symbolism, was the aim. It’s hard to find related projects in history on this scale. Hiroshima off course, where Kenzo Tange designed a similar mix of urban planning and remembrance. Usually, when a city, or a part of a city, has been destroyed by a natural or manmade disaster, it starts with the recovery to house people, to facilitate production and services, to reconstruct infrastructure, etcetera. That’s the first priority. Memorials are not.
Sometimes, it takes a very long time to rebuild. Like the brilliant Frauenkirche in Dresden, which was rebuilt 60 years after its devastation. And although technically it’s a true miracle this Baroque church was rebuilt, considering the use of ancient construction methods and handcraft at this scale; and although we can have a heated discussion about the question whether destroyed buildings should be reconstructed in the first place; the most interesting question here is: why was it rebuilt? Why did it take so long? What were the motives and interests of the people to rebuild it, and what were the reasons of the people who did not?
In New York, memory was inseparable from urban reconstruction from the very start. Visualized memory is rooted here very, very deep. The question is: at what price?
Has the global forces that led to the attacks been taken into account here?
When the first plans for the Memorial Museum were drawn, years ago, the people in charge were setting up some kind of place of global contemplation, of reconciliation, of building bridges between races, continents, religions. That idealistic concept didn’t make it. Relatives of the victims blew these plans away. They wanted to remember their beloved ones, and nothing more than that.
The strong emphasis on freedom, solidarity and patriotism that accompany the planning and building process, is a rather conservative kind of response. Libeskind won the hearts of the New Yorkers by giving expression to this traditional, national values. Freedom is the most fundamental law for Americans; it’s more than a law, it’s a life attitude. Is it cynical, that the powerful expression of freedom took place in the aftermath of 9/11, when America, for example, constrained free movement of people, and trampled universal human rights in Guantamano Bay? Is it cynical, or is it a sign of hope?
No one can deny a community to remember the way it wants to. The way of remembrance, if not symbolizes, illustrates the ideas, emotions and aspirations of that community. When an outsider – are there any outsiders? - visits Memorial Plaza, he might think: isn’t there something missing? Aren’t you forgetting something? That, depends on the background of that person.
I can’t help thinking: how would it have looked like, if it was realized, say, thirty years later. When time had done its job. When all would have been discussed: the impact on the city, the memories of all New Yorkers, the response of George Bush, the role of America in the world, the motives of the hijackers, the gap between the West and Muslims.
When all would have been lived through, and a wise perspective would have found its way. Would the message be the same? But, would that matter? And for whom?
Memorial Museum, entrance hall
Back to Europe.
The right man in the right place. When Daniel Libeskind designed the Jewish Museum he wanted to give expression to the void, the emptiness, the murdered Jews had left behind, he explained. He didn’t just imagine a building where you could learn Jewish history and the tragedy of the Holocaust, he wanted the building to be an expression of the Jewish fate itself.
When visiting the Berlin museum, I was really moved by the small exhibits of personal belongings of people, their photographs and stories. But wandering through the dark corridors and looking around in empty, sinister rooms, I experienced a rather bombastic ride.
Actually, these emotional remnants don’t need the powerful statement of Libeskinds architecture at all. They are impressive in themselves. Just as in St. Pauls Chapel.
So, what will this architect do, in a tiny park in Amsterdam, in the middle of a lively neighbourhood, when he is commissioned to design a monument with the names of the 102.000 perished Dutch Jews? A national monument, like the Holocaust memorial in Berlin by Peter Eisenman.
Knowing, that in one corner of the park, there rests a silent, delicate monument, dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz, made by one of the most renowned Dutch artists and writers after World War Two, Jan Wolkers?
With traces of the Jewish past in the neighbourhood: the Hollandsche Schouwburg,
an old theatre from which most of the Jews were deported
; the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum); the Portuguese-Jewish synagogue; and the numerous homes where the Jews once lived.
Daniel Libeskind designed a structure, which covers a corner of the park, next to Jan Wolker’s memorial. Consisting of open corridors flanked by walls of a an ascending height, up to more than four meters. The thousands of names carved in the concrete walls. A labyrinth, of course, where you can wander, and feel lost perhaps, like the Jews once felt.
This monument, an initiative of the Auschwitz committee, would have been unthinkable shortly after the war. The monuments that were erected at the time in the Netherlands, were far more general, dedicated to all victims. No individual names were mentioned. When they were, names of resistance fighters. Only in the last decades, Holocaust monuments with the names of the Jewish victims, have become in vogue in the Netherlands. These sites of remembrance have a collective purpose, but at the same time the fate of the individual is given attention. For example, right now in Utrecht there is a plan for such a monument, and two years ago there was one erected in Haarlem. These monuments contain several hundreds of names.
But in this case, the names of all Dutch Jews must be mentioned. This explains the size. A simple, but at the same time horrific fact.
Holocaust Memorial Wertheimpark, Amsterdam, rendering, 2014
Line of business
Personally, my first reaction was: it’s way too big for this tiny park. But now I feel proud, that we will have this memorial within a few years. Because it’s a good thing trying to reach for completeness in our remembrance. It’s a good thing to give all these victims of genocide their names back, and to show the world what happened.
As you may have noticed, there is a lot of controversy around this monument. Which could be expected, considering the scale, the situation, and the mere fact, that in the Hollandsche Schouwburg there is already a wall with all family names.
But the most intriguing point here is, that the reason why the national Holocaust monument is planned right now, in this shape, with this content, is because it is at the end of a long development. Which runs from the sober period of remembrance in the aftermath of World War Two, through the increasing knowledge about what exactly happened in the camps, to the attention paid to the individual fate of the victims, who one by one get their identity back thanks to ongoing research all over the world.
Realize that it took almost 70 years to reach this stage.
While in New York, the planning of the memorial immediately began. What does this all say?
One of the designers of ‘A Tribute in Light’, the New York artist Julian LaVerdiere, told me he visited Memorial Plaza with Michael Arad on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when the memorial was opened. He said: ‘I found it very reserved, elegant and moving. Yet I still believe that peering into the abyss via a pair of black wells in place of the original towers leaves the visitor no way out but grief. Looking into a grave is not productive remembrance, I will always prefer staring up into the towers of light and I hope the city decides to incorporate them into the long term design.’
Well, that’s exactly what has happened this year: ‘A Tribute in Light’ is a part of remembering 9/11 from now on.
To some extent, I agree with him. Thinking of the very neat way New York is recovering and remembering, apparently, I have to think of the words by the German writer Alfred Döblin, the renowened author of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’. After the Second World War he returned to his home country from America. He saw his fellow Germans rebuilding their cities and wiping away the traces of the disastrous bombings by the allies. And he reacted: ‘It’s much easier for them to rebuild their cities than to understand what they experienced and how it all could happen.’
That’s what Ellsworth Kelly meant, when he said that the numerous proposals for rebuilding Ground Zero, including the memorial, blocked a real, psychological understanding of what had happened.
Visual artists need time to reflect upon disasters, and this can take a very long period of time. I think that’s the reason why they have done so little, except for a few novels, films and minor works of art. Whereas architects, by trade,look at the long term picture, and are concerned with the lasting effects of their work. They must be pragmatic. It’s their line of business. Therefore, quick rebuilding after 9/11 was their imperative.
Our Dutch national Holocaust monument in the Wertheimpark marks a long term development of reflection, historical research and debate about what really happened during World War Two. I hope the New York memorial, as an integral part of rebuilding Ground Zero, isn’t the end, but just the beginning of a same development of reflection, understanding, and debate about what really happened on 9/11, and why.
Wim de Wagt
This lecture is based on my book De kunst van het herinneren (The Remembrance of Art), Uitgeverij (Publishing House) Bas Lubberhuizen, Amsterdam 2013.