Son of Israeli Diplomat Designed WTC 9/11 Memorial

gretavo's picture

Sickeningly ironic, and in true form, the author does his utmost to sanitize the actions of a criminal mob with sentimental references to irrelevant cultural details. Those who fall for this are unwittingly participating in the propagation of pure hate right up there with the worst persecutions in history.

JANUARY 10, 2012

Trumping the Terrorists' Rage


At first glance, you wouldn't think there's any connection between judging at a latke festival in Brooklyn a few days before Hanukkah and designing the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. At least I didn't when I met Michael Arad, the memorial's designer. He was walking around the tasting with a smile on his face and a ceremonial copper ladle draped from his neck—at least I think that's what the piece of kitchen equipment was—judging between entries heaped with smoked brisket or groaning under caviar and crème fraiche.

But the more I've thought about it, the more I think a connection does exist, born of a fundamental openness to experience and humanity. Not that I'm suggesting that grilling latkes and creating a memorial that will honor the dead and stand the test of time require equal amounts of skill or refinement.

But first the latkes: The beauty of these tasty little potato patties is that they're accessible to anybody's taste buds. They're a proletariat treat; you'd no more need an expert to tell you what's good and what's not than you would a food critic to explain the virtues of a cheeseburger at your corner diner.

It's also not because Mr. Arad is Jewish, the son of an Israeli diplomat, that he qualifies as a latke connoisseur. Indeed, when he got to the point that he couldn't look at another latke (I hope this won't throw the results into doubt and trigger demands for a recount from the losers, but the architect recently confessed to me that he didn't sample every last latke), I found him shooting the breeze with latke competitor and countryman Ron Ben-Israel, who was grilling up dessert latkes. Mr. Ben-Israel told me that Israelis actually celebrate Hanukkah not with latkes, but with some other treat whose name escapes me at the moment, my Hebrew not what it ought to be.

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Philip Montgomery for The Wall Street Journal

Some of the names of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that are part of the memorial.

I made the connection while Mr. Arad was showing me around the 9/11 Memorial shortly after the new year—and eight years to the day, he pointed out, since his proposal was selected the winner from among the 5,201 entries. The memorial manages a magnificent juggling act. It honors the dead yet simultaneously brims with life; it marks the scene of one of civilization's greatest acts of inhumanity, but triumphs over it in a way that military retaliation never can. Because, finally, the best answer to the angels of death is life. Not life in some abstract sense, but in an environment that offers sanctuary to the senses. Sort of like latkes.

"I thought it was important to integrate [the site] back into the life of the city," Mr. Arad explained as we made our way toward the reflecting pool where the South Tower once stood. "I want to see kids playing on that lawn, office workers coming down here. All these things happening simultaneously.

"It isn't either/or," he went on. "Public spaces in New York are incredibly resilient. They reflect our best natures. You can have a moment of profound mourning and reflection and somebody discussing a Wild Card game."

I visited "the pile" the week after the attacks, as the designated pool reporter for a visit by Mayor Giuliani and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. What most impressed me, and I don't mean that in a positive way, was the scale of the destruction; it was of a scope reserved for the forces of nature, yet it had been brought by humans against each other. With the site still smoldering, it seemed a compelling argument that concepts such as order and beauty are quaint human constructs, cosmic aberrations, and that chaos and destruction more accurately reflect the ways of the universe.

Any memorial that was going to counteract that argument was going to have to be just as powerful in its own way, just as passionate, just as monumental. This one does, and is. In fact, it actually trumps the rage that drove the planes into the Twin Towers that morning by creating something exquisite (when in doubt, go with the play of light on water) and yet so powerful that it feels as if it's tapping into the same elemental forces that sowed destruction even while turning them on their head, harnessing them and in so doing offering not only remembrance but rebuke.

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Philip Montgomery for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Arad uses his iPad to show some of his original sketches of the memorial fountains.

The story has already been told about how Mr. Arad, a novice 34-year-old architect, beat out thousands of other competitors, among them some of the world's top architects, and his conflicts with other players, including Freedom Tower designer Daniel Libeskind, to see his original vision accomplished. "I'm a pretty mellow guy," he told me without evident irony. "I didn't see any other way to deal with it. I had an idea that compelled me to participate in this."

He said that his design was his personal response to the attacks, an act of catharsis—he heard the first plane hit and saw the second from the roof of his East Village apartment—and even more than to the attacks, to the way New Yorkers coalesced in the surreal, shell-shocked aftermath.

"It came from my own experiences," he explained. He was referring to witnessing the impromptu vigils, the makeshift memorials, in public spaces such as the Washington Square and Union Square parks. "The way people came together—for solace, and defiant yet compassionate; a sense of connection with complete strangers."

He said he didn't enter the competition with aspirations of becoming the next Maya Lin, the young designer of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C., who championed his submission. "I entered the competition as a way to reflect on what I'd seen and experienced," he explained. "Not with any intention of having this design accepted. That would be delusional. Having that approach liberated me to image an approach that deviated from the guidelines." He was referring to Mr. Libeskind's master plan.

It's a testament to the Memorial's power that it's already a success, since it remains very much a construction site. But its physical scale—at 212 feet a side, it replicates the footprint of the World Trade Center towers—and Niagara-like strength (at least it feels that way) command the senses. The names of the dead along its sides float above the roar, a reminder of the durability of memory, the power of love and the strength of the human spirit.

"It's essentially a closed space; eventually these construction fences will come down," Mr. Arad said apologetically. "There won't be any need for security screening. That's not what this should be about."

He's still very much involved with the site's refinement. "That's a new sign," he said, pointing to a "Lawns are closed for the season" notice that wasn't there when he visited a week earlier.

We also stopped by the Callery Pear "Survivor Tree" that withstood the destruction and today sits behind a metal railing a few feet from the reflecting pools. "We're trying to figure out what text and signage should go near this tree," he explained.

But his first order of business was to learn what had caused what appeared to be a stain on one of the waterfall's walls; it turned out to be ice. "It's on my list of things to find out right now," he said.

Earlier, he told me that "architects and designers will fixate on the details." Mr. Arad's triumph was that he never lost contact with the bigger picture, with the impulse that animated his desire, in the dark, dislocating days after the attacks, to commune with his fellow New Yorkers. He succeeded and his memorial shall continue to do so, serving as a refuge for people to connect with each other, amid the tumult of the city, for generations to come.