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The Man Behind the Memorial

Douglaston Architect Michael Arad discusses the creation of the Sept. 11 monument.

On a clear Tuesday morning 10 years ago, Douglaston's Michael Arad watched as his fellow New Yorkers displayed courage in the face of unimaginable horror and he began daydreaming of how to pay tribute to the lives lost that day. 

In four days, the memorial Arad designed to honor the 2,982 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will debut during a tenth anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero.  

The architect, who moved to Douglaston 14 months ago, said he was inspired by the bravery he witnessed that day as well as the camaraderie of the city’s residents in the days and weeks following the attacks. Several months later, he began to conceptualize a monument for the lives lost on 9/11.

“I was inspired by the way New Yorkers came together as a community,” he said. “There were public spaces where people gathered—Union Square and Washington Square—and impromptu vigils were held. It reflected on our values and a society in which people come together. I wanted to create a public space like that.”

Arad, 42, who works for Manhattan’s Handel Architects, was born in London and served in the Israeli army for three years before moving to New York City in 1999.

One of his first architectural projects in the city involved the creation of a small Manhattan police station.

Just after 9 a.m. on 9/11, Arad watched from the rooftop of his East Village apartment as United Airlines Flight 175 struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Several months after the attack, he began putting together drawings and models for a 9/11 monument. In 2003, he discovered that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was holding a public competition to create a memorial.

A total 5,201 designs were submitted in the competition. In late 2003, Arad’s plan was one of eight chosen by a jury to make it to the final round.

One month later, he was told that his design had been picked.

“Very quickly, the excitement made way for the long process of realizing the project,” he said of the memorial, which will open on Sunday. “It’s one thing to win a competition and another to construct a memorial. Over the past eight years, I’ve had to be a diligent advocate for the design and deal with political disagreements.”

Arad said the concept for the memorial began with his vision of the Hudson River being torn open by two voids that never fill up.

“It was an enigmatic image, but I felt I should investigate it,” he said. “I built a small model to capture that idea and then a little sculpture, which I photographed on my roof. I noticed the absence of the towers in the skyline.”

The site’s two voids include waterfalls that fill 30-foot pools, which then feed into two smaller voids below. Hundreds of trees surround the voids and bronze panels bearing the names of 9/11’s victims are located at the edges of the waterfalls.  

Arad said he believes the jury chose his design, which is known as “Reflecting Absence,” because it depicts 9/11 as an event that was epic in scale, but intimate in detail.

“The design makes what is absent visible,” he said. “The idea was not to recreate the towers. It focuses on individual and collective loss. I think there’s a powerful moment when you walk to the space where the towers once stood and see close to 1,500 names around each pool. I wanted to make sure that when we faced the past, we did it in the presence of others. When people come here, they won’t feel alone.”

Arad later designed the memorial, which encompasses eight of the World Trade Center’s 16 acres, with landscape architect Peter Walker.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum, which is set 70 feet below the ground, will open in 2012. The combined cost of the memorial and museum is $700 million.

The architect said the 9/11 Memorial Foundation worked with families of the victims to ensure that the names of their loved ones were placed on the bronze panels near the names of family members, friends or co-workers who also died at Ground Zero.

“Hopefully, this will provide solace to the families,” he said. “We received more than 1,200 requests and we granted each and every one.”

Visitors will be able to stop at specific panels and listen to audio recordings of family members and friends talking about the loved ones they lost.

“This connects you with people very personally,” Arad said. “It gives you a partial understanding of the tolls that day. Story by story, you can build up that understanding. Every time you come here, you can learn something new.”

The names on the panels are divided into numerous categories, such as first responders, victims from the World Trade Center and passengers on the four flights that crashed into the two towers, The Pentagon and a field in Stonycreek Township, Penn.

One of the criticisms of the memorial’s design has been from representatives from the city’s Police and Fire Departments, who called for the names of first responders to be separate from civilians.

But Arad said he believed the final design for the memorial would satisfy the numerous parties that have been involved in the seven-year process of completing the monument.

“Some people wanted more recognition,” he said. “Some probably thought we gave too much, some too little. But the fact that we’re getting both critiques shows that we struck the right balance.”

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum has taken six years to complete amid competing interests from the public, first responders, elected officials and the families of victims. 

Arad said the memorial’s designers have attempted to meet the needs of all parties involved, while still remaining true to the vision of his original plan for the site.

“You’re never going to have a design that is universally praised,” he said. “It was such a public project, so we had to do it in a way that engaged many people. We wanted to find a way to listen to people and understand what was important to them. I’ve tried to hear everyone, but also hold on to the core element of the design. That’s been a challenge, but I feel we’ve done that very successfully.”

Lauren Evans September 07, 2011 at 04:01 PM
Really great story, Nathan.
Safia Sattaur September 07, 2011 at 04:57 PM
Great Story!
Erin Walsh September 08, 2011 at 12:12 AM
Great read!
liz September 08, 2011 at 05:34 AM
What a beautiful display to honor our fallen heroes and he will be blessed for his kind jesture to our fallen.

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