Mourning the Arrested Memory of 9/11

So politicized, so fraught, and so painfully disappointing, the process of memorialization of the events of 9/11, symbolically focused on Ground Zero in New York City, was in many ways entirely predictable from the first months after September 11. As I noted in my 2001 essay for the SSRC, the urge to memorialize was rapid and urgent, and discussions of how to memorialize 9/11 began almost within twenty-four hours, long before all the dead and living were accounted for. The street-level memorialization of shrines, missing posters, and impromptu photo exhibitions that dominated the early months has been replaced over the subsequent years by an official process of memorial design contests and the designation of, and debate over, the building of cultural institutions, now resulting in a memorial museum to be completed next year.

As the 9/11 memorial stands at the verge of opening, it is clear that this official process has now produced, a long ten years later, an exceptionally banal result. On the eve of the tenth anniversary, the impact of the 9/11 memorial and the public response to it are yet to be clear. Still, it is possible to say that the process of the memorialization of 9/11 and the rebuilding of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan will be seen in retrospect as a lost opportunity of exceptional magnitude in the history of art and design in New York City, as a spectacular failure of imagination and renewal.

How, we can ask at this moment, did it come to this? How did this fraught process produce such a mundane result, where at great cost, after endless debate, the following will emerge at Ground Zero: a memorial whose design has been eviscerated to the point where it is likely to feel like a corporate plaza; a memorial museum that is likely to be a primary tourist attraction, but which through its very existence is emblematic of 9/11 exceptionalism and through its placement at the charged site of Ground Zero will be so restricted in what it can say that it will satisfy no one; and several unexceptional office buildings, including the renamed One World Trade Center (formerly the Freedom Tower), now icons of defensive-security design, producing far more office space than the city and the current economic climate can fill? The players in this dramatic story were entirely predictable—greedy real-estate developers, politicians whose motives were swayed by presidential ambitions, grieving and angry families who channeled their mourning into demands that memorial designs conform to their beliefs at the expense of broader community needs and input, ego-driven star architects, weak-willed bureaucrats, and so on.

From the beginning, the doyenne of New York architectural critics, Ada Louise Huxtable, predicted with great accuracy how the process would result in mediocrity:

And yet, one can almost predict what the New York process will be. This city can show its compassion, and its resolve, as it is doing now, but it is also a city incapable of the large, appropriate gesture in the public interest if it costs too much. . . . If the usual scenario is followed, the debate will lead to a “solution” in which principle is lost and an epic opportunity squandered.

The process, she argued, will result in

a properly pious, meaningless gesture that everyone can buy without loss of face or obvious shame. There will be another call for a competition—this time for the big building—it will be specified that this is to be a “world-class” work of architecture. The most conservative design will be chosen by a consortium of potential investors. . . . There will be world-class nothing.

Stunningly, Huxtable wrote these words on September 17, 2001, less than a week after 9/11.1

Design by committee was finally the verdict for the 9/11 memorial. The original design, Reflecting Absence, by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, which creates two voids of the footprints of the twin towers, thus effectively removing them from public space,2 has been whittled down by construction engineers, financial monitors, politicians, and vocal, morally empowered family members. There are stories to be told here of innumerable lost opportunities (high ranking on my list is the failed attempt by New York City to actually gain ownership of the site by swapping with the Port Authority the land of Ground Zero with the land on which LaGuardia Airport resides) and misguided motives and greed. Ultimately, though, this is a story of grief, and how the raw, un-narrated, intense pain of that day in September shaped irrevocable decisions about the memorialization process before the emotional dust could clear.

Ten years is a long time in relation to memory and experience—many of those who experienced 9/11 firsthand and who lost those they love that day have moved on in their lives, have adjusted to new lives, lives that are shaped by their loss. Yet, the official memorial and museum that will emerge at Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary and in the next few years are emblematic of the memory of 9/11 in a kind of suspended state of being—a memory arrested in a moment of grief, revenge, and fear.

A key factor in this arrested memory was the initial rush to memorialization, which was pushed forward in New York by political and economic forces. On the tenth anniversary, when the rebuilding of Ground Zero is far from complete, it is hard to think of the process of memorialization as one that was rushed. There are no simple timelines for memorialization. Yet, the political and economic urgency to begin to plan for a memorial and to choose its design within two years of the events of 9/11 were crucial factors in the failure of imagination of that design. That forced rush defined grief rather than renewal as a guiding discourse of the site—there were certain raw emotions that when politically deployed prevented ways of envisioning the rebuilding of Ground Zero, reducing the possibilities to the most limited.

The decisions guiding the choice of a master plan and a memorial design also took place in one of the most restricted moments of public discourse in the history of the United States, during the lead-in to the war in Iraq. Thus, Daniel Libeskind’s design for the master plan for Ground Zero, Memory Foundations, won over the public and politicians not because it was an effective plan to rebuild the site but because it read like a memorial that could respond to the still immense public grief.3 The vestiges of that design that remain include the designation that One World Trade Center will stand 1,776 feet high—a kitsch design element that now reads, ten years later, as a strange gesture for a corporate office tower of banal modernism.

By far the most destructive concept that emerged from 9/11 in relation to Ground Zero was the designation that it was sacred ground. This was particularly acute in relation to the footprints of the twin towers, which emerged in the first year as the most symbolic space within Ground Zero. The status of Ground Zero as hallowed ground derives in part from the sense that it is a graveyard for those whose remains were never found. This status is highly contested because the discourse of sacredness cannot coexist with other modes of daily life. A sacred space is defined by ritual, by meaningfulness, by worship. A neighborhood is defined by the ongoing everydayness of life, work, and familiarity. The notions of all of Ground Zero as a sacred space are thus antithetical to the stakes held by others at the site—of economics, commerce, and home.

The footprints, which became invested as the specific site to represent the dead, and in particular the dead who were not recovered, took on an overdetermined meaning when Governor Pataki declared, in July 2002, that he would allow nothing to be built on them, that they were sacred “from bedrock to infinity.”4 That Ground Zero needed a site for mourning and contemplation has always been clear, but the size of the memorial and the space designated as sacred within Ground Zero have, from the beginning of the process, been excessive. In many ways, the fetishizing of the footprints is revealing about the processes of mourning and how they function so often as sites of displacement. The footprints of the twin towers were unremarkable when the towers stood—it was only in their absence that they became charged with meaning. Thus, the footprints of the towers stand in for the shocking absence of the buildings, gone in an instant, and the void in the New York skyline left in their wake. Yet, the designation of the footprints as sacred voids has distorted the designs for the site, and those footprints, recreated in the memorial as voids with waterfalls flowing through them, represent an arrested state of cultural memory.

Ultimately, naming will be a key factor in the memory of 9/11. The memorial names the dead of 9/11 (arranged with some complex “meaningful adjacencies,” perhaps its most interesting feature5)—and those names will move us. Each a story, each a loss, each evoking an individual life lived with meaning, joined by the arbitrariness of life and by chance, by fear and terror. The firefighters and other public servants will have affiliations named, to inscribe their loss within their role as first responders, but this is far less than the official designated special status their representatives had argued for. For if memorials can do one thing in naming, it is to create a sense of equation, that all untimely deaths are of equal loss. The names of this memorial may well be its most affecting element. Yet, naming always raises the question of inclusion and exclusion, and those names on the 9/11 memorial will inevitably raise the specters of those whose deaths followed from 9/11 and who are also its victims, the victims of all the events that it set into motion.

Just how much the last ten years have represented a closing down of thought in American culture will only be more revealed in the anniversary rituals of 9/11 in New York, an anniversary that will focus only on the lives of the almost three thousand people who were caught up in history that day and whose tragic vulnerability touched us all. Such an anniversary will be unable to register the loss of the many tens and hundreds of thousands who died in their wake—in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Pakistan, in Guantanamo—as soldiers and civilians, some known and named, many anonymous. Or to make connections between the trillions spent on the revenge of 9/11 that has now produced the pain of our current moment, of lost homes and jobs, of Americans unable to work or feed their families, of lost dignity, of a nation bankrupt and dysfunctional. These too are consequences that emanate from Ground Zero. This reminds us that the meaning of 9/11 remains arrested in many ways in relationship to its memory. We can only hope that history will eventually make more sense of this story. But, for now, its memory will be partial, partisan, incoherent, and owned.


Marita Sturken is professor and chair of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is author of Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Duke University Press 2007).

  1. Ada Louise Huxtable, “‘The New York Process’: Don’t Expect Anything Uplifting from the Pols and Realtors Now Pondering the WTC Site,” Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2001.
  2. Michael Arad and Peter Walker, Reflecting Absence, Winner, World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition, http://www.wtcsitememorial.org/fin7.html.
  3. Daniel Libeskind, Memory Foundations, Projects, Studio Daniel Libeskind, http://www.daniel-libeskind.com/projects/show-all/memory-foundations/.
  4. Philip Nobel, Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (New York: Metropolitan, 2005), 246.
  5. National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, “Names Arrangement,” Memorial Design, http://www.911memorial.org/names-arrangement.