At the heart of the site is Michael Arad’s memorial, dramatically different in final execution than in his competition-winning design entry. That original proposal sensibly wiped the site clear of Libeskind’s intrusions, restored the memorial plaza to street level, and placed a pair of reflecting pools at the footprints of the destroyed towers. The memorial spaces were to be in bunkers beneath these pools—‘removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness’—with the names of the dead inscribed on parapets facing veils of water cascading down into square basins.
Arad’s underground chambers were fatally flawed from the outset—too claustrophobic; a logistical and security nightmare—but at least they offered something of the terrible sublime. As it is, they have been jettisoned altogether, and his reflecting pools now sit amidst a pleasant grid of white oaks specified by landscape architect Peter Walker, who was brought in to reduce the severity of the proceedings. The names of the dead, set in a modified version of Optima, line the rim of the pools, stencil-cut into bronze panels so they can be backlit at night. The effect is impressive but somewhat gimmicky, lacking in the authoritative permanence of carved stone.
The enormity of Arad’s black granite volumes, the whoosh of so much tumbling water, and the inherent gravity of the site confer significant and undeniable power. As works of art, they are a bit too literal for comfort—they do not possess the ineffable quality of, say, a Richard Serra—and their force will be at least somewhat undercut by the crowds who will gather along their waist-high parapets, an endless parade of mourners, gawkers, and camera-wielding tourists gazing down, rather than up (as logic might dictate). The shifting human spectacle, ever visible across the basins, will make solitary reflection a challenge—quite a change from the promised removal from the ‘sights and sounds of the city’.