Oklahoma's lessons for New York

Times Staff Writer

The bold proposal by architect Daniel Libeskind for rebuilding at Manhattan's World Trade Center site has drawn a wave of support since it was unveiled last December, one of nine plans offered by seven architectural teams. What has captured the imagination of many is Libeskind's conception of a fitting memorial -- an idea that critics have called "brilliant" and "powerful" and that, in the architectural model displayed in the Winter Garden adjacent to the site, lives up to the eager descriptions.

Libeskind's idea, titled "Memorial Foundations," is to retain the trade center's huge, excavated pit as a 70-foot-deep frame of reference for the shrine to those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The immense concrete slurry wall, an engineering marvel that kept the Hudson River out of the World Trade Center foundation, would be a dramatic backdrop for a below-ground memorial surrounding the footprints of the twin towers.

In effect, the horrific event would be memorialized by a modern ruin. The concept is actually not unique. It served as the general design principle for the two most prominent shrines built to remember Americans killed in bloody 20th century assaults at home. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor is remembered with an enclosed bridge spanning the hull of a sunken battleship, the USS Arizona. And here in Oklahoma City, a monument to victims of the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is a small-scale forerunner to Libeskind's general plan.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial stands as America's only major precedent for remembering the victims of a terrorist attack, strictly defined. As such it offers a cautionary tale. For the memorial is a mixed artistic success -- profoundly moving in certain of its aspects, sorely deficient in others.

Earlier this month, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. released a draft of its mission statement for the World Trade Center memorial, which precedes the planned spring launch of an international competition to choose an artist, architect or design team. The memorial process will not be easy, not least because ideas of commemoration are already embedded in the nine widely publicized, brainstorming architectural schemes -- and reasonably so, as Libeskind's plan so clearly shows. But how will another, actual memorial fit?

That question did not intrude in Oklahoma City, which isn't a dense urban area and where no rebuilding was planned at the site. Yet as monuments whose resonance is not merely local but national, both memorials face unusual stresses and strains. The events they commemorate happened in a specific place, yet they happened to all Americans. The closer one is to the psychic horrors of any event's ground zero, both temporally and geographically, the more difficult it is to stand back. National memorials must embrace the immediately personal -- and simultaneously transcend it.

Commemoration is a social act, with two fundamental purposes. One is to provide a place for public mourning. The other is to create a form of knowledge -- a place for public reflection on the event that occurred. The Oklahoma City National Memorial is often powerful as a wrenching locus for sorrowful respect. As a site for understanding the events of April 19, 1995, it falls far short.

The memorial was designed by Hans and Torrey Butzer and Sven Berg of Butzer Design Partnership, formerly of Cambridge, Mass. -- a young team chosen from a large international competition. Their design was guided by the Murrah Federal Building's carefully excavated foundations. The demolished structure's below-grade south wall forms a monumental backdrop for the six-acre site, while a survivor chapel at one corner is composed of two remaining walls, etched with the names of those who escaped the blast.

Mention the Oklahoma City National Memorial to someone who has not been there, and he is likely to inquire, "Is that the one with the chairs?" It is. A field of 168 chairs is crafted of bronze and stone on glass bases, illuminated from within at night. With the ruined foundation wall as backdrop, the chairs face north toward a long reflecting pool, flanked at each end by tall doorways that lead down from the surrounding street grid and into the site. The perimeter of the field of chairs matches the original footprint of the Murrah building.

Chairs are anthropomorphic -- here, recognizable abstractions for the individuals who were indiscriminately murdered. Most of the chairs are full size, but 19 are diminutive, representing slain children. The chairs are laid out in nine rows corresponding to the victims' location on the nine floors of the building, with several off to one side in memory of those who died outside. Size underscores their faint yet inescapable allusion to people, as does location.

The chairs emphasize the memorial as an instrument of personal therapy. A legitimate memorial function, its urgency will lessen with the passage of time; but the powerful emotionalism that gave rise to the design will remain at its core.

A cemetery of chairs is a rather clumsy design invention, forming the project's sentimental heart. Finally, though, that contrivance pales next to two other memorial elements. Neither was an invention. Both, like the ruined foundation wall, are found symbols -- powerful emblems that already existed at the site. The designers used their skills to first identify and then frame them.

One is natural -- a resilient American elm in the devastated parking lot across the street, which against all odds survived the blast and now flourishes. The designers set off the tree with a graceful stone wall and curved bench surrounding a circular patio, providing a contemplative overlook above the memorial grounds.

A mental landscape

The other conceptually potent element is the shallow reflecting pool that bisects the site. The pool, barely an inch deep, is lined with smooth black slabs of granite where water slides silently in a continuously moving sheet. It re-creates N.W. 5th Street, the now-closed asphalt avenue in front of the federal building.

It was on that street that Timothy McVeigh, Gulf War Army veteran, militia enthusiast and right-wing fanatic, parked the notorious Ryder truck filled with deadly explosives. Because of the reflecting pool, a visitor cannot physically inhabit the exact place where the cataclysmic explosion took place. Instead, this ordinary spot in the civic arena -- defiled and contaminated by an act of terrorism -- can be entered only in your mind.

That dark journey is more disturbing than any invented symbol might be. Like unadorned Civil War battlefields that also serve as national memorials, the raw foundation wall, the tree and the street represent the power inherent in carefully framed reality.

The museum adjacent to the memorial shows what happens when we avert our eyes from reality's harsher truths. Displays tell the awful story of the bombing and its aftermath, but events leading to it are largely omitted.

The four floors of displays are rendered almost entirely in emotional terms, chronicling the lives of the people directly involved. The notable exception is McVeigh and his cohort, who are mentioned only briefly and in the sketchiest of terms. Indeed, it is possible to spend hours at the memorial and the museum and never discover why the tragedy happened. As New York Times columnist Bill Keller rightly put it, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building was a political act, but here it is presented as inexplicable -- a demented crime.

Mourning overwhelmed reflection -- perhaps because local citizens dominated the design formation and review, despite the national scope of the event being memorialized. A well-placed fear of creating a shrine to a terrorist managed to get the best of Oklahomans, who had suffered so much at his hands.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is a six-acre lamentation in stone, metal, earth and water -- a perpetual wail of enclosed grief, which never takes you beyond to an understanding of context. Among other daunting complications, that's a barbed issue New York is about to face.

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic.

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