So much to say, so little time

Times Staff Writer

In 1981, when Maya Lin's now-famous design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Washington's National Mall was plucked from a pool of more than 1,400 submissions to an open competition, a Rubicon was crossed. Never before had the design for a major public monument in the United States been wholly abstract. Artists had been removing figurative elements from art for 70 years. But for the broadly social act of public commemoration, abstract art was new.

On Wednesday, when eight finalists were announced in the open competition to design New York's World Trade Center Memorial in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, abstraction ruled the day. Only one finalist included a figurative element -- and it is minor. What a difference the passage of a generation makes.

Conventions that once called for classical motifs and figurative metaphors have been almost entirely replaced. Vestiges turn up occasionally in sleek versions of eternal flames and funerary posts. But these are subsumed within a new orthodoxy. It embraces minimalist design, light-reflective surfaces, etched names and the invocation of landscape and natural cycles as carriers of metaphorical meaning.

The popular and critical success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which defied the conservative chorus of naysayers who tried to stop it from being built, stands behind almost all these schemes. (Lin served on the panel of 13 judges that selected the WTC memorial finalists.) A second clear source of inspiration is the Oklahoma City National Memorial -- America's only precedent for commemoration of a terrorist assault, and one whose artistic quality is far more equivocal. Several projects seem to have drawn from both.

Indeed, it's disappointing to report that the eight finalists are notable mostly for their conventionality. Amid all the predictable schemes for reflecting pools, walls of names and points of light -- some of which are maudlin and worse -- a distinctive exception is the plan by bbc art + architecture (architects Gisela Baurmann and Jonas Coersmeier and artist Sawad Brooks). Dubbed "Passages of Light: The Memorial Cloud," it envisions a kind of secular cathedral. Thousands of vertical conduits for light, bundled together in mutually supportive structural sections, are suspended beneath a transparent field that traverses the site at ground level.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the state-chartered agency commissioning the memorial, is now displaying the finalists' designs at the World Financial Center, adjacent to the memorial site. Plans are also helpfully posted with supporting documentation on a well-organized Web site (www.wtcsitememorial.org). Uniformly sober and well intentioned, as would be expected, most are also painfully short on imagination.

First, some facts and figures. Of the 16 men and women who make up the eight design teams, only three are artists. Most are architects, with the remainder cited as industrial, theatrical and landscape designers. The jury, which expects to select a winner before the end of the year, did not know their identities during deliberations.

A total of 5,201 submissions came from 49 states and 63 nations. Of the eight chosen finalists, five are based in New York (what luck!). The others hail from Chicago, Houston and Paris.

Guidelines specified certain requirements. They include individual recognition of each victim in the Sept. 11 attack and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; delineation of the towers' footprints; a private space for victims' families; and a place for the interment of unidentified victims' remains.

That's a lot to handle. Perhaps a bigger difficulty, though, was the conflicted site surrounding the memorial.

The fractious procedure for shaping the larger architectural scheme -- which is still very much in process -- culminated in the selection last December of a bold proposal by architect Daniel Libeskind. His design idea, revealingly titled "Memorial Foundations," already included significant commemorative elements. In effect, the just-completed competition asked for a memorial site designed within another memorial site -- one whose own design is still in flux.

Speed has also been a problem. Commercial pressures pushed along the architectural competition that resulted in Libeskind's schematic design just 15 months after the terrorist attack. The memorial competition has been swept along in its wake. The closer one is to an emotional cataclysm, the more difficult it is to stand back and gain perspective.

It's instructive to note that the inferior design for the Oklahoma City Memorial also emerged from a competition that concluded just over two years after that horrific event. By contrast, the powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial came six years after the war's chaotic end. Its designer was a novice who was barely in high school when the last frantic helicopter left the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Discernment is difficult when deep wounds are fresh.

Understanding takes time. And the difficulty is not just for the designers but for the patrons -- meaning us.

As a social act, commemoration demands two things. One is a place for public mourning; the other is a form of public knowledge -- a reflection on the nature of the event being remembered. All the designs accomplish the first, which is the simpler of the two. But the second, more perplexing aim eluded most of them.

To those directly affected by the devastation wrought in Lower Manhattan, the event is deeply personal. But, like a stone dropped into a pond, the tragedy's effects ripple outward through society. Some projects are overly funereal -- like "Suspending Memory" and "Garden of Lights," which are composed from markers for the dead, and "Dual Memory," which projects photographs of the deceased. A tomb for unidentified remains is essential here, but a memorial is not a cemetery.

Many fuse elements of the Vietnam and Oklahoma City precedents, with scant success. Refined and poetic, "Inversion of Light" is an exception.

Japanese-born artist Toshio Sasaki, now living in Brooklyn, proposes a complex of frugal spaces. Unencumbered expanses of water, air, grass and light are meant to assume spiritual dimensions. As in the enigma of a vessel, where human use resides in the fact of its emptiness, Sasaki's design verges on Zen. Some clumsy high-tech ingredients, such as a beam of blue laser light pointed at the night sky, fail to pull its ancient precepts into the 21st century.

But what of the nature of the events being remembered? "Memorial Cloud," by bbc art + architecture, approaches the subject with clearer eyes than most. I'm put off by the cheesy typographic design of the team's name, whose lowercase letters and plus-sign in place of "and" are the worst cliches of downtown hipster style. That matters, since the issue here is design.

But alone in the competition, their design statement says something daring. Their project seeks two responses: "one highly physical, the other imaginative, both of awe." Given the World Trade Center's dual incarnation -- as an industrial marvel of modern business, and a scene of nearly inconceivable cruelty that was met with stunning selflessness -- a head-spinning and emotionally conflicted mix of power, dread and wonder is forever attached to the site. At least "Memorial Cloud" attempts to crystallize meaning for something larger than the merely personal.

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