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How the National 9/11 Memorial changed public grief — and the Israeli-American architect who designed it

Michael Arad, Israeli-American architect of the National 9/11 Memorial, reflects on its meaning 20 years after 9/11

When the National 9/11 Memorial opened at Ground Zero in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the roads around it were still being built. And for two more years, construction fences from neighboring projects punctuated the site’s contemplative ambience, obscuring visitors’ views and necessitating pre-timed tickets.

Until one day, with little fanfare, the fences came down.

Michael Arad

Michael Arad, the architect who designed the National September 11 Memorial. By Karen Smul

When he heard the news, Michael Arad, the Israeli-American architect who designed the memorial, ran to the site from his office two blocks away, intent on witnessing the first moments in which passerby could freely wander into the plaza for the first time — the kind of chance encounters, he says, that “make the past a part of our day-to-day life.”

In 2004, Arad’s design concept for the memorial, entitled “Reflecting Absence,” bested over 5,000 competitors with its captivating approach to grief and public space. It catapulted the London-born Israeli-American architect, then 34 and an architect at the New York City Housing Authority, into an elite sphere of architectural accomplishment. And it set in motion a more than seven year saga — replete with delays and runaway budgets — to complete construction.

Now, a decade after the memorial first opened and two decades after 9/11, Arad can finally reflect on his magnum opus — two cavernous, unfillable reflecting pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers — without focusing on all the little things he wishes he could have done differently. Instead of fixating on the small things, he’s matured in his role as an architect and collaborator at the forefront of designing public spaces for communal grief.

“I can actually step back and see the bigger picture,” said Arad.

On 9/11, Arad, who moved to New York City in 1999, watched the second plane crash into the South Tower from the rooftop of his East Village apartment. A few days later, with much of Lower Manhattan still cordoned off by police, he took a nighttime bicycle ride through his adopted city’s eerily quiet and car-free streets.

Eventually, he came across a vigil in Washington Square Park. Standing beside strangers gathered around the edges of the park’s central fountain, he said,“I felt like a New Yorker for the first time in my life.” To him, a sense of shared stoicism and compassion seemed to permeate the air following the attacks.

Soon after, he began sketching designs for a memorial. A needed work visa renewal — a process that usually went quickly and smoothly — was delayed following the attacks, giving him extra time to build an architectural model of a structure set on the Hudson River. Its water, Arad imagined, would flow into, but never fill, twin voids suspended on its surface.

When the city announced the competition for the Ground Zero memorial in 2003, Arad transferred his concept to the site of the World Trade Center. He envisioned parapets inscribed with the names of the 2,983 people killed on 9/11 and in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing surrounding reflecting pools, into which the largest man-made waterfalls in North America would pour. And he ignored directives from the site’s master planner on the intended size of the memorial, because, he said, they would interfere with his design’s ability to be “part of the fabric of the city.”

He compared his submission to a letter to the editor. It was, he said, supposed to be one of thousands of voices meant to further the conversation on the memorial’s design. Of the eight competition finalists, he was the only competitor without a team or partner.

He never expected to see his idea become reality.

But the emotional power of his design won out.

Arad’s commitment to that vision caused its share of difficulty. In the first few years after his design was chosen, he fought hard to preserve its every element, even amid ballooning costs and public disagreements with city officials and victims’ families. A 2006 profile in New York Magazine painted scenes of chaos and conflict, describing the memorial as “teetering on the brink of collapse,” in part because of the architect’s stubborn reverence for the minute details of his original design.

By the time the memorial opened in 2011, Arad felt, he said, “like a deer in the headlights.”

“I almost felt like I shouldn’t be there that day,” he said, reflecting on the intimacy of the dedication, which was attended by victims’ families.

Because the process of building the memorial was marred by conflict and compromises to his original design, Arad long found it difficult to look back on that process with unequivocal pride. But he’s taken the lessons from those conflicts, and used them to change his approach to creating sites of public mourning — including at the 9/11 memorial itself.

Rendering of planned Emanuel Nine Memorial

A rendering of Arad’s plan for the Emanuel Nine Memorial. Courtesy of DBOX

In 2017, he began working on a memorial to honor the victims and survivors of the 2015 Emanuel AME Church massacre, in which a white supremacist murdered nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. He never submitted a design proposal for the project. Instead, he received the commission after responding to questions from a committee of Charleston church and community leaders about the philosophical underpinnings of his approach, including on his understanding of the concept of Christian forgiveness, which he called the heart of the project.

The specifics of the design came later, through deep collaboration with survivors and victims’ families, who spoke at length with Arad about their visions and hopes for the memorial before he even began the design process.

That sense of the memorial as a joint venture with the community was essential, especially, he said, as “I’m not Christian, nor am I African American, nor am I native born to this country.” The project, he said, is a “huge privilege and a huge responsibility.”

With the struggle over the 9/11 memorial prominently in mind, instead of focusing on executing every last intricacy of his designs, he’s worked to see those details as tools to use in service of the bigger picture. For all his projects, including an as yet unrealized COVID-19 memorial design concept he created for Curbed, that picture often involves the intersection of loss, communal spaces and healing.

He’s come to see, he said, that for the 9/11 memorial, “the idea of absence and the idea of a public space that was integral to the fabric of the city were much more important” than the details he had fought doggedly — perhaps too doggedly — to preserve.

And in recent years, he had the chance to develop that new understanding through an addition to the memorial, debuted in 2019, that honors first responders, whose work at Ground Zero exposed them to toxins and caused devastating health effects. He remembers one recovery worker, named Sonia, telling him that there was no place at the memorial for her or her husband: both have suffered from illnesses related to Ground Zero as a result of their work in the rescue efforts in the days after 9/11.

Their absence from the memorial, he said, was “a huge omission.”

The 9/11 Memorial Glade, which features six massive stones embedded with steel from the World Trade Center and is abutted by two inscriptions in victims’ honor, now serves as a tribute to these workers, with whom, as in his process for the Emanuel AME memorial, Arad traded design ideas throughout the duration of the project.

The Memorial Glade opened to the public in 2019. Arad said the experience of that opening, during which he was surrounded by people with whom he had collaborated in an open process, was a far departure from the discomfort he felt at the memorial’s original opening in 2011.

“When we dedicated the Memorial Glade, it felt like I was there among friends,” he said.

As for Sonia, the first responder who helped inspire the Memorial Glade, Arad said that she has raved about the new addition, a fact that fills him with gratitude — and a bit of bashfulness, too.

“She speaks so emotionally and beautifully about it,” he said. “It’s very meaningful to me that she is happy with what we did.”

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