How Reflecting Absence Became America's Most Expensive Public Memorial

It may have taken a decade, but New York finally has a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in 9/11.

The Design

The process for choosing the new 9/11 Memorial became the largest design competition in history. More than 5,200 ideas from 63 countries and virtually every state of the union were submitted to the 13-member selection jury representing a broad cross-section of viewpoints—from world renowned architects to family members of those who died in the attacks—for review. Each submission was evaluated on its adherence to the memorial's mission statement with the winning submission, Reflecting Absence, coming from New York architect Michael Arad. And, with a $500 million budget, it is the most expensive public memorial ever created on US soil.

The memorial occupies approximately half of the 16-acre World Trade Center site and features two enormous waterfalls above reflecting pools set in the footprints of the original buildings. Its design is meant to convey a spirit of hope and renewal while commemorating the lives lost in both the 1993 and 2001 attacks.

As then-governor George Pataki stated at the unveiling of the design in 2004,

All that we do in Lower Manhattan is in memory of those we lost on September 11th and in the 1993 bombing. The entire 16 acre site will be a living memorial with Reflecting Absence as its centerpiece. This memorial will be a special place to remember the thousands of lives cut short and recall the spirit and love of freedom which prevailed. Future generations will be able to reflect upon the enormous loss and understand our pledge to never forget the heroes from the tragic events.

The Plaza

The memorial plaza actually acts as a living roof for the below-ground Memorial Museum and PATH Station some 70 feet below and is designed with a suspended paving system—essentially a series of concrete tables that support the plaza above a level of level of soil for the 400 swamp white oak trees growing there. This allows the site to be paved for easier pedestrian movement while preventing the soil from becoming compacted, which chokes off nutrient and water supplies to the trees' roots.

How Reflecting Absence Became America's Most Expensive Public MemorialS

The trees that were selected almost all come from within 500 miles of the WTC complex, the rest harvested from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and areas impacted by the attacks. The swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) was chosen specifically for its longevity—living, on average, 300-350 years—its natural beauty, with leaves that change to pink and gold in the fall, and its impressive height and resilliant nature.

The trees can grow to reach heights as tall as 60 feet in conditions similar to those on the plaza—though, being trees, they will never quite be the same height. Much like the cooling system for the WTC, a majority of the site's irrigation needs will be supplied by harvested rainwater stored in subterranean storage tanks. Within the park, the design calls for a small clearing called the Memorial Glade—for use in ceremonies and civic functions—as well as a space set aside for the Survivor Tree, a Callery Pear that somehow made it through the attacks and destruction of 9/11.

The Waterfalls

The centerpiece of the memorial is its twin waterfalls—the largest man-made falls on the continent—that flow into the voids left by the original towers. Eight pumps circulate 52,000 gallons of water every minute over their edges, which are covered in finger-like structures that cause the water flow in rivulets. Around the falls' run copper parapets listing the names of the 2,800 men, women, and children killed.

The Museum

How Reflecting Absence Became America's Most Expensive Public MemorialS

Under the plaza—directly under the South waterfall, in fact—resides the memorial museum. The museum presents a series of narratives about the attacks and encourages "personal encounters within an overall context of a historical narrative" through numerous artifacts and architectural exhibits, including the original WTC's Survivor Stairs, damaged slurry wall, and compromised foundations. In addition, two steel tridents from the original Twin Towers will be on permanent display within the museum's glass atrium.

Never Forget

How Reflecting Absence Became America's Most Expensive Public MemorialS

The Memorial Plaza will open today, September 11th in a private ceremony for the victims families as part of the 10-year commemoration of the attacks. It will open to the public Monday, September 12th.

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