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Light Touch
184 illuminated benches in a maple grove will memorialize the Pentagon’s September 11 deaths.
By Allen Freeman

From 1,126 submissions ranging from heartfelt kitchen-table designs to the sophisticated and technically complex, a jury has selected a plan serenely evoking the 184 lives ended at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, while also implying the means by which these people met their common fate. If skillfully rendered, the Pentagon Memorial will suggest strips of the earth’s surface peeled up to form 184 elongated benches, one for each victim in the crash of American Airlines Flight 77. The individually lighted, cast-aluminum seats, cantilevered over small pools of reflective water and sheltered under a canopy of maples, will line up in parallel rows that will inscribe on the ground the airliner’s ferocious approach.

Image Courtesy Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman

The open competition echoed the one for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington two decades ago when Maya Ying Lin’s scheme of a pair of black walls captivated a jury made up entirely of design professionals and, when announced, infuriated military hawks, the political right, and art literalists. Opponents back then were mollified only after the memorial was embraced by veterans and supplemented with a superrealistic sculpture of three soldiers.

In contrast, this jury panel consisted of not only design and art professionals, including two eminent landscape architects, but also representatives from the military and victims’ families. Feared jury intransigence did not arise, perhaps out of respect for the survivors on the panel but also, by several jurors’ accounts, because of careful groundwork laid down by the competition’s manager, landscape architect Carol Anderson-Austra of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the end, the most promising outcome of the Pentagon Memorial competition turned out to be that jurors with diverse points of view achieved amicable unanimity on a strong design.

Jim Laychak, a juror who lost his brother David in the crash, is confident of the choice. There will be people who don’t like the memorial, he says, but he will defend the selection and the process. Jury chairman Terence Riley, chief curator of design and architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, says that the 11 jurors shared a strong desire for consensus: “By the time of the second to last vote, 80 percent of the jury had already voted for the winning scheme. With just a little more discussion, it wasn’t difficult to reach a unanimous decision.”

Not that all problems have been resolved. The site, selected by victims’ families from 10 the Pentagon offered, is located across the Potomac and way off the tourist maps of Washington’s monumental core. An isolated scarp of land of just under two acres, its nearest edge to the Pentagon is 165 feet away from the rebuilt southwest facade. On the other sides of the memorial, the immediate environment will be a spaghetti plate of freeways, embankments, overpasses, and access roads. Moreover, the Pentagon, citing security concerns, has closed the nearest parking lot to the general public. If that condition holds and no adjacent parking places are developed, visitors—including people with disabilities—will have to arrive at the Pentagon Metro station, a quarter-mile hike around the huge building, or park in a distant lot and walk through a tunnel under I-395.

The design is by Julie Beckman, 30, and Keith Kaseman, 31, friends since they met at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. Last year, while working in separate New York City-area firms, they moonlighted on their submission. “Light Benches” emerged in two judging stages. The first stage, which yielded six finalists in three days last fall, required the 11 jurors to wade through 1,126 entries represented by 30-by-40-inch boards set up in eight rooms and galleries of the National Building Museum in downtown Washington. “I was amazed how quickly we were able to get down to about 130 quality designs by the middle of the first afternoon,” Laychak recalls.

Another juror, Karen Van Lengen, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, says the fact that the memorial program was uncomplicated made possible a fairly quick analysis of the boards. “Having that many entries, you worry that you might miss one,” she says. “But having a lot of jurors made me feel a little more comfortable with the initial selections.”

Juror Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, a public artist and Yale faculty member, says that elimination of inappropriate designs was not difficult, and juror Roger Martin, FASLA, of the University of Minnesota and one of two landscape architects on the jury, agrees. “It wasn’t to be a traditional memorial,” he says. “Being on the very site where people died and right next to the Pentagon began to eliminate some of the ideas fairly quickly.” Concern for the feelings of the victims’ family members, for instance, precluded such notions as literal depictions of airplanes. Instead, he says, he was “searching for ideas with a sense of this place, appropriate to this event, ideas with a sense of arrival.”

Two former defense secretaries, Melvin R. Laird and Harold Brown, were jurors who “at first tended to want appreciation of the military in some dimension,” Martin says. “But like everyone else on the jury, they were open-minded as the jury moved toward more abstract designs.” It seems to have been understood that even subtle identification with the military would have unduly stigmatized the memorial. As Riley explains, “If you think about it, the site is Pentagon property, but nearly a third of the victims had nothing to do with the Pentagon; they were on the airplane. It was necessary to recognize that this would be a more complex monument than say, Vietnam, where those who died were soldiers.”

On the other hand, the two jurors who lost members of their families in the crash, Laychak and Wendy Chamberlain, had “an impulse toward a place of healing and reverie,” Levrant de Bretteville says. They also represented a larger Pentagon survivors’ group, the Victims Family Steering Committee, in advocating markers for each of the 184 victims. Riley puts that proclivity into historical perspective, noting that enlisted men killed in the First World War frequently were buried under a common marker, more often than not as unknown soldiers or at least as comrades. The American cemetery at Normandy features dog tags as grave identifiers, and representation of individuals continued at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where the walls are inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 war dead. More recently, those who died in the 1995 terrorist attack on Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building are represented by 168 empty chairs.

At the end of the first day, the jurors had eliminated all but 45 designs from the original 1,126. On the third day, they narrowed the field to six, two of which were by individuals, Shane Williamson and Michael Meredith, both assistant professors of architecture at the University of Toronto—a coincidence. Three teams had two members: Beckman and Kaseman (architecture graduates), Jean Koeppel (a designer) and Tom Kowalski (a licensed architect), and Mason Wickham and Edwin Zawadzki (both graduates in architecture). All six are from New York City—another coincidence. Members of the sixth team, Jacky Bowring, Peter England, Richard Weller, and Vladimir Sitta (all landscape architects), are from New Zealand and Australia.

In late October, the designers of the six finalist plans traveled to Washington to walk the memorial’s site, hear security requirements from Pentagon officials, meet with competition advisors, and present their schemes to representatives of the family survivors and listen to their reactions. (Bowring traveled from Canterbury, New Zealand, as the sole representative of her team.) As the memorial’s implied clients, the survivors provided emotionally charged advice to the designers, all of whom were responsive, Laychak says.

Beckman and Kaseman, the eventual winners, for instance, took advice from the group and for their second stage submittal reversed the order of the 184 memorials so that the benches nearest the entrance represent the five children who died aboard the airliner. The reordering places fewer benches near the memorial entrance, allowing visitors to absorb the park’s parti more quickly. “It came through to us that we should let it be known that there were five children, and that would draw people through the park,” Kaseman says. All the designers left Washington with $20,000 to refine their schemes and construct models. That ended stage one of the competition.

Independent of the competition and bearing no influence on its outcome, the web site of a trade publication for military personnel, MilitaryCity.com, posted the entry boards of the final six and invited visitors to vote in a straw poll. The design that was perhaps the most innovative and technically challenging received well over twice the votes (2,440) of any other design. Inspired by plaintive messages written in the dust of the collapsed World Trade Center, New Yorkers Jean Koeppel and Tom Kowalski proposed 184 glass boxes, surrounded by a rectangular pool, on which visitors would write inscriptions in moisture condensation. Light Benches, with 817 votes, was the third most popular.

The jurors returned to Washington in February to select one of the six. The final stage wasn’t just about design but also about implementation, maintenance, long-term durability, and what the memorial would actually look like to visitors, Riley says. Each juror commented about the positive and negative aspects of each design and whether it had been improved. Martin says, “The glass-panels proposal was somewhat controversial because of the technical and maintenance issues. If you look forward 50 years, is the [misting] system still going to work?”

Light Benches slowly emerged as the front-runner. Van Lengen took as her assignment the defense and critique of Beckman and Kaseman’s design. And she read to the jurors the comments by Pentagon workers invited to respond to each of the six designs. “In the end,” she says, “the reason I really favored the scheme that won is that it operates at different scales—close up with benches representing each victim, as a field, which is how the people in the Pentagon will view it, and at nighttime. If it really gets lighted in the way that is intended, you will be able to make out [the symbolism in the design] while driving by in your car.” Or possibly even from the air on the Potomac River approach to Reagan National Airport.

Artist Levrant de Bretteville puts it this way: “Because the lights are part of each of the markers, the air will pick up the light, which will waft up and live in the trees. That is evocative of a sense of life being there. But in fact, this is where people died. There’s a sense of vulnerability that the representation of the flight pattern conveys. I think that is important.”

A press conference to announce the winning design was held March 3 in a briefing room at the Pentagon. Its blue curtain has since grown familiar during televised briefings on the war in Iraq. Riley stressed the jury unanimity and introduced the soft-spoken winners, Kaseman and Beckman. They wanted to create a quiet place for family members, friends, and colleagues of those who lost their lives, Beckman said, “a place where two people can grieve or a thousand people can grieve.”

Asked if they drew influence from other public memorials, Kaseman said yes, but that one of their challenges was to come up with a space like no other in anyone’s experience. Speaking about what visitors can infer from the design itself, he offered that some information about the intent of the designers and the meaning of the memorial will be implied by the clear, simple layout of markers placed on the ground in an obviously studied pattern. “You’ll know that a story is being told,” he said, “but you might not know what the story is.” He spoke with eloquence about the integrity of the benches deriving from “the structural shape required to allow for such a slender yet rigid cantilever.” The light under the benches, he said, would shine through the pool underneath each bench and bounce around on the ground.

Later, Riley praised the process that led to this selection: “I don’t think you could have foreseen six schemes as different and as imaginative. At the end of the first stage, all six designs had a lot of input from the families. But if you had said to the family members in the beginning, ‘We want to do benches. Let’s talk about that.’ You can imagine the reaction: ‘I don’t want benches,’ and so forth. You have to give a designer space.”

Refinement of Light Benches has begun. Problems yet to be solved include issues of maintenance, sanitation, and insect control for 184 small reflecting pools. Beckman, who planned to begin working full-time on the project on May 1, insists that she and Kaseman remain steadfast in finding a way to keep the pools in the built design. A Pentagon spokesman says the memorial’s construction contract is to be awarded on May 16 and that groundbreaking will follow 30 days later. Dedication is scheduled for September 2004, three years to the day after the momentous events of September 11.


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