Q&A with National 9/11 Memorial designer Michael Arad ’91

Arad discussed the process of designing the memorial, how his Dartmouth experience has influenced his work and his most recent project.

by Coalter Palmer | 9/17/21 5:05am

Source: Courtesy of Michael Arad '91

Michael Arad ’91 is the designer of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. His design — titled “Reflecting Absence” — was selected from more than 5,200 proposals submitted to a 2004 competition organized by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The memorial, which features two waterfall pools in the footprints of the North and South Towers, is intended to convey “absence made visible,” according to Arad, and displays the names of the 2,983 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. These names include the 12 Dartmouth community members who died on 9/11 — Paul Ambrose (Dartmouth Medical School Residency ’96-’99), Juan Cisneros ’99, Christopher Colasanti ’90, Kevin Connors Tu’73, Kevin Crotty ’80, Brian Dale ’80 Tu’81, Joseph Flounders ’77, Jeffrey LeVeen ’68, Frederick Rimmele III (Maine-Dartmouth Family Practice Residency ’97), Thomas Theurkauf, Jr. Tu’81 and Richard Woodwell ’79.

In the days after the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, The Dartmouth sat down with Arad to discuss his work on the memorial, how his Dartmouth experience has informed his work and his most recent projects.

What motivated you to submit a design to the memorial competition and to ultimately take on the task of building the memorial?

MA: I think what motivated me initially was very much being in New York and witnessing the attack, which motivated thousands of New Yorkers to get engaged — not just people in the architectural community, but everyone seemed to be very engaged in the question of, “How do we respond as a city to these attacks?” Here in New York, places like the Javits Convention Center became sites where people came together to look at different design plans, and to opine on them with a level of civic engagement I don’t think you’ve ever seen in New York City. I think that was really important, and that sort of propelled me to start thinking about the question of how to respond as a city and how do we create a place, a memorial, that reflects on what occurred here with the attacks and the way that the city responded to them.

Courtesy of Michael Arad

The National 9/11 Memorial lies at the base of the Freedom Tower in downtown Manhattan.

The memorial’s early design was quite different from the final one. Can you briefly describe the creative process you went through, from your early designs to the memorial we see today?

MA: I actually started thinking about a design for the memorial before there was a memorial design competition. The initial impulse I had was to think about a memorial in the Hudson River, in part because, early in this process, the idea of rebuilding anything at the World Trade Center felt fraught with so much difficulty and emotion. Ground Zero then was a six-story-high, 16-acre pile of smoldering rubble, with recovery crews climbing across the hellish landscaping and pulling bodies out of the debris. So, at the time, I couldn’t actually imagine what you would rebuild at the site. 

I imagined the surface of the river shorn open and forming two square voids, symbolically marking the Twin Towers somehow, and these empty spaces would remain empty: Even though the river would flow into them, they would never fill up. I spent months trying to understand if it could actually be built and ended up creating a small desktop model of the fountain at home and taking a picture of the model, superimposed over the Hudson, from the rooftop of our apartment building against the skyline — and this is a process that took over a year. 

I could see the absence of the towers in the skyline mirrored and reflected in these twin voids that I’d created. I set it aside and came back to it a year later, following the selection of a master plan for the World Trade Center site that began to restore the site into the fabric of the city. This plan broke down the 16-acre super-block created for the World Trade Center in the 1960s into four smaller city blocks. These four quadrants were different in size — the largest was about eight acres in size, about half the size of the site. And this quadrant was where the Twin Towers had once stood, and that became the basis for the memorial design competition. 

However, the competition guidelines called for that eight-acre memorial site to be some 60 feet below the surrounding streets and sidewalks — at the time, after the recovery effort had concluded, the site extended roughly this distance below the surrounding streets and sidewalks to the lowest basement slab within the World Trade Center complex. In thinking of my own experiences in places like Washington Square and Union Square, and of how important it was for me to be able to go to these public places and to feel connected, the guidelines of the competition seemed to call for something that was very different than what I had envisioned: a place that would forever be severed from the city and that only people going explicitly to visit the memorial could experience but nobody else.

We wanted to make Ground Zero a space that would make living here and working here — or visiting here — a more emotionally meaningful experience. So I sent in a proposal that basically ignored the guidelines and laid out a different direction than the one outlined in the Master Plan. My proposal was quite polemical because I was also emotionally invested in the design, and when I submitted it, I didn’t anticipate that it would actually be selected. But then when it was, we faced a very difficult process of reconciling the memorial proposal with what the Master Plan had suggested and with what the many other projects that were being built on the same site were moving forward with. This process took eight years, until we dedicated the memorial on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

What do you hope that visitors take away from their encounter with the memorial?

MA: I think a lot of it is up to the visitors. I think what the memorial can do is connect people to the history of the site, and to make that history very explicit and tangible in a way that should have an emotional impact. How visitors respond to that emotional impact, I think, is up to the individual. There’s no didactic, singular response — different people will walk away from the site with a different set of emotions, a different set of thoughts and beliefs. But if the site doesn’t prompt some introspection, some call to action, some change, then it's not achieving its goals.

In implementing your vision for the memorial, you were faced with balancing the wishes of the victims’ families, navigating bureaucratic red tape and fitting the design into the overall Ground Zero Master Plan, among other challenges. Can you speak to some of these challenges you faced and how you were ultimately able to overcome them?

MA: Through dialogue and engagement, and by listening and responding, all while holding onto the important underpinnings of the design — which were about making absence visible and tangible and making Ground Zero a civic and urban space. Those principles guided the design, although some physical aspects of the design changed. For example, we were asked to bring the names, which our initial designs put 30 feet below the plaza, up to ground level. Moving the design up to the plaza, we had to find a way of making that moment of encounter with the names, standing at the threshold of this enormous empty space, just as impactful as it had been when we had the below-ground memorial galleries. I believe we were able to do that, but it took a lot — design is a long process, and there were many iterations that came and went of how and where we would display the names. But I think as long as we had the guiding light of our design principles that underpins the memorial, we were able to keep the memorial from becoming something altogether different — something that could have become either self-pitying or jingoistic or different than what I had seen and what I experienced here in New York. 

How did your experience at Dartmouth inform your work on the memorial?

MA: When I began my education at Dartmouth, I thought I was probably going to go to law school upon graduation. I was a government major and I enjoyed those classes, but I also was curious about other things. Being in a place like Dartmouth, we have the ability to take lots of different classes in different areas. So I got my major requirements out of the way relatively quickly and had a couple of years to take studio arts classes, philosophy classes, history classes, religion classes — and I think being able to do that was a tremendous privilege. It opened my eyes and allowed me to start thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. 

I applied to law school at the end of college and did not get in, so I took a gap year and was a ski bum for a year, using that time to apply again to law school and also to architecture programs. The following year, I did get into law school at Hebrew University but decided to stay in the United States and study architecture. If it weren’t for my experiences at Dartmouth, I probably would not have had the opportunity to take those studio art classes, to be engaged in the student workshops at the Hop, and to find myself really drawn to design, fabrication, architecture and all of its various manifestations.

What other projects have you worked on since?

MA: I'm working on an incredibly important project right now in Charleston, South Carolina — a memorial to the Emanuel Nine, who were killed in the Mother Emanuel Church in June 2015 by a white supremacist — and to the five survivors. That project began not with requests from that community for design but actually through engagement and conversation, and writing an essay on the nature of forgiveness and on how a memorial could act as an agent of change to fight racism in this country. It’s been an incredibly huge privilege and responsibility to be engaged in this project. The community reached out to me and asked me to participate in this process. We began with design ideas, and then we explored a whole range of physical design aspects, or how we could take those ideas and give them form and space. We’re hoping to dedicate the memorial in a couple of years.

Courtesy of Michael Arad

Arad’s current project is a memorial to the victims of the 2015 white supremacist mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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