The Nation's Pulse

Monumental Failure

Is the latest design for the Flight 93 Memorial the best we can do?

By 1.3.06

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There is this new design out for the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Its original version, called the "Crescent of Embrace," met a barrage of flak in the blogosphere because of its unfortunate resemblance to an Islamic crescent, aligned toward Mecca. In the wake of the criticism the architects retitled that section as the "Forty Memorial Groves" and revised their plan to close the crimson crescent of maple trees around a large natural depression in the earth, adjacent to the "sacred ground" where Flight 93 crashed.

I suppose that is an improvement. Nonetheless, the winning memorial to a plane crash is still...a hole in the ground.

Is that the most tasteful commemoration possible for a struggle aboard a doomed plane, one that may have saved the United States Capitol from the fate of the World Trade Center?

Next up from the same firm: The Titanic memorial ice sculpture.

The revised design is still the subject of some criticism, with one blog called "Error Theory" lambasting it as an "Islamofascist shrine." I don't buy that. I don't think Paul Murdoch Architects, the L.A.-based firm who came up with this, harbors some deep affinity for Taliban hegemony. On the other hand, I do believe that the revised plan is so vague that it is possible to find any number of conflicting interpretations within its incoherent and nihilistic expanse. Murdoch's designers bear some of the blame for this failure, but there are three sources of bad inspiration that deserve singling out as well.

The first precursors of failure were the poor design criteria. Murdoch's design responded to a "Memorial Expression," directing that the plan should "allow freedom of personal interpretation" of the Battle Over Shanksville. In a brochure announcing the new design, Paul Murdoch's letter boasts that his memorial is "open to emotional experience, individual interpretation and personal contemplation."

William Wallace's monument near Stirling, Scotland, is certainly not open to "individual interpretation" about the legitimacy of Wallace's opposition to English incursion. A partisan of Napoleon would be hard-pressed to find solace in either the monument to Admiral Nelson in Edinburgh, or the Column in Trafalgar Square. An Islamic terrorist sympathizer ought to be out of luck when trying to find support for his cause in the Flight 93 Memorial -- but as the Error Theory blog has shown, he might yet find some.

Monuments are not neutral. They take a stand. They recognize virtue and heroism and they point out the good guys. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier leaves little ambiguity to interpret or misinterpret about the worth of those it represents. The new World War II memorial on the D.C. mall remembers American servicemen, and not Japanese or German veterans. There was a right side and a wrong side to that war, and the monument is not afraid to claim as much.

Would that the Shanksville memorial did so.

THE SECOND ANTECEDENT to the furor caused by the Flight 93 Memorial was Maya Lin and her Vietnam War Memorial.

Lin's Vietnam Memorial was not just controversial, it was radical. It subverted the conventions of memorial architecture. Previously, memorials required a viewer to look up to take in the arch or obelisk or statue, because they represented something bigger and nobler, something elevated above the plane of daily life. But rather than commanding the terrain with a massive and solemn presence, Lin's design bowed its head and tore through the dirt. It is, ultimately, an extended headstone, stretched out to include more than 50,000 names.

Lin's design might have been a fitting monument for a tragedy -- a natural disaster or an accident where thousands died without a discernible reason. But the dead of Vietnam commemorated on that wall were not victims -- they were heroes.

As were the passengers of Flight 93.

Angry veterans, unsatisfied with the minimalist stone wall, demanded a real monument. They claimed Lin's design used the color of shame and hid the memorial below eye level. So after a great deal of protest, a tall flagpole and a traditional, realistic bronze statue were added nearby. The "Three Servicemen Statue" by Frederick Hart is magnificent, gritty, and still quite complex: the soldiers are weary and wounded, the machine gunner bowed under the weight of his weapon. These are reluctant heroes, but clearly heroes all the same.

One essay introducing Lin's works dismissed these new elements by noting that "[i]n the end, these additions were placed far enough away from the wall so that its artistic integrity was not seriously affected." (After all, you wouldn't want to see such an elegant, streamlined concept tainted by an encroaching American flag, or a heroic representation of soldiers. Tacky, tacky.)

While Lin's monument was forced by public outrage to add a flag, Murdoch's revised design is taking them away. The brochure announcing the changes includes an illustration of the sacred ground with an American flag flying there. But the text of the brochure notes:

Vertical elements, such as the fence, flags, and other features will be removed so as not to interrupt the focus on the sacred ground.

Despite his gaffe with the red crescent and the new one with the flag, Murdoch may have learned a few things from the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial. Rather than keeping the monument entirely at ground level, he erected something called a "Tower of Voices" off near the highway. Unfortunately, it's not a traditional tower, but rather a sleek, modern one housing forty aluminum wind chimes, one for each of the remembered dead.

Wind chimes.

Nothing evokes the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave" like a bunch of wind chimes. Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle.

A THIRD ANTECEDENT of the failure of the Flight 93 memorial was the notion -- often discussed in the planning of the New York 9/11 Memorial -- that it would be a sacrilege to build on "sacred ground," whether it be the crash site of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania or the "footprints" of the Twin Towers.

Where did this idea come from? Religions build upon sacred ground all the time. Look in Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount or at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site of the Crucifixion. Or see Bramante's Tempietto erected on the site of St. Peter's execution.

It is precisely in order to differentiate the ordinary from the sacred that these monuments were built. Admittedly, any structure on such important real estate must be equal to the task of commemorating the events that hallowed the ground. But it is far better to try and fail than never to try, and leave the sacred indistinct from the profane.

Or were Bramante et al. simply wrong?

The aesthetic of the Murdoch design is not, as Error Theory suggested, Islamofascist, but rather pagan, or at least New Age. The chimes, the Stonehenge-like circle of trees, the obsession with the ecology of the area, all decry the thoroughly Californicated roots of the idea. Granted, his design was judged the best of several entries. But perhaps because of the three reasons suggested above, all of the entrants seemed similarly diffident and non-committal about the events they attempt to commemorate. Perhaps they misunderstand them.

A war had long been declared on America, but despite the attacks at Khobar Towers, the USS Cole in Yemen, and our African embassies, we only began to grasp the magnitude of the threat with the other three hijackings that same morning. The second amendment of our Constitution speaks of a "well-regulated militia." Well, the civilian passengers organized -- regulated -- themselves into a militia that foiled the terrorists' plans.

Flight 93's battle marked the first time in this war the American militia took a stand -- not with bunker busters and rifles but with drink carts and pots of hot coffee. This was our newest Lexington and these men and women -- not the Iraqi insurgents, as Michael Moore suggested -- were our newest Minutemen.

I wish America's architects had, like the heroes they are supposed to honor, risen to the occasion. But I fear that if we seek a fitting monument to the courage of those passengers, today's builders will prove incapable of visualizing it. They don't even know their monuments from a hole in the ground.

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