Feature Presentation

Megan Angelo

Before the term “Ground Zero” was coined, before 19 terrorist hijackers were named and before many people were even certain of the fate of their missing loved ones, nascent visions were forming inside the heads of thousands of people all over the world.

“I had a vision on Sept. 12 of this design,” Stuart Gosswein told the New York Times on Monday. Gosswein had proposed a blueprint suggesting fountains and glass panels to the World Trade Center memorial panel. The number of designs submitted in the competition rounded out at 5,201. With more than one person working on a design in many cases, the number of contestants nearly doubled the number of Sept. 11 victims.

The entries ranged from dark and somber to airy and welcoming, each communicating the equally diverse concerns of each designer. While inspiring remembrance was the obvious priority of each artist, every one had their own take on what more subtle qualities would constitute a just tribute.

Gosswein’s plan included numerous stairwells, which he hoped would give visitors an eerie empathy of “what it was like trying to get out by stairs.” Another contestant’s visualization hoped to draw attention to “the simple joys of city life.” And a third submission, the product of a University of Virginia assistant professor and an Egyptian architect, featured hundreds of boats, which are symbols of the passage between life and death in the Koran. The point of the design, they said, was to encourage toleration of all cultures.

But none of these designs would be picked by the 13-person jury that had been poring over the entries for a year and a half. Instead they would choose “Reflecting Absence,” the brainchild of 34-year-old Michael Arad. An Israeli-American architect and resident of New York City, Arad conceived a model that included transforming the deep “footprints” left by the buildings into 30-foot waterfalls. The jury’s announcement of their selection drew immediate responses from relatives of Sept. 11 victims, many of them negative. Some believed that Arad’s model was “sterile,” while others simply thought the jury had rushed the process.

The controversy surrounding the winner, the intricate principles behind the submissions and the astronomical number of people who took on the tedious task of developing something both innovative and meaningful point to a clear ideal of human society: the most important thing is to remember.

It’s why we have gravestones, photographs and books. It’s why, in the days following Sept. 11, we automatically prioritized remembrance above restoration, reform and revenge. True, the hunt for al-Qaida and the Department of Homeland Security got off the ground months before the memorial jury convened for the first time, but the predecessors of “Reflecting Absence” sprang up almost immediately following the attacks.

The earliest memorials were erected in the days in which “shock and awe” described the feelings of horrified Americans, not a brutal military campaign. They came in the form of candlelight vigils, flowers placed in front of New York City’s firehouses and the ubiquitous desperate flyers bearing the face of a missing person.

Undoubtedly, the purpose of the official memorial will be to translate these into something eloquent and permanent. It will serve its purpose most effectively in the future, for Americans yet to come, who do not have the images of the first memorials seared into their minds.

Even now, however, as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation readies itself for construction of “Reflecting Absence,” all Americans are still unconsciously maintaining their own personal memorials. They are everywhere, manifested in the simple fact that we still live our lives differently than we did before Sept. 11. They are the unspoken “because” in our airport safety regulations and our tense suspicion of free speech. But they are also the inspiration for the flags that some families kept flying after the initial surge of patriotism died down and for the clarified sense of life’s fragility that Sept. 11 will always carry.

And in this pattern of simultaneously evolving uneasiness and gratitude, memorials will dictate the path of our future. They will, in fact, contribute to the greatest virtue of our society: we can continue to progress while we refuse to forget.

Information for this article was taken from The New York Times Online, www.cnn.com, and www.msnbc.com.