Names on a Memorial: Vietnam’s Chronology

The selection committee for the World Trade Center Memorial included Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) in Washington, DC.  Lin championed Michael Arad’s design, but her own use of chronological order is closer to the affiliation of the Families Proposal than to Arad’s random structure.  Her powerful VVM arrangement employs chronology to display affiliation.

The VVM lists names of the dead and missing in order of casualty.  People who died together are listed together.  Surviving veterans of a battle can stand in front of their unit’s dead, reading the names of their buddies and watching their own reflections in the polished black marble.  They find their time in the war, see the names of their friends, and reflect on their memories.

The rules of the VVM chronology reinforce arrangement by affiliation.  The listing is by date of casualty not by date of death.  So a person who died later of wounds received in a battle is listed with others who died in that battle.  The missing are listed by the date they went missing, so they would also be located with the casualties of the battle.

Vietnam veterans need only find one name in the index, walk to the appropriate panel, and see the names of all their fallen comrades from one day of fighting.  They can remember details about each person and about the day and remember others who survived.  They don’t have to expend energy and time remembering individual names and finding them separately in alphabetical order.  The group remains together in memory and on the Memorial.

For visitors who are not veterans, another detail reinforces affinity.  Each day’s casualties are alphabetized.  This simple arrangement technique allows all visitors to recognize the beginning and ending of the deaths for one day.  You don’t have to be a surviving veteran to stand with the dead on a battlefield.  You just have to know your alphabet.

To walk the length of the VVM chronology is to experience the war.  Certainly there are architectural details that amplify the Memorial’s intensity.  The growing height of the panels, for example, emphasizes the magnitude of death.  But it is the chronology that gives the Memorial its strength.  A list of alphabetized names, whatever the architecture, would just be a list.

Maya Lin’s chronology provides a context for the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  It encourages surviving veterans to meditate on their past in a way not possible with a less insightful arrangement.  It shows visitors the history of the war and the events on a single day of fighting.  In a hundred years, when the soldiers and the protestors have all died, it will continue to represent not the glory of war or even the futility of war, but simply the experience of war.

Nov 2006

Names on a Memorial: Families’ Affiliation

For Michael Arad, architect of the World Trade Center Memorial, random represents “the haphazard brutality of the attacks.”  But surviving families understand the consequences of information arrangement.  Outraged by the proposed random display of victims’ names and uninspired by alphabetical order, they circulated a proposal among survivors promoting arrangement by affiliation.  These surviving families believe the 9/11 attacks and deaths were anything but haphazard.

Terrorists targeted symbols of American commerce, the tallest buildings in a sea of skyscrapers, offices previously attacked.  Most victims died at work, many with coworkers in spaces they occupied together five days a week.  Investment company Cantor Fitzgerald had the greatest number of deaths.  Their corporate culture encouraged nepotism. Executives hired relatives and childhood schoolmates.  They were each others’ best friends. For these families, the loss of entire communities was not haphazard.

The family associations used their extensive fund raising capabilities to vote against random. They did not contribute substantially to the WTC Memorial, which has not raised enough money for construction.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of random arrangement, recently assumed leadership of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, with the primary function of fundraising.  On the topic of name arrangement, he now says, “We’ll just have to see.” (NYT, 10/11/06)

The families’ proposal divides the names into three areas:  Tower One, Tower Two, and an alternate area.  In each Tower, names are categorized by affiliation and then alphabetized. Names include age and floor number.  The alternate area lists first responders, the two airplanes, and those not associated with a Tower.  Uniformed rescue workers are arranged by unit and rank.  Names from the airplanes are in alphabetical order within each flight. Crew members’ names include rank.   Those not affiliated, or whose families decline an affiliated listing, are also in the alternate area.

This arrangement places the names into a classified index, with primary entry by affiliatio and a miscellaneous section for “Unknown” and “Decline to State.”  It still doesn’t tell us anything about the day of 9/11 or the experiences of the victims.  It just says they went to work or they got on an airplane and they died.

Nov 2006

Names on a Memorial: Findability and the Alphabet

The benefits of random are equality and insignificance.  Both attributes contributed to Michael Arad’s theme of “Reflecting Absence,” in his random display of victims’ names at the World Trade Center Memorial.  For Arad, random represented the “the haphazard brutality of the attacks.”  But random costs findability, making it difficult to locate one name among thousands.  Arad’s solution was an index, like the index at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Even with an index, many family members and their organizations objected to the random arrangement.  For them, random symbolized desperate missing person fliers and spontaneous walls of memory.  Random recalled failed searches that for many did not even provide the remains of a body.  Arad probably did not consider the symbolism of findability.

His theme is absence not missing persons and, as an arrangement novice, he missed the shattering unintended consequence.

Of course, findability is easily solved by replacing random with alphabetical order, a solution immediately suggested when the controversy erupted.  Alphabetical order is almost a variation of random.  Every name is equal.  Placement has no meaning other than the accident of letters.  Of course, it is not haphazard, a primary focus of Arad’s theme, and would have decreased the impact of absence.  But at least you could find each name.  No need for an index.  The whole Memorial is an index.

Names on a Memorial: Reflecting 9/11’s Random Absence

Information arrangement is at the heart of a controversy raging over the World Trade Center Memorial.  Architect Michael Arad’s design, “Reflecting Absence,” had a simplistic approach to an intricate arrangement challenge.  His original plan randomly scattered names around pools of water recessed into the Towers’ footprints.  Waterfalls fed the pools, cascading from street level 30 feet above.  Landscaper Peter Walker later added an oak tree forest.  It would be a beautiful space, but Arad is an architect, not an information specialist.  He may not understand the power of arrangement.

Random diminishes the individual.  Everything is equal and no one thing is important.  Etching thousands of random names on a wall emphasizes our collective loss, but it gives no other context for 9/11.  The towers were here and these names were inside them.  Now the buildings are absent and the people are gone, replaced by the pit of Ground Zero.

Many surviving families, certainly those associated with the largest numbers of deaths, objected to the random arrangement, interpreting it as a trivialization.  These families lost entire communities.  They want the name structure to provide knowledge about the lives of their loved ones.  Many family groups are promoting an arrangement by affiliation, primarily by employer, emphasizing their loss of community.

When the controversy started, the families demanded that the names be placed above ground, away from the waterfalls.  This may trivialize the names even more.  Oak trees are beautiful and waterfalls invigorate.  Stand inside Houston’s Williams Waterwall.  It’s U-shaped, 64 ft. high, 113 ft. wide and 33 ft. deep, with 11,000 gallons of water cascading each minute.  Like a morning shower multiplied, the Waterwall revitalizes.

In the summer, when the waterfalls aren’t frozen, the WTC Memorial may become a favorite lunch spot for the stressed out Wall Street crowd.  Refresh your brain before the afternoon games begin.  Walk by a wall of names, scenery on an urban trail to the water therapy forest. If they are to be the heart of the Memorial, the names of the 9/11 victims will need an arrangement more compelling than random.

Nov 2006