Pinning down the influences of 9/11 memorial architect Michael Arad isn’t easy. But some sense echoes of the Holocaust in ‘Reflecting Absence.’
Few profiles of Michael Arad, the architect of the Sept. 11 memorial that opens this week, have failed to mention that he is Israeli — the son of a former ambassador, no less. But most stop there, shying away from details, in no small part because Arad wants it that way.
“For me, it’s not about my nationality, and I made a point for it never to become about that,” Arad, 42, recently told The Jewish Week. “If people want to see something that’s not there, they can, but it’s pointless.”
Arad’s argument is that the memorial is for everyone, no matter his or her background. “One of the things that was most important to me was to make this for everyone,” he said. “I think that what happened that day happened to all New Yorkers, and I responded to it foremost as a New Yorker.”
He added: “I can talk about memory and loss of life — it’s something I grew up with a sensitivity to. But I’m always hesitant to hold these out as a foil against some other kind of remembering. They’re universal.”
But several people affiliated with the memorial were less hesitant to note Jewish influences.
Most said that while Israeli influences are hard to find, Holocaust ones are not. This might be due to Arad’s Jewish background, they added, but it almost certainly has to due with the fact that so many memorials in recent years have been influenced by Holocaust designs.
“A lot of the submissions, you could see, were very much influenced by contemporary Holocaust memorials,” said James E. Young, a leading scholar of Holocaust memorials who was on the 13-person memorial selection committee.
“‘Reflecting Absence’” is surely not a Holocaust memorial,” Young continued, referring to the memorial by its name. “But all memorial architecture since World War II is in some way influenced by Holocaust memorials.”
The Jewish influence can be felt elsewhere too: not only was Young chosen for the panel because of his expertise in Holocaust memorials, but the entire site was designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-born Jewish architect and son of Holocaust survivors, whose most famous building is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The Sept. 11 museum, which opens at the site next year, also chose a veteran director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Alice Greenwald, as its executive director.
Arad’s story is well known. Ten years ago, on Sept. 11, he was in his East Village apartment when he heard the first plane strike. He immediately went to his rooftop, and then saw the second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later.
At that point he jumped on his 10-speed bike and raced downtown to find his wife, a lawyer, who worked near the towers. He found her unharmed, but like millions of others, their lives were irrevocably changed. In the immediate aftermath, he did what he could to help: volunteered, gave blood and went to a makeshift vigil that very night.
But his most lasting contribution will be his memorial. The central idea came to him within days of the attack: two pools of water falling into voids left by the towers.
It wasn’t until 2003, however, that the city announced it was even holding a design competition. At the time he sketched his idea in more detail than his original drawing, then submitted it, as did 5,200 other hopeful entrants. Until then, Arad had never designed a memorial. He was only 34, and his portfolio consisted mainly of office buildings and public projects designed for the large architecture firm where he worked.
His original memorial design has since been amended in important ways — often after contentious fights played out in the media. Some victims’ families felt Arad’s design was too bleak and insisted trees be added. Arad accepted.
But other changes — the removal of entryways to make room for a museum; aesthetic downgrades meant to shave off $300 million to get the design down to the current cost of $700 million — Arad strongly resisted.
“With the wounds so fresh, it was inevitable that tensions would emerge,” said Alice Greenwald, director of the National September 11 Museum, which is part of the memorial site. But like others interviewed, including Arad, Greenwald said that past conflicts have been smoothed over.
“Certainly there were a lot of obstacles along the way,” Arad said. “But I tried to stay true to the original idea throughout.”
Indeed, Arad’s central idea is still intact: two massive black granite pools carved into the towers’ footprints, with cascading waterfalls pouring down each wall.
Visitors can get as far as each pool’s edge and watch as the water flows into square holes cut out at the center. The names of all 2,983 victims killed on Sept. 11 and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing are engraved on the rails surrounding each pool.
In addition, hundreds of white oak trees have been planted around the eight-acre plaza, officially called the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and are meant to balance the memorial’s central metaphor of loss with one of rebirth.
“By putting these two pools in the middle of this plaza,” Arad said, “I tried to balance both the need to remember and the need to feel like you were still part of daily life. I think public spaces are ones that should unite us.”
When pressed, Arad concedes that his Jewish background has influenced his work — but no more than any other part of his life. “Any work of art reflects all the experiences of the artist, and I certainly think all parts of my background are a part of this,” he said.
He mentioned the collective memory of Britons, a generation of whom was shaped by the Nazi bombings of London, the city where he was born; the dense urban architecture of Mexico City, where he went to high school while his father was an ambassador there; then he mentioned being Jewish.
“This notion that death is tragic, and that you don’t lose your humanity in the face of inhumanity — that’s what I found in New York after the attacks, and also what you find in the Holocaust, as well as the bombings of London,” he said.
The influence of growing up in Israel, however, is less clear. He lived there for nine years, three of them as a solider, and told Haaretz a few years ago that the country’s memorial culture left a mark on him.
“When I was a child, in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood,” he told the newspaper, “I often stopped beside the [Mt. Herzl] military cemetery, and I loved just looking. There is much beauty there, and much silence. I loved the pine trees. Did that affect me? I don’t know, but there is no doubt that it is part of my memory.”
But his memorial design is rooted, foremost, in his experience as a New Yorker. It was not until Sept. 11, he said, that he even truly felt like one. “Even if I lived here for three years, I still felt like an outsider,” he told The Jewish Week. “But on that day I gained a sense of identity as a New Yorker; I felt targeted just like my neighbors did.”
The attacks also destroyed the illusion that, in America, he would always be safe.
“As an Israeli, I was familiar with having to live with the threat of terror,” he said. “Until [Sept. 11], I had felt secure from that. But then” — the day of the attacks — “I realized it was something I would have to confront.”
Even if Arad was hesitant to note the influence of Holocaust memorials on his design, the jurors involved were not.
“Of course we were aware of it,” said Paula Grant Berry, a juror and wife of a man killed in the attacks. “I remember being shown many of these Holocaust memorials from around the world,” she said, noting how Young, the Holocaust scholar, had often spoken about them.
Young, author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning study “The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning” (1993), had previously been a judge on the panel that selected Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin. He had told the jury how Holocaust influences could be seen in Arad’s work, too.
Contemporary Holocaust memorials tend to feature voids, descend into the ground, and have a minimal amount of ornamentation. They are largely abstract, and unlike most war monuments, which evoke a sense of triumph or redemption, Holocaust memorials usually evoke a strong sense of loss. Young calls these memorials “counter-monuments,” and pegs their origins to the 1963 Holocaust memorial in Paris.
In an interview, Young explained how these counter-monument designs have since been incorporated into other memorials — most notably the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. That memorial’s architect, Maya Lin, was also on the jury, and many have since noted her work’s influence on Arad’s design.
“If there was one monument that influenced American memorials, it is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial,” Young said. “It’s not just Holocaust memorials that feature these [counter-monument] elements,” he added, “but even Maya Lin has acknowledged a debt to the Holocaust memorial in Paris.”
Greenwald, the Sept. 11 museum director, was not a jury member. But as the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum she is well aware of the importance of Holocaust memorials to the Sept. 11 one.
“I think one of the reasons I was hired was because I had 19 years of experience with the Holocaust memorial” in Washington, she said.
While noting the parallels between Arad’s design and Holocaust memorials, she also highlighted important differences. Most Holocaust memorials are not built on the exact site where the tragedy took place, she said. And unlike visitors to most Holocaust memorials today, she said, many visitors to the Sept. 11 memorial will have clear memories of the event.
“The circumstances historically are so different,” she said, “and each tragedy deserves its own unique response.”
Given how polarized American society has become since Sept. 11, Arad hoped that his memorial would, at least for a moment, unite people. He made note of a recent tour of the memorial he gave to an interfaith group, and how a Muslim woman wearing a hijab worried that her headscarf might offend people at the site.
“I said it was nothing she had to feel worried about,” Arad recounted. “Many of the people killed that day were Muslims.” He went on, “Once she was at the site, she felt she was welcomed there, and that meant an enormous amount to me. Religious differences should not be a part of this.”
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