New York- The void as a monument

Very soon after September 11, 2001,  the dual roles of the Ground Zero site became clear. The site was to act as a memorial for the victims and was at the same time a piece of prime real estate. These two were very hard to combine. For years nothing seemed to happen. Competitions were held, and various rather horrific combinations of memorial and profitable office space were selected and questioned over and over again.

Now, it appears that construction is finally on the way, and things are starting to come up out of the ground after 8 years. I’m not sure what it will be, whether it is Snøhetta’s, Foster’s, Rogers’, Calatrava’s or Libeskind’s building that will be there, possibly it has all been hijacked by SOM and generic office towers will fill in the gap. Whatever it is, it feels rather good that something is happening and that the scar will be healed eventually.

In one very definite sense was the hole the most effective memorial there could be. It is not about whether that would allow the enemy to win or not, but it puts the entire catastrophe into the present in a way a memorial could never do. As soon as a memorial is constructed, the event memorialized is effectively put into history. A scar drags the events of 9.11 into the present while a memorial, any memorial, no matter how it’s designed, will effectively put the events into the history books.

One could therefore argue that the scar in the urban fabric is the ultimate memorial, It keeps the events in the present forever, much more effectively than any memorial. It is this that every day reminds Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular about the “War on Terror”. The physical void corresponds to the psychological void in people’s minds in a very minimalistic but effective way. I find it interesting that the last parcel of land was handed over to the developers just when the US politics shifted focus from having the War on Terror as the top priority. The void could then hypothetically have been used as an instrument of politics, as a way of stretching, or bridging the past into the present.

The void itself is not empty, and the symbolism of the void can be quite powerful. A void is a something not a nothing, there is no Tabula Rasa. No matter how much symbolism you try to load into the office towers that will be built, they will just be buildings, and they will put this quite awkward period of America and the world into the history books rather than eternally revolving on the prime-time news. Construction on Ground Zero is making peace with the rest of the world, it is putting an end to the state of emergency that has served as an excuse for humans doing rather horrific things to each other for far too long.

It is interesting to look at why we construct monuments, sometimes we construct them not to remember, but to forget. We build memorials to allow ourselves to move on and detach ourselves from the past by loading a physical structure with the guilt, sorrow and other emotions. The memorial gives us a distance to the event its created to commemorate. It also provides us with a physical structure where we can remember, but the structure or space takes on many of the immediate emotions and memories. The structure remembers, history remembers, so we don’t have to. Our minds are liberated by it, free to go on with our lives and to live in the present instead of the past. In that way, the monument is a great structure, a very human structure that sets us free to live our own lives, in our own day and age.

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