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

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