Unplanned Gravity: Jersey City is the Site of 9/11’s Most Stirring Memorial
Within the decade that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was reported by NBC News that more than 700 memorials had been constructed and others were in process. The best known, of course, are those constructed at the very sites of the tragedy in New York; Arlington, Virginia; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But one memorial within sight of where the World Trade Center towers once stood may be the most powerful of all, because of a design feature that was totally unplanned.
The “Empty Sky” 9/11 Memorial is located in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey. The memorial site is directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan, where the Twin Towers were located. It was in this public park that on the morning of the attacks people gathered to watch the unfolding tragedy. It also became a place where loved ones searched for each other and waited for answers after the events—where people left notes, flowers, and objects memorializing those who had perished. Liberty State Park was also a base of operations for emergency responders on that tragic day. Thus, while this quotidian location was not the very site of the cataclysmic event, it is inextricably bound to it in space, time, and memory. Its “everydayness” as a public park was forever transformed by this historic occurrence.
“Empty Sky” was designed by architects Jessica Jamroz and Frederic Schwartz to frame an axial view of the World Trade Center site with two walls, each the length of one side the base of the Twin Towers. Each wall is 208 feet, ten-inches in length, thirty-feet tall, thirty-inches thick, clad in stainless steel. The walls are parallel to each other, separated by ten-feet—creating a veritable roofless “chamber.” Approaching the memorial from the west, with a view of lower Manhattan in the distance across the river, the narrow ends of the two walls first read as an abstract iconography of the Twin Towers. Jamroz says that the design intent was to “replace” the towers on the skyline, in response to the emptiness created by the attacks—both the physical emptiness of the skyline, and the spiritual and emotional emptiness of loss, which Jamroz described to me as a “gaping hole in the heart.”
“Empty Sky” is about memory, recalling not only the vanished physical presence of the towers but also the people who disappeared in the event. The names of 749 people from New Jersey killed in the attacks are embossed into the brushed stainless steel surface, in a band approximately thirty-six-inches high, which runs the length of the walls, approximately seven-feet above the ground. The brushed metal surface allows the visitor to see her reflection in the wall and in the names, forging a connection (or reconnection) between the contemporary observer and the lost soul. This communion of two beings across time and space is what gives the memorial its ability to “console” and “inspire hope,” to use Jamroz’s words, which was the designers’ primary design intent.
This “halo,” which can appear to be an otherworldly portal, is created by the reflection of sunlight low in the sky between the two stainless steel walls. This phenomenon was completely unanticipated in the design.
What was not intended in the design is the mystical transformation of this roofless chamber at certain times of day, depending on weather conditions. Jamroz notes that as construction of the memorial drew to a close, the sheets of plastic that had protected the inscribed stainless steel cladding were removed, allowing the reflective surfaces to finally be seen. On the day of the memorial’s dedication, September 10, 2011, Jamroz says that the late afternoon sun appeared from behind a cloud, and an otherworldly glow inhabited the chamber with the visitors. This “halo,” which can appear to be an otherworldly portal, is created by the reflection of sunlight low in the sky between the two stainless steel walls. This phenomenon was completely unanticipated in the design. The halo moves as one walks between the two walls, so the visitor cannot actually apprehend this luminous presence. As one walks toward it, the halo recedes from you, moving at the same pace. Jamroz describes the memorial as a “receptor,” a humanly constructed environment that allows memory, reflection, solace, healing, spirituality, and perhaps an ethereal aura to be experienced.
One of the first things an architecture student learns when presenting a design in studio—especially to an assembled panel of reviewers—is to always take credit for whatever wonderful triumphs are detected in the design by those appraising it, whether the student actually knew they were there or not. It’s a bit of a joke with your students—if a critic goes wild over a feature you had no idea was even in your design, nod wisely and be thankful. But in the case of this memorial, the designers were just as astonished as everyone else—and admitted so—when “Empty Sky” became transcendent.
Featured image of “Empty Shy” courtesy of Drew Gurian.