The Anniversary: 9.11.2011

The National September 11 Memorial opened today on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, expressing our grief and our memories of that horrible day.  As in all memorials with names, the arrangement forms our perception of those who died.

Gathering similar concepts together is the goal of information arrangement, the one exception being random, a strategy that specifically lacks meaning.  So I was appalled when random was chosen in 2004 as the organizing structure for the World Trade Center memorial.  In what became the beginning of research into memorial name arrangement, I wrote to the commission suggesting location as a better organizing strategy and posted blogs complaining about random.

I was not alone.  The families of those who died understood that random placed their friends and loved ones into a miscellaneous scattering of nearly 3,000 names.  Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where chronology allows a soldier to see the names of his fallen friends in one place among the panels, random would make every visit a search exercise.  Families protested loudly but the commission refused to budge.  The impasse went on for years, ending only when these wealthy families threatened to withdraw their monetary contributions.  Then, after hanging on to random for so long, the designers developed an arrangement strategy that grouped the names.  And once they made that switch, they did an excellent job.

The new arrangement is called “meaningful adjacencies.”  Of course, every arrangement structure, except random, can be termed a meaningful adjacency.  The World Trade Center method is unique among memorials in that it allowed families to select placement.  Names can be located within a group, often an employer, and they can be next to other specified names.

The strategy begins with location.  Names are listed in the footprints of the two towers and placed within their associated tower.  First responders and names from Pennsylvania and the Pentagon are on the south.  Names from the 1993 bombing are on the north.  Those on the planes are listed separately from building occupants.

Within these categories are complex meaningful adjacencies, illustrated by father and son firefighters Joseph Angelini, Sr. and Joseph John Angelini, Jr.  Their names are together on the memorial and, at the same time, grouped within their separate firefighting units.  This is accomplished by placing the two units on consecutive horizontal lines, allowing a vertical adjacency for the father and son.  Surviving firefighters can remember them with their units.  Their families can see the two names together.

Random said these people were miscellaneous.  Visitors would have seen thouands of names, reflecting a massive loss of life but lacking personal context.  With meaningful adjacencies, we see them among their friends.  We see a father and son together.  We know they are loved.  They are loved by families who fought for them so we could share a small piece of their time on earth.

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Sep 2011

Names on a Memorial: The Power of Information Arrangement

Today’s post honors Phillip Gibbs and James Green, killed shortly after midnight on May 15, 1970 by police at Jackson State College in Mississippi.  On May 4 of that year, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University.

This post will also be the Memorial Day essay for Discover the Region, where some of my writings will now be published.

Like all language, organized information persuades.  It “directs our thinking,” as biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote about classification.  Information arrangement shapes perception and interaction.  Names on memorials are examples of organized information where arrangement defines a visitor’s experience.  The thoughtful chronology of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial builds a space for individual remembrance.  A World War I memorial does the same, but with a different arrangement strategy, reflecting the difference in the two wars.  In contrast, the random arrangement proposed for the World Trade Center memorial almost derailed the project.  Yet, in another context, random builds community at the Memorial Temples of Burning Man.

By listing names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) in chronological order, designer Maya Lin gave surviving Vietnam Vets personal spaces for contemplation, spaces that make the VVM our most powerful memorial.  Names are arranged by date of casualty, not date of death.  Those who died later of wounds received in battle are listed on the day of the battle along with their buddies who died that day or went missing.  When a surviving soldier visits the VVM, he need only remember one name to look up in the index.  He finds the panel and sees the names of his friends who died in a battle he fought.  They remain together where he can visit them and remember his own experience.

Architect EdwinLutyens influenced Lin with his World War I Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.  This open structure of 16 huge columns, with intersecting arches and a truncated tower in Thiepval, France lists more than 72,000 names on its huge columns, names of British soldiers missing from a single battle.  Like the VVM, the memorial gives survivors an individual place of remembrance, but the two use different arrangements to achieve the same goal.  The VVM honors over 58,000 dead or missing during a 20 year war.  The Somme memorial lists those missing from a five month battle, most from a one day massacre when British troops surged into waiting German lines.

In World War I, Britain recruited Pals Battalions.  Men who signed up together could serve the entire war with their buddies.  Cities and towns mustered their own fighting units, sending them off to France with names like the Sheffield City Battalion.  On July 1, 1916, many of these towns lost nearly a generation of young men.

The names on the Somme memorial are arranged by British Army Order of Precedence.  That’s how military units appear on the parade ground.  These units came from individual towns, so the arrangement has the effect of organizing missing soldiers by their home towns.  Even today, with only a few remaining World War I vets, relatives and neighbors have their own place of remembrance.

Michael Arad, designer of New York’s National September 11 Memorial, ignored individual places of remembrance when he selected random as the arrangement.  This would have dispersed names from each company all over the monument.  Instead of a personal place to remember fallen coworkers, survivors would have had to hike to see each name.  The arrangement infuriated surviving families and they eventually refused to contribute to the memorial fund.  At that point, the design committee reconsidered and offered “meaningful adjacencies.”  Families can now place their loved one’s name within a group or next to an individual.  Many names will appear with the companies they worked for, but they might also be with special friends.  In one case, a married couple who worked at different companies will now be forever together on the memorial.

The designers of the National September 11 Memorial paid dearly for an arrangement error, losing money, prestige and the community’s good will.  They went from simplistic random to perhaps the most complex arrangement on any memorial with individualized name placement and multiple types of groupings.  If the designers had originally selected an obvious arrangement, such as geographic by floor, survivors would have had their places of remembrance.  They would not have needed strong family associations to fight against the arrangement and ultimately to fight for a more detailed names design.

In the right context, however, even random can build private spaces of remembrance.  David Best did this at Nevada’s Burning Man art festivals.  His Memorial Temples in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 reflect the Somme memorial as arched open structures, topped with a tower and filled with names.  Burners inscribe the names they want to remember anywhere on the memorial.  The effect is random, but each inscription describes a private remembrance.  For the week of the festival, Burners have a personal place to grieve, a place they have chosen.  When the Temple burns on Sunday, individual memories and the combined memories of all Burners float into the evening sky.

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Names on a Memorial: Meaningful Adjacencies

(This post acknowledges October 12 as a day honoring Christopher Columbus, who promoted European colonization of the New World, thus beginning the desecration of North and South America’s original civilizations.)

Michael Arad, designer of the World Trade Center 9/11 memorial, originally envisioned a random name arrangement.  He felt the imposition of any organized arrangement strategy would cause “grief and anguish.”  However, it soon became clear that it was the randomization of the names that was causing the grief and anguish.    

Families of those who died understood that random trivializes life and death.  They wanted the name arrangement to indicate affiliation, such as business, friends and family, along with details including the names of the businesses, ages of the victims, and floor numbers.  Family groups fought for this vision by refusing to donate to the memorial, demonstrating the emotional power of information arrangement.  The designers  compromised with a name arrangement that is intended to look random but is actually a highly organized list of names with “meaningful adjacencies.”  This is not a simple structure with one set of arrangement rules.  Each name is placed according to individualized criteria.      

Both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme incorporate meaningful adjacencies, as does every arrangement method, except random.  A lack of meaningful adjacencies defines random.  The VVM lists names in chronological order.  Those who died on a given date are adjacent on the memorial.  Military survivors can find friends by finding their own time of service at a designated place on The Wall. 

In France, the Somme memorial from World War I achieves the same goal with a different strategy.  Most of the 72,000 names listed on that memorial went missing on the same day, so chronology has no meaning.  These names are listed by military units, bringing people together because of recruitment by towns.  British military units in World War I often consisted of men from a single area, a method that has since been abandoned.  Whole units died during the surge on July 1, 1916.  Today, people from these towns can find their missing generation of young men in one place on the massive walls.   

These two arrangements are brilliant in their simplicity, but they organize groups whose members have similar defining characteristics.  That is not the case with the World Trade Center memorial.  People who died on September 11, 2001 were working or they were visiting a building, flying in an airplane or trying to rescue others.  They were with their co-workers, perhaps with their families, or they were alone.  They did not have a common reason for being where they died.       

When the arrangement controversy was raging, I submitted a proposal for a geographic structure and that is essentially what is being used.  It should be noted that I have no evidence that anyone read my proposal.  Arrangement by location was always an obvious option for this memorial.  My suggestion was based solidly on location to the point of listing people on airplanes by their seat assignments.  People who know each other sit next to each other, so meaningful adjacency is achieved.I also wanted the names from the towers listed by floor.  Again, people on the same floor know each other.  This method added meaning by demonstrating that most people below a certain floor escaped and most above a certain floor did not.  To my mind, a full geographic arrangement illustrates the tragedy more completely by showing where people were and who they were with when they died. 

The selected memorial design and its name arrangement include panels in two squares that surround two pools, one for each tower and the airplane that crashed into it.  The Pentagon and its airplane, the First Responders, and Flight 93 are with the South Tower.  Those who died in the 1993 attack are with the North Tower. 

In all, there are nine groups.  The title of each group is inscribed at the beginning of its associated names.  For example, “World Trade Center” appears before the names of those who died in the North or South Tower.  The names are then arranged by affiliation, which is not indicated, except for the First Responder agencies and units, who are reprieved of the need to look random.     

In general the families were not happy with this compromise.  They wanted more information next to each name, specifically age, company and floor.  My proposal would resolve company and floor, and also included ages with each name.  I want to say that the struggle here shows the folly of allowing non-organizersto develop such an important name arrangement.  People who don’t understand the impact of organized information thought up random.  But there are other factors to consider here.  Does every business want the kind of advertising that comes with being part of a tragedy?   

Once random was abandoned, the designers encouraged individual participation.  Next-of-kin could request placement near another name, a friend in the same company perhaps, or a loved one who worked for a different business.  Companies could request that names be arranged by department or work unit.  This resulting structure is therefore a puzzle for the designers to solve.  We can assume there were trade-offs. 

The names of a married couple who worked for different companies are listed together.  The couple has three affiliations – to each other and to their separate companies.  This could be resolved by taking the married couple out of their respective companies and placing them separately or by putting their two companies next to each other.  But this couple may not be the only ones in their companies with cross-corporate affiliations.
The designers were careful to hedge their promises with phrases like “to the best of our abilities.”  They understood subjective decisions would have to be made.  For example, if there has to be a choice, is it more important to put a married couple together than two best friends? 

My fully location based arrangement eliminated subjectivity.  However, the married couple would not be together forever on the memorial.  Their names would be sitting in their separate offices.  The chosen arrangement is a compromise with many mistakes, pretending to be random being especially egregious.  But individual attention to the placement of each name is a new idea in memorial name arrangement.  It came about accidentally when the families refused to let the designers abandon their responsibility to those who died.  The families didn’t get everything they wanted, but what they did get was personalized attention for each name engraved at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

(This post is part of a series about how names are arranged on memorial structures.  I returned to the series when I prepared an online course on Strategic Information Arrangement for Simmons College.  Other posts in the series can be found in the IsisInBlog Directory under “Names on a Memorial Series.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nov 2006