Into The Void at Ground Zero

Contemplating emptiness and loss, from Birkenau to Lower Manhattan.

01/16/04
Special to the Jewish Week
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Some holes, frankly, are not meant to be filled or tampered with.

Indeed, while equally empty, not all holes are the same. Natural geologic formations are one thing, man-made atrocities that claim human lives are quite another. One is a landmass of spectacle and curiosity; the other a burial ground and, therefore, especially sacred.

Ground Zero is such a place. The deep impression of loss that it left on this island cannot be re-imagined as a symbol of our larger freedoms and aspirations. The twin cavities where 3,000 citizens once labored in the misperceived comfort and security of skyscrapers are not now opportunities for architectural wonderment. Ground Zero is about mass death, not crass commerce. The fact is, after Sept. 11, the former World Trade Center complex forever ceased to be a mere parcel of Manhattan real estate. It is now, inexorably, an immense crime scene of mass murder, a smoky, ashen reminder of our collective grief and loss.

This all became apparent again last week when the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. announced the winner of its design competition for the memorial that would honor the lives of the victims.

"Reflecting Absence," by Michael Arad, an Israeli-born New York City Housing Authority architect, and Peter Walker ultimately prevailed over 5,200 other entrants. The winning design features pool-filled voids 30 feet deep where the twin towers once stood. The idea is to provide viewers with a sense of the magnitude of the loss and the void that was created on that day, emphasizing the very holes grond that materialized after the buildings collapsed and vanished, along with the lives in them.

Of course, now that we have a glimpse of the impending memorial, it's important to recall that when eight finalists were first uneiled several months ago, many people were underwhelmed by what they saw. The proposed memorials just didn't resonate with the public, nor for that matter with the jurors for the competition. In most instances, the designs tried to achieve too much. There was a lack of simplicity, which deviated from the central tragedy. Ultimately, by illuminating the emptinessof physical space, Arad's proposal succeeded precisely because its ambition was more modest and its vision more stark.

Yet while "Reflecting Absense" ultimately won out, it was not without alteration. The jurors instructed Arad to go back to the drawing board and return with some aesthetic improvements. Presumably his original design suffered from desolation. Although his proposal was meant to reflect absence, the jurors, paradoxically, felt that what he had created was simply too vacant. What was missing, what apparently needed to be inserted into the coid of his creation, was landscaping. That's where Walker, a former chairman of Harvard University's Landscape Architecture Department, came in.

"Reflecting Absence" required sprucing up. It was presumably in desperate need of trees - some signs of rejuvination and life. Otherwise the memorial would have been too empty and harsh for the general public to bear.

But wasn't that the whole poinst of Arad's design: to convey emptiness, to memorialize the void left in our lives, and on that space, forever? The chairman of the jury, Vartan Gregorian, answered this question when he said that the modified winning  entry now expresses both the loss of life and its "regeneration."

Of what regenerationis he speaking? To impute life to Ground Zero is a gross misreading of those holes. Surely Gregorian is seeking to satisfy two constituencies - the living and the dead.But whose interests are more important? The moral imperative in such instances is not to make the living feel better but  to allow the dead to rest easier.

This problem always comes up with memorials in the aftermath of atrocity. And when it comes to atrocity, the Holocaust has taught us much in this regard. Birkenau, for instance, is a far more evocative symbol of jewish genocide than its neighbor,  Auschwitz, largely because the latter has  been landscaped and beautified, converted into a museum, which even includes a movie theater - as obscene as that all sounds. Birkenau,by contrast, has been untouched and unspoiled, despite the fact that so much blood courses under its grounds. Our intentions are nearly always honorable. We wish to do something as an act of memory, but we are often handicapped when the underlying tragedy exceeds our imaginations and our capacity to fill the immensity of the void.

The fact is, the best symbolic representation of what happened at Ground Zero is Ground Zero itself - left alone as an empty basin, echoing with all those silent shrieks. Focus on the void itself, even if, unadorned, it is too painful to look at, even if the austere silence proves to be deafening. Keep the memorial stark, and grave, because ultimately that's what Ground Zero is.

But such an approach is ultimately un-American. We had to rebuild - not just a memorial, but an entire complex of buildings and structures to replace what had fallen. That's what one does with such valuable land.

Manhattan is an island of vigorous and  ceaseless development. Burned-out buildings are not just eyesores but wasted opportunities. We are not a people of ruins but renovation. Doing otherwise would have been unthinkable, virtually unpatriotic. But in our patriotism also lies the seeds of desecration. Because it is not our future that is at stake here but the memory of those who were denied any future on Sept. 11.

Yet this too is a familiar American response to atrocity. When it comes to Holocaust films, we like them sugar coated, with life-affirming messages and heroic, redemptive acts of rescue. We instinctively recoil from the grotesque and hte truth that such grotesqueness conveys. And as it turns out, when it came to the 9-11 memorial, we presumably needed a few trees to  be scattered around to ease or erase the grief, to give us a sense that out of this death can also come "regeneration."

We rebuild not only to make us feel better or enriched, but also because we fear that if we don't, the terrorists will have won. (We were similarly, and grossly, instructed to go shopping after 9-11 for precisely the same reason.) Far be it from me to provide this public service newsflash, but at least on Sept. 11, the terrorists did win. It  would take a particularly delusion gung-ho,Rambo American to claim victory on that day. But why is it so important to worry about what our enemies think? Why should our response be coordinated to foil their perceptions?

Who empowered them to hold our moral judgment hostage? What we should be concerned about is not how they respond to our grief but the memories of our American dead.

Sometimes, after a particularly gruesome wreckage, a hole is the only structure worth preserving. And no matter how high the contemplated tower eventually rises above Ground Zero, it will not be able to locate any silver linings underneath any of those forever darkened clouds.

 

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the novel "The Golems of Gotham" and the forthcoming "The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What's Right."

 

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04/13/2010 - 20:09

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