Interview with Architect Michael Arad, Designer of World Trade Center Memorial

What I wanted to do was to be very clear about the absence that was suffered that day
September 11, 2017 Last Updated: September 13, 2017

In 2011, prior to the public opening of the World Trade Center Memorial, memorial designer Michael Arad shared about his inspiration and intentions for the project. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on those thoughts once again.

There is not going to be a single way in which people respond to the memorial. What I wanted to do was to be very clear about the absence that was suffered that day and its persistence. The time does not erase and heal all wounds, but changes how we feel about them.

This is the site of a wound. This is a scar, this is a scar that we don’t hide, but it’s not a scar we flaunt and celebrate either. It’s is a scar that’s just there. It’s part of our day-to-day life; and will be part of our day-to-day life moving forward.

World Trade Center Memorial designer Michael Arad (L) attends the start of construction for the Memorial and Museum, 17 August, 2006, at ground zero in New York. The memorial will honor the victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks. (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
World Trade Center Memorial designer Michael Arad (L) attends the start of construction for the Memorial and Museum, Aug. 17, 2006, at ground zero in New York. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

And it brings the loss of that day into every day, not in a way that incapacitates us, but in a way that we say, this is part of who we are and how we move forward.

I actually started to think about a memorial a few months after the attack. And I had this very inexplicable vision, this idea in my head of the surface of a river torn open, and these two square holes forming at the surface of the river; and water spilling in these voids.

And it really didn’t make any sense to me. Water doesn’t behave that way. But I was very intrigued by this idea. And I spent several months exploring this, sketching it, building models. Eventually, I built a small fountain that captured the sense of the surface of the water torn open by these two voids, and water spilling into these square voids; and these voids never fill up, always remain empty, despite the passage of time, despite the water flowing into it.

And I built this little model. And I photographed it on the roof of my apartment building, with the skylines of the city, and the absence of towers in the skyline being reflected in these two voids in the surface of the river.

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: This artist's rendering shows "Reflecting Absence: A Memorial at the World Trade Center Site" by Michael Arad, one of the eight finalists for a World Trade Center memorial released November 19, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Lower Manhattan Development Corp. via Getty Images)
An artist’s rendering of Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence: A Memorial at the World Trade Center Site,” Nov. 19, 2003 in New York City. (Lower Manhattan Development Corp. via Getty Images)

A year later, there was the competition for the design of the master plan. And I wanted to know if that idea could be investigated further, changed in some ways by bringing it here to the site, instead of being on the river, where you could never go in. Being right here, where the towers once stood.

So out of that came the idea of these two square voids, which are where the towers once stood. And when you walk around these voids, and encounter the names of the dead, you are doing it within the towers’ footprints. And you’re seeing the scale of the towers as well; and you are seeing the multitudes of names, which surround each void, the close to 1,500 names around each pool.

And I think that’s a moment of a very sad but powerful comprehension, of standing there, and understanding in a small way—because I don’t think a complete understanding can be had—but understanding in a small way the toll of what happened that day.

* * *

Places like Union Square and Washington Square, these public places are places that knit us together as a society. They are not just places that only bring us physically together in one space. They brings us emotionally; they connect us with one another.

And they played such an important role in helping us heal after 9/11, and helping us come to an understanding of that day.

* * *

Robert Peraza, who lost his son Robert David Peraza, pauses at his son's name at the 9/11 Memorial during the 10th anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2011. (Justin Lane/AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Peraza, who lost his son Robert David Peraza, pauses at his son’s name at the National Sept. 11 Memorial during the 10th anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2011. (Justin Lane/AFP/Getty Images)

I want people to be able to have a moment of quiet contemplation, of thoughtful interaction, to let that inner dialog take place, that conversation we might have with ourselves that we often postpone, we don’t have, because we’re busy, because we’re running on to the next thing.

At a place like this, I think you can set aside the day-to-day life. You can forget the city for a moment in all of its noises and sites, and focus on the names which are in front of you. And focus on your relationship to the history of that day, and to the present, and what you might do about it.

Families line up against the wall of the South Memorial pool during tenth anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center September 11, 2011, in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Families line up against the wall of the South Memorial pool during tenth anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center September 11, 2011, in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

 

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 26: A family member of a victim of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing lays a rose at the 9/11 Memorial on February 26, 2016 in New York, NY. On the the 23rd Anniversary of the bombing, family members of the victims gathered to remember the 6 deaths and over 1,000 injuries that resulted from the 1993 bombing. (Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)
A family member of a victim of the World Trade Center bombing lays roses at the 9/11 Memorial on Feb. 26, 2016 in New York, NY. (Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)

 

A US flag at the memorial wall on the South Tower reflecting pool of the World Trade Center September 11, 2011 in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT / AFP / DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
The memorial wall on the South Tower reflecting pool of the World Trade Center September 11, 2011 in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

 

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: Architect Michael Arad, who designed the 9/11 Memorial, looks over the North Pool during ceremonies for the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2013 in New York City. The nation is commemorating the anniversary of the 2001 attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and one crash landed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Following the attacks in New York, the former location of the Twin Towers has been turned into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. (Photo by Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images)
Architect Michael Arad, who designed the 9/11 Memorial, looks over the North Pool during ceremonies for the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2013 in New York City. (Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images)

 

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: Carrie Bergonia of Pennsylvania looks over the name of her fiance, firefighter Joseph Ogren at the 9/11 Memorial during ceremonies for the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2013 in New York City. The nation is commemorating the anniversary of the 2001 attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and one crash landed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Following the attacks in New York, the former location of the Twin Towers has been turned into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. (Photo by Chris Pedota-Pool/Getty Images)
Carrie Bergonia of Pennsylvania looks over the name of her fiance, firefighter Joseph Ogren at the 9/11 Memorial during ceremonies for the 12th anniversary of the attacks at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2013 in New York City. (Chris Pedota-Pool/Getty Images)

 

The annual Tribute in Light memorial echoing the twin towers of the World Trade Center illuminates the night sky during the 10th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
The annual Tribute in Light memorial echoing the twin towers of the World Trade Center illuminates the night sky during the 10th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Original interview for NTD Television (Michael Arad begins speaking at 0:30)