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The 9/11 memorial, inspired by an impulse to preserve the terrible emptiness of the site as a reminder of the absence of the buildings, is due to open to the public on Monday. Mark Lennihan / AP
Mark Lennihan STF
The 9/11 memorial, inspired by an impulse to preserve the terrible emptiness of the site as a reminder of the absence of the buildings, is due to open to the public on Monday. Mark Lennihan / AP

Ground Zero's evolution into a meaningful shrine

The design of the 9/11 memorial is the product of a decade of debate. The result is immediately comprehensible as a place of remembrance and grieving.

New Yorkers used to the endless chorus of competing voices emerging from Ground Zero may have been surprised to begin hearing, a year or two ago, another sound echoing from the former site of the World Trade Center: the noise of construction. By last autumn, 1 World Trade Center - the former "Freedom Tower", set to rise a patriotically symbolic 1,776 feet - was rising above the fencing that has surrounded the site for the past decade. This summer, the still growing skyscraper has taken its place as the tallest building in downtown Manhattan and will soon overtake the Empire State Building as the tallest in New York City, and the entire United States.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is that the memorial commemorating the 2,983 dead of the 1993 and 2001 attacks will open to the public on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Next year, the 9/11 Memorial Museum will open as well. It's been a long time coming.

The public debate over how best to commemorate the destruction of the World Trade Center began while the remains of the Twin Towers were still smouldering. Some preferred an individualised memorial, such as the 168 empty chairs in Oklahoma City - one for each person killed in the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building by right-wing extremists in 1995. Some argued that the ideal memorial already existed, in the form of "The Sphere", the crushed, dented globe designed by Fritz Koenig that had once stood in the plaza between the two towers, and partially survived their collapse. Others preferred the "Tribute in Light", the twin spotlight beams tracing the outline of the missing towers that premiered in early 2002 and has been a perennial fixture of New York's September 11 commemorations since. And then there were some who wanted to leave the empty holes as a reminder of the terrible absence of the towers - an impulse that inspired the memorial design.

The desire to remember was almost instantaneously conjoined with other, at times conflicting, impulses: to prove American resiliency through architecture, to undo the "superblock" design of the original complex, to make a dollar.

Early discussions involved moving the New York Stock Exchange, or the Guggenheim Museum, to the site, or leaving part of the wreckage standing as a living memorial. Starchitect Daniel Libeskind was brought in to design a new World Trade Center complex, complete with a revitalised street grid and a dazzling "Freedom Tower", but was soon caught up in the internecine squabbling between the Port Authority, which owns the site, the property developer Larry Silverstein, who had controlled the World Trade Center lease, and the state and city governments. Everyone wanted to build something, but no one could agree on what. Would it be solely a memorial site, an architectural shrine, or a combined office complex and shopping mall? How about all of the above? Moreover, how does one build a memorial - or anything else - on what is essentially a mass gravesite?

The planned memorial itself was turned over to an international competition, judged by a panel that included Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. After sorting through more than 5,000 entries, the jurors selected "Reflecting Absence", a design by Michael Arad, a then unknown architect working for the New York City Housing Authority. The idea was to preserve the terrible emptiness of the site by using the footprints of the two towers as the framework for a memorial. Each footprint would be a reflecting pool surrounding a central void, draped on every side by waterfalls, each of which would be nine metres high, and 61 metres wide. The original plan called for ramps down to a lower level, where visitors would be able to read the names of the dead. The memorial was expected to open to the public on September 11 - of 2009.

The political warfare hardly ended with the selection of Arad. The architect squabbled with Libeskind, with landscape architect Peter Walker, with whom the jurors had partnered him, and the government officials doling out the money. The cost of building the memorial ballooned from $350 million (Dh1.28bn) to almost $700m. Everyone from former New York governor George Pataki to the Port Authority to family members of the victims had their say in the design, providing input on the benches, the lighting and other fine details of Arad's plan. The lower level was jettisoned, raising the memorial to street level.

In a public presentation in late June at The New York Times Building, Joseph C Daniels, the president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, documented some of the challenges particular to the memorial. Early in the process, Daniels and Arad decided they wanted the names of the dead to be arranged meaningfully, rather than merely in alphabetical order. The names were loosely organised in nine groupings, including by tower and by flight, with a separate section for first responders and the victims of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. They were then further grouped by company or unit.

Finally, the designers approached the families of the dead and solicited "adjacency requests", whereby victims' names could be placed next to family members with differing surnames, or colleagues they worked with, or those they died with. A sophisticated algorithm was employed to ensure that all the "adjacency requests" could be honoured without causing undue chaos to the groupings. The list of firefighters borders that of police officers so that the Vigiano brothers - John Jr and Joe - could be next to each other. Victor Wald, who died on the 55th floor of the south tower, will be next to Harry Ramos, who stayed to help him.

The names themselves will be inscribed in bronze around the perimeter of Arad's memorial. At night, they will be lit from within. The simplicity of the design will be both immediately comprehensible to the public as a place of remembrance, and an architectural reflection of Minoru Yamasaki's destroyed towers; as Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times observed, the memorial's form, like the absent Twin Towers, embodies "the crisp architecture of minimalism stretched to massive proportions". All the disputes and overruns do not come without a price; there is talk of charging a $25 (Dh92) admission fee to the museum in order to recoup some of the costs, though the memorial itself will be free in perpetuity. It will be opened to the families of the victims on September 11 and to the public the following day.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11, conjoined with the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, marks an endpoint of sorts to the eternal present tense of the attacks. The World Trade Center site is no longer Ground Zero, no longer a bleeding wound. Its temporariness - its silent testimony to horror - is now to be eclipsed by a permanent shrine to the dead. It is now a memorial site to be visited with tickets and cameras, a place of healing and remembrance. It is a place devoted to the memory of the past, not haunted by the present. It is, hopefully, the end of an era, and the beginning of something new.

Saul Austerlitz's work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.

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