Our government has a foreign policy, a domestic policy, a monetary policy; but it lacks an architectural policy. This lack is generally unnoticed because our key public buildings (the courthouses, the state capitols, etc.) were handed down to us as heirlooms, and there seems little for us to do but preserve these monuments. But the destruction of the Twin Towers revealed the ongoing need for architectural thinking and doing. No sooner had the dust cleared than the cry went up: There must be a Memorial. One might have supposed that every designer in the land would have rushed to his drawing board in reponse to this request. But this didn’t happen. Instead a Commission was formed that after a long time produced six tentative plans for the 16-acre World Trade Center site. These plans generated a lot of controversy (inevitable when the government takes over the role of Adam Smith’s invisible hand), but none of them addressed the question of the memorial.
The reigning assumption is that a memorial can only exist in the context of some Grand Scheme, and that once the Scheme is approved by some Great Ruler (or All-Powerful Commission), then and only then, can the designers turn their attention to it. But this thinking is wrong: the site is large enough so that it can accommodate almost any memorial. And why shouldn’t the memorial dictate (to an extent) the design of the site?
In spite of the ongoing distractions, however, one good proposal has emerged: a monumental column, suggested by the veteran critic Henry Reed. This idea is sound. It is proven sound. This architectural motif was invented in ancient Rome (at the time of Trajan) and has been copied and developed on countless occasions since. The beauty of the thing is evident: it stands tall and proud, conveying a dignified, almost defiant repose. It can be seen from a distance, yet it occupies very little space. The land once occupied by Nelson Rockefeller’s boondoggle can become a neighborhood again, with the monument at its center giving it a distinct character, without overshadowing it with the memory of a great atrocity.
The rendering is, of course an artist’s fantasy, mere lines on paper. But the fantasy is not wholly removed from reality. The column is shown in a park setting. This idea is consistent with the plans of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which suggest that the final design of Ground Zero will include a group of tall buildings clustered around a small (perhaps eight acre) park. This park will contain the memorial.
The view presented here shows a view from the south (looking up along Greenwich Street) or, alternatively, from the west, looking along Dey Street towards the Hudson River. Depending on a number of factors, the result might resemble other parts of the city, where densely built-up streets interface with park space. Readers familiar with New York may be reminded of Fifth Avenue along Central Park. The rendering shows (as best it can) a gilded, winged figure bearing two wreaths, intended as a reference to the towers. This figure would be viewed only from a distance, so it would not require the highest level of finish; but the base would be an opportunity for the designer to introduce finely detailed relief sculpture. It might include the Seal of the City, supported by a fireman and a policeman. Throughout the design there would be ample opportunity to use rich materials and well developed ornamentation. The Alexander Column in St. Petersburg, Russia, for example has a monolithic pillar of red granite that is 83 feet tall. It is hard to understand why that monument, created in the 1840s, could not be surpassed by the vastly richer and (we like to suppose) more sophisticated America of the present day.
Another question arises: Do the craftsmen and artists required for this project exist? Perhaps not. But modern technology offers the hope that new methods can be used to achieve old ends. The computer and other machines may allow a single person to do the work of scores. What holds back progress is the determination of our architects to “progress” toward ever newer and more outlandish results.
Is there any chance that Henry Reed’s idea will be adopted? Well, the forces of modernism, postmodernism, and poor taste will surely be arrayed against it. But these forces will have to generate their own proposals. If Reed’s column is set against, say, a Maya Lin trench or an Oklahoma City assortment of chairs, the public may at last be ready to accept the superiority of the classical over the modern school of design.