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II: 9/11 Memory, ex situ

Trauma after 9/11: holocaust memorial lessons

In anticipation of the National September 11 Memorial’s public dedication in the fall of 2011, Associate Press reporter David B. Caruso detailed architectural progress at the New World Trade Center site earlier that spring. The symbolic reopening of the Memorial Plaza on the tenth anniversary of the attacks would mark the site’s reintegration into the city’s fabric, enabling the public to “close one chapter marked by mourning” (Caruso 2011). Describing developments inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum, then still under construction, Caruso (2011) likened the Museum’s exposed slurry wall to the Western Wall: “The 60-foot-high slurry wall of reinforced concrete on the western edge of the site, meant to hold back the Hudson River, bears similarities in size and appearance to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.”1 The World Trade Center slurry wall (Figure 3.1) is a pre-existing architectural structure credited with withholding the force of the Hudson River from flooding Lower Manhattan, despite having been structurally compromised during the attacks. The wall’s endurance has become a kind of “9/11-folklore,” a metaphor for the enduring American spirit and its ability to prevail amidst unspeakable violence and destruction.

The slurry wall’s symbolic significance led master plan architect Daniel Libeskind to make its preservation and exposure a central part of the redevelopment at the New World Trade Center site. On display inside the Museum’s Foundation Hall, the architectural remnant speaks to the violence of the attacks as a nonhuman “survivor” and witness—an indelible scar on the landscape, reminding visitors of where they are. But Caruso’s aesthetic comparison of the slurry wall to the Western Wall also emplaces the object within the geographical imagination of the Middle East, indirectly connecting the World Trade memorial complex to an ancient archeological site central to Jewish cultural and religious identity, amongst other religions (e.g., Wailing Wall/ Temple Mount, or Buraq Wall/ Haram al-Sharif). Which begs an important question: what enabled the reporter’s geographical imagination to connect these disparate places and mnemonic spaces?

NS11MM Slurry wall. Image courtesy of the Author (taken June 2019)

Figure 3.1 NS11MM Slurry wall. Image courtesy of the Author (taken June 2019).

The 9/11 Memorial Museum’s slurry wall represents the unrepresentable at Ground Zero: the trauma of the attack itself. The object is foundational to the construction of 9/11 memory at the site, and its exposure and presentation to the visiting public is deeply connected to the architectural tradition of deconstructivism. In The Stages of Memory (2016), Holocaust memorial scholar and 9/11 memorial juror James E. Young reflects on this distinctly postmodern architectural movement, deconstructivism, as an aesthetic movement foundational to memorializing difficult histories following World War II. In the post-war period, “artists and architects preoccupied with absence and irredeemable loss, a broken and irreparable word, struggled to find an architectural vernacular that might express such breaches in civilization without mending them” (Young 2016, 81). Their search for an appropriate mode of expression gave rise to deconstructivism, whose proponents have described it as better suited to capturing the postmodern, post-humanist, post-Holocaust world of late modernity than earlier aesthetic modes. This architectural genre and form symbolized a rupture in modernist aesthetics, abandoning traditional lines, spatial stability, and compositional order, embracing instead distortion, unpredictably, fragmentation, and negative space. The development of deconstructivism in late modernity enabled the creation of particularly postmodern building types: the Holocaust memorial and its corresponding museum.

The emergence of the Holocaust memorial illustrates a particular culmination in postmodern memorial architecture and commemorative practice. These memorials:

tend to feature voids, descend into the ground, and have a minimal amount of ornamentation. They are largely abstract, and unlike most war monuments, which evoke a sense of triumph or redemption, Holocaust memorials usually evoke a strong sense of loss. (Herschthal 2011)

Aestheticizing traumatic absence, contemporary Holocaust memorials solicit visitor empathy to facilitate public remembrance from the inside out: I feel, therefore I know. Their museological counterparts, on the other hand, have “an especially strong pedagogic mission” to aid collective remembrance from the outside in: I know, because I feel. They motivate visitors “by moral considerations” and draw “ties to issues in contemporary society in a way that is uncommon in standard museum presentations of history” (Williams 2007, 21). In this later mnemonic development. Holocaust museums themselves are vital to the atmospheric construction of historical “authenticity and evidence” of mass atrocity (Williams 2007, 21), where museum sites are skillfully constructed to facilitate “emotionally invested narratives of the past” in hopes of influencing political subjectivities in the present (Arnold-de Simine 2013, 19). Transforming architectural sites and everyday objects into dingpolitik, “things” able to “speak for themselves” (see Latour 2005), these postmodern commemorative practices have embraced embodied, more-than-representational ways of learning.

In her analysis of the Pinkas Synagogue in the Czech Republic, Bentley (2020) details the necessary emergence of affective heritage in the wake of Holocaust commemoration. Pinkas, like many Holocaust memorial sites, is saturated with names of the Shoah—of nearly 80,000 victims of the Nazi regime at this one particular heritage site. Naming can lead to further dehumanization, however, as victims become statistical nomenclature, numerically abstracted from the material lives and bodies they seek to rehumanize (Bentley 2020). To contend this secondary dehumanization, commemorative aesthetics shifted from representational to more-than-representational modes, evoking feelings of loss rather than simply stating loss unto itself. At Pinkas, the spatiality of the names has become more meaningful than the names themselves as they have been etched directly into the walls of the synagogue, thereby transforming the building’s interior into “fleshy wounds.” Here, the names envelop visitors in their sheer volume, performing the scale of mass murder in a way in which the presence of the scars is viscerally felt (Bentley 2020). Naming thus gains its significance, at Pinkas, through its cumulative capacity to represent what cannot be represented: Jewish cultural trauma.

The emerging architectures of Holocaust memory are ruptures within Western approaches to cultural commemoration. No matter how much they try to represent the loss, they cannot; nor can they find aesthetic redemption in any meaningful way. It should be no surprise that when the memorial design plans for Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence were revealed, reporters and architectural critics likened the twin voids to Holocaust memorials (see Herschthal 2011; Gopnik 2014). A reporter made the connection explicit when addressing 9/11 memorial juror James E. Young at a press conference:

Knowing that you have written much about Holocaust negative-form monuments in Germany and that you were also on the jury that chose Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin Denkmal (for Europe’s Murdered Jews), it seems that you’ve basically chosen just another Holocaust memorial. Is this true? (Young 2016, 326)

Aestheticizing traumatic voids, the World Trade memorial complex is shaped by Holocaust memory in profound ways. The commemorative architecture at the revitalized World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan features breathtaking designs by several prominent Jewish architects, namely Daniel Libeskind (World Trade Center master planner) and Michael Arad (memorial pools), and Santiago Calatrava (World Trade Center Transportation Hub, Figure 3.2), who is of Jewish heritage on his mother’s side. Even Craig Dykers’s National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion (Figure 3.3) resembles the postmodern design of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.

World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Image courtesy of the Author (taken April 2016)

Figure 3.2 World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Image courtesy of the Author (taken April 2016).

National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion. Image courtesy of the Author (taken April 2015)

Figure 3.3 National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion. Image courtesy of the Author (taken April 2015).

With motifs of sharp, jagged sight lines, contortion, omission, and discontinuity, the essence of the New World Trade Center embodies the post-Holocaust memorial aesthetic of traumatic loss (see Her-schthal 2011). While Young claims that he “see[s] no direct references to Jewish catastrophe in these designs for the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan,” he nonetheless admits that “the forms of postwar architecture have surely been influenced by an entire generation’s knowledge of the Holocaust.”

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