Sept. 11 memorial leaves indelible impression

Last month, I had occasion to be in New York City, and as is always the case when I visit there, I left with a head full of new thoughts after taking in as much of the city as I could cram into five days. The thing that affected me most, though, took me quite by surprise.

For reasons not all that interesting, I had a tour of Oppenheimer Funds office one afternoon, which in and of itself is completely meaningless. Except that the office is located on the 11th floor at Two Financial Center in downtown Manhattan, providing a spectacular vantage of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. When I looked out the conference room window onto the memorial below, I was immediately and unexpectedly overcome.

The memorial’s design captures so profoundly the immensity of the event it honors and the permanence of its impact. Most poignant is the twin towers’ footprints – now square, 1-acre voids that plunge many feet into the ground. At each square’s center, another square, though this one is bottomless. Water cascades from the top of the squares into a pool at the bottom, flowing into the center void.

The vastness of the empty space coupled with the water’s motion and disappearance into the infinite center void is deeply poignant. It captures so beautifully what was lost in the Sept. 11 attacks, honors the profound and permanent grief that the event has caused so many families and the culture at large, while simultaneously offering a promise of renewal and healing.

The memorial was designed by architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker, who were chosen from among more than 5,000 entrants. Their intent in conveying the presence of absence that their design so powerfully embodies informed how they incorporated the towers’ footprints into the 8-acre memorial site. As Arad and Walker describe it in their statement about the design, “They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence.” The water, though, seems to suggest some notion of hope, cleansing and moving on. That notion is underscored by the 400 trees being planted on the memorial site, giving the complex a very real feeling of growth, life and vibrancy. The combination is pitch-perfect.

The museum located on the memorial site is equally powerful in its design. It is a stark building set at disjointed angles that combine to give it a sense of the violence that took place at the site. Its ability to describe, with no motion at all, such a profoundly kinetic event as the towers’ collapse is nothing short of genius.

The architects who did so, Davis Brody Bond and Snohetta, have managed to convey, through a building, a range of emotions and events that many words cannot adequately communicate. It is marvelous, really, in the most literal sense of the word.

The memorial’s affect is further illuminated by its setting beneath the new World Trade Center buildings under construction on the site. These massive skyscrapers are largely complete on the outside, but their interiors remain empty. They are yet another reminder of the activity and human energy that once filled the space at the site – and no longer does.

This is all made more unsettling by the heavy police presence surrounding the site. NYPD vehicles are parked at intervals around the memorial plaza, nose out and ready for action. Portable police towers are placed around the site, with officers inside them, eyes trained on the memorial. Many officers on foot patrol the memorial, inside and out. The show of force is strong, and it sends messages of both protection and fear. It reminds, quite powerfully, of just how raw the wound of the Sept. 11 attacks still is.

My reaction to the memorial was overwhelming and surprising, largely because I have never been so deeply affected by any other monument to a somber event.

In part, I am sure the memorial’s resonance is owed to its context: It is a present-day honoring of a contemporary tragedy that changed so much for so many people in ways that most of us cannot articulate. It does so quietly, by providing a space to process what the event means for each of us.

For me, just seeing the memorial offered a way of understanding that change and all that comes with it – not in a way that I can describe fully, but it is a sense I now possess.

That moment at the window was one I never would have anticipated, and it is one I will never forget.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at

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