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September 1, 2006
A Response to "A Last Chance for Ground Zero": The World Trade Center Memorial and the Ghost of Maya Lin.


Earlier this summer, in response to the ongoing discourse over the proposed World Trade Center Memorial or "Reflecting Absence" in New York, James E. Young and Michael Van Valkenburgh asked readers in a piece for the New York Times' Op-Ed desk (read the full article) to, "Imagine our country today without the Vietnam Veterans Memorial." Van Valkenburgh, a former chair of Harvard University's graduate program in landscape architecture and a member of the thirteen-person jury appointed by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to oversee the selection process for the Ground Zero memorial, was invoking the history surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly known as the "Wall," as a precedent for what the World Trade Center memorial should accomplish. If Americans want a World Trade Center Memorial that will help them mourn 9/11, they should view references to the Wall with a critical eye. Why and how the Wall is mentioned in reference to "Reflecting Absence" matters more than we think.

Though also objects of art, memorials serve a practical purpose; they also function to help us mourn and make sense of losses. We cannot deny that the Wall serves this purpose. However, that the Wall succeeds at what it was designed to do does not mean we should use it as a prototype for Ground Zero. Specifically, we cannot assume that building something like the Wall at Ground Zero will (or should) have an impact of the same magnitude or even the same kind. We cannot make the assumption for a few reasons, not the least of which being that the Vietnam War and 9/11 were two remarkably different events.

During the Vietnam War, American casualties were not unwitting victims. They sacrificed their lives for a cause, whether that be honor, freedom, or filial love. In sharp contrast, the people that perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers did not consciously sacrifice their lives for any cause. Their loss had no precedent.


Icon of Rememberance: Descent into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. [Nicholas Watkins]


In our search for an explanation, the proposed World Trade Center memorial should inspire us to articulate our feelings of 9/11. Young and Van Valkenburgh wrote that the proposed World Trade Center Memorial, "...is not an underground memorial, as its detractors claim- an echo of the criticism once directed at Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial." Those "criticisms" of the Wall at which Young and Van Balkenburgh balk were valid opinions and interpretations. If a veteran perceived the Wall as a "degrading ditch" those perceptions were likely rooted in issues he was still avoiding. If a veteran perceived the Wall as a "scar," perhaps that frustration was born of coming to terms with losses suffered in Vietnam. Good, bad, or both, the Wall confronted veterans with their losses. It got them talking and, as a result, sparked the long overdue process of mourning.

Will the proposed World Trade Center Memorial prompt people to talk of the event it memorializes, and thereby facilitate mourning? Van Valkenburgh says the memorial is part of a two-step building process, implying what he thinks is a two-step mourning process. The museum takes on less priority than the memorial, which will be built first. But mourning does not follow stages dictated by designers. Mourning eludes even the most gifted of psychologists who understand that it is a process that varies from one individual to the next. It is a process that can hardly be quantified, yet alone follow a linear direction.

Like Van Valkenburgh mentions, the process surrounding a memorial's planning and construction should be as contentious as the number of interpretations it inspires. Contention and argument accompany the mourning process. But, just because people argue does not mean the contention is therapeutic. It appears that the Coalition of 9/11 Families and other parties are angry because the memorial does not say much of anything; the proposed memorial seems to hit a flat note. The attempts to preserve the relics from Ground Zero reflect a desire that the memorial say something (anything) about 9/11. Indeed, the voids read more like urban crop circles: alien, lyrical, mysterious, without any clear reasoning. The last thing that Americans or New Yorkers need is a memorial that leaves viewers indifferent, scratching their heads, or speechless. Unlike the Vietnam War or the Holocaust, there was no sign of cold detachment in the wake of 9/11. Whatever an individual's position, the discussions raged with urgency and passion.


The Mourning Industry: Selling souvenirs of 9/11 outside St. Paul's Chapel, July, 2002. [Nicholas Watkins]


If not indicative of contention and mourning, what then of the arguments and problems surrounding Ground Zero? Should we point an accusative finger at Michael Arad and Peter Walker? No, for that would neither resolve the issue at hand nor paint a clear picture of the road ahead. Instead, it is the very American legend and fantasy that we have created, and Van Valkenburgh references, that is to blame: The ghost of Maya Lin. Americans have constructed a myth around the Wall that now seems insurmountable, adopting the idea that a proper monument is one that emerges from a designer, who, like a psychiatrist, doles out a memorial like prescribed medicine. We expected nothing less of Arad and Walker than to create a breathtaking memorial that holds within it an intangible power to make us all feel better. And that makes for very heavy, if not impossible, shoes to fill.

Americans seem to assume that memorials are commodities of a tourist-driven mourning industry. To the point, we sometimes assume a media-centric notion that survivors of trauma are merely victims of posttraumatic stress who consume memorials like some sort of structural Zoloft. For those of us who did not experience the trauma firsthand, a memorial becomes nothing more than a tourist destination. This notion cheapens memorials' confrontational force, complexity, and psychological impact. Likewise, to invoke our romantic visions of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Ms. Lin as valid precedents for a World Trade Center memorial ignores the Wall as the confrontational object it is for most Vietnam veterans. For instance, contrary to popular belief, one visit to the Wall does not cause a miraculous metamorphosis that clears away years of posttraumatic torment. In fact empirical evidence shows that one visit appears to complicate traumatic symptoms, and it is widely acknowledged that a veteran should return two or more times before expecting improvement. Even then, a positive outcome varies by an individual veteran's stage in the mourning process.

Perhaps the true "Last Chance for Ground Zero" is the museum. Rather than being considered an "add-on" to the proposed memorial, the museum should complement the memorial by being placed adjacent to it. Relics from and information on 9/11 housed within the museum have the power to inform, unify and prompt interpretations of the disaster that the memorial simply lacks. If the creators of a Ground Zero memorial truly want to say something, the museum is their chance to ensure that the losses from 9/11 are remembered as sacrifices for a future without terrorism.

SEE ALSO: www.buildthememorial.org
SEE ALSO: www.renewnyc.com
SEE ALSO: www.wtcsitememorial.org
SEE ALSO: www.hereisnewyork.org

--
Nicholas Watkins
Nicholas Watkins received his Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an emphasis in Social & Cultural Factors in Design. His specialty has been investigating the therapeutic value of architecture for treating posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses. Among other topics, he has conducted empirical research of Vietnam War combat veterans’ responses to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He would like to thank Adam Hooks (a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University) for his insightful comments on this piece. Dr. Watkins can be reached at njwatkin@uiuc.edu.

See other articles by Nicholas Watkins.

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