Visions of grandeur

Area designers reveal ideas that didn't make the WTC memorial cut

Sunday, December 14, 2003

It's a safe bet most of the entrants in the World Trade Center memorial design competition had never attempted a project of such immensely thrilling yet morose magnitude.

Five thousand two hundred and one artists, designers, architects and even children from 49 states and 63 nations submitted their visions for the remembrance to a 13-member panel that's set to choose a finalist by year's end.

Eleven designs were created in Kansas, 37 in Missouri. At least three of the entrants live in Lawrence or have ties to the community. Though no area proposals were among the final eight designs, which were created by artists and architects based in Chicago, New York, Houston and Paris, local approaches speak to the way the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, struck an essentially human chord in people around the globe.

The reverberation from that strike inspired pictures in the heads of Lawrence artist Stephen Johnson, Lawrence designer/builder Rudy Conrad and Kansas City, Mo., architect and Kansas University graduate Hugh Lester -- pictures of how best to remember the victims of 9-11 and the 1993 trade center bombing.

Getting those images from their heads to the selection committee proved an intense experience. Designers worked under a roughly two-month deadline in a process that was clandestine, to say the least. Disqualification met those who discussed details of their projects, and participants yearning for feedback flocked to Internet bulletin boards, where they assumed pseudonyms and exchanged ideas in vague language.

The cloak of secrecy fell, however, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. announced its eight finalists in late November, but criticism of the selected few has not been in short supply.

Among the complaints: The designs aren't accessible. Not enough big-name architects and designers undertook the challenge. The finalists rarely adhered to all the requirements laid out by the committee.

Concerned that the designs just don't get it right, everyone from victims' families to concerned private citizens, newspaper columnists to architecture critics are urging the committee to go back to the drawing board.

Guiding principles

Lester attended a Competitor Forum Dec. 6 at New York University, where dozens of entrants whose designs were discarded met to discuss their ideas. By the end of the day, the group had signed a declaration that supported the competition's mission statement and guidelines but concluded that none of the eight finalists had met the committee's qualifications. The document calls for a public exhibition of all 5,201 designs.

Lester, Conrad and Johnson all say they adhered to the committee's guidelines.

Those guidelines were: 1) to recognize each individual who was a victim of the attack; 2) to provide areas for quiet contemplation, as well as 3) areas for families and loved ones; 4) to allow separate, accessible facilities that could serve as a final resting place for the unidentified remains of the trade center victims, and 5) to make visible the footprints of the original trade center towers.

The space reserved for the memorial is a 4.5-acre parcel in the southwest corner of the trade center site -- a setting created by architect Daniel Libeskind, whose master plan was chosen for the rebuilding project earlier this year.

Focus on life, heroism

Lester has yet to encounter anyone else who took a conceptual approach similar to his own. The detention-center designer chose to focus his design on the way the victims spent the last moments of their lives.

"Instead of focusing on their deaths, I wanted to focus on the way they spent their remaining precious time on this earth," he says. "Once you made that final decision and your fate was sealed, there were so many acts of heroism and there was such an outpouring of love and hope and focusing on what's important in life."

To that end, Lester created "Altered Trajectories," a memorial that would consider how 9-11 altered the life paths of victims and observers alike, intertwining them all in a constellation of regret, love, fear and hope. The centerpiece of his design is a partially buried, rotating polycarbonate sphere, 48 feet in diameter, with the names of all the victims punched out and lit from within. The names would project into the surroundings, washing over visitors to the memorial. A private space for victims' families would be located below ground, underneath the sphere.

Lester proposed planting grass in the two tower footprints but otherwise leaving them untouched. The rest of the ground would be composed of quarter-sized steel rods placed close enough together to form a wheelchair-accessible plane. The rods would represent individuals -- victims, survivors, emergency responders and observers near and far -- and would be mapped according to where the person was during the tragedy. The markers would radiate out into lower Manhattan.

"When I sent it off, I really felt like I had done my best, and even after weeks of being on the (Internet bulletin) board and reading what other people had to say about their approaches ... I wouldn't change anything," Lester says. "After seeing the finalists chosen by the jury, I like to think that I was one of the top 50 or 100, but I'll never know."

Simple geometry

For Conrad, who owns a national contracting company, the memorial competition was a step outside his comfort zone.

"I design and build things, but just the scope and the importance of this particular project is a once-in-a-lifetime or, hopefully a never-again situation," he says. "I travel to New York all the time. I love the city, love the people. I just felt as if I had something to offer."

Conrad's design consisted of a 3,000-square-foot pentagon-shaped central mausoleum, with 10 large relief images of the events of Sept. 11 carved into its exterior walls.

He converted each of the two square footprints into a reflecting pool with a sculpture -- an elliptical wall inset with a sphere -- rising up from the center. Three pyramidal viewing and contemplation platforms fill in the rest of the memorial site.

Conrad meant for the simple geometric forms of his proposal to contrast with what he calls the "fusion architecture" of Libeskind's angular designs.

"We tried to stay out of anything that was language-bound because of the international aspects of the memorial," says Conrad, whose daughter, Molly Conrad, helped create digital imagery of her father's design for the jury.

Conrad questions the final eight designs' lack of a singular piece of art.

"They are spatial design themes, somewhat cerebral. Fantastic, yes, but I hope not too esoteric," he says.

'A proper national memorial'

Lawrence native Stephen Johnson lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., for 13 years before returning to Lawrence about a year before 9-11. He feels a special connection with the city.

"So many of my friends in NYC were directly affected by September 11th," he says.

Johnson's design contains four monuments and twin beacons that would glow from within to illuminate walkways at night and contain large upward-shining spotlights that would be lit on commemorative occasions.

Each tower footprint would be elevated to accommodate reflecting pools containing marble columns representing the fallen victims. The victims' names would be engraved on black stone rectangles on the southern wall of the north tower footprint and the western wall of the south tower footprint. Victims' remains and a circular room for families and visitation would be housed beneath the pools.

At the southwest corner of the site, Johnson placed a massive cube standing on end, meant as an abstraction of falling debris. Inside would be a ruined metal wall from the trade center that would rise up out of a reflecting pool illuminated with 3,022 lights and then peek through an opening in the cube's top.

Finally, Johnson's Hope Monument would occupy the center of the site and consist of a rotating circular stage containing three sail-like structures. The stage would make one complete revolution every 24 hours, so that once a day, a brass arrow would pass indications carved in black stone of the seven horrific moments of Sept. 11, 2001, and Feb. 26, 1993.

Johnson says he's proud of his design and disappointed in the jury's final eight choices.

"These final visions shy away from anything tangible, anything that would remind us of that horrific day. Nothing speaks of resolve and of hope, either," he says. "Instead these designs turn inward and speak only of loss and gloss over this national tragedy with beautiful spaces that could exist anywhere.

"I hope ... that one of these will evolve into a proper national memorial."