From Portraits to Puddles, 8: Reflecting Absence (the WTC Memorial)

NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the eighth (and last) in a series of posts in which I point out the lessons we can learn from half a dozen memorials in Battery Park. Click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud to see all the posts. The illustrations are from the video, available here. The complete series is also available in print and as a Kindle book: details in this post.

Review of lessons learned

What have we learned about memorials?

Lesson 1: a memorial doesn’t have to give full details, like a history book. The point of a memorial is to remind, not to teach.

Lesson 2: sculptures that aren’t portraits, such as an unidentified sailor or an allegorical figure, can also serve as effective memorials.

Lesson 3: A memorial that doesn’t show a specific individual can nevertheless remind us of the sort of people who are being remembered.

Lesson 4: The addition of a recognizable figure – even if it’s a bird or animal rather than a human – makes a memorial appeal to a much wider audience than a list of names alone.

Lesson 5: A memorial that requires abstruse knowledge – here, the fact that the sun shines through the head on Armistice Day – will leave most viewers unmoved.

Lesson 6: Memorials that are very depressing or gruesome may drive people away.

Lesson 7: Lists of proper names don’t have a strong impact except for those who knew the people named.

If you remember nothing else from this essay, remember this: Representational sculpture has the ability to communicate ideas and values across space and time in a way that landscape architecture and proper names cannot. That’s why representational art evokes much stronger emotions than a list of names, or a group of trees, or a trickling stream, or a pool or puddle. (For more on how art performs this function, see Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love.)

Reflecting Absence

Now let’s apply these lessons to the World Trade Center Memorial.

Reflecting Absence, the winning entry for the World Trade Center memorial, is another descendant of Maya Lin’s Wall (the Vietnam War Memorial). It’s landscape architecture: a list of names set among trees and reflecting pools. By itself, its “voice” is as weak as the East Coast Memorial would be without the eagle.

The bane of blandness is unfortunately not an issue only for New York’s World Trade Center memorial. Across the country, memorials are now routinely created that have no figurative elements: only lists of names set in landscape architecture (trees, grass, benches, reflecting pools). The 9/11 memorials from Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania are this sort.

Here’s the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. According to Wikipedia, the elements are the Gates of Time, Reflecting Pool, Field of Empty Chairs, Survivors’ Wall, and Survivors’ Tree.

But what if …

Judging from the age of sculptures in Battery Park and elsewhere in Manhattan, the World Trade Center memorial will be with us for at least a century. Having a memorable memorial is worth an effort. After all, how often do you have the chance to influence what your great-grandchildren will see?

We can’t make Reflecting Absence go away, but we could easily add something to the site with wider appeal. Personally, I’d love to see two representational monuments at the World Trade Center, honoring the two distinct types of people who were at the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The first monument would be to the rescue workers who ran to the site while everyone else did their best to flee. The message of this monument would be recognition of the rescue workers’ heroism and courage in the face of a horrific event. The Firemen’s Memorial on Riverside Drive, eight miles north of Battery Park, offers a very similar message: these men were brave, they died, we miss them, and we will not forget them.

The second monument would be to those who did business at the World Trade Center. They were heroes of another sort, and the memorial to them would be a celebration of productive work. Work is, after all, why they were there, and it’s far from mundane. As Ayn Rand put it:

Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values. – Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness

Creativity, ambition, and the ability to create wealth are what the terrorists were attacking on 9/11. That’s why the World Trade Center was their target in New York. Creativity, ambition and the production of wealth are what we’re endorsing and celebrating by rebuilding on the World Trade Center site. A memorial to those who died there because they worked there would reflect that.

In short: the memorials at the World Trade Center should commemorate how the rescue workers and the people who worked there lived, rather than how they died.

I have no figures in mind to represent courage or productivity, but I would love to see what a top-notch representational artist could come up with. Wouldn’t you?

If you want something as evocative as Ericsson or the East Coast Memorial or the Firemen’s Memorial at the World Trade Center – something more than pools, trees, and lists of victims – it’s still possible.  Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers was added to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington several years after Lin’s Wall was dedicated. Contact information for some of the relevant officials in below.

Do something. Your great-grandchildren will thank you.

Contact information for assorted local officials


  • The series of essays “From Portraits to Puddles” is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format. The parts of the essay are on this site as a series of blog posts: click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud at right to find them.
  • This essay was provoked in 2003 by the competition for the World Trade Center memorial. I originally gave it as a walking tour of sculptures in Battery Park and the southern end of Manhattan. Since 2012, it’s been available as a Kindle book: From Portraits to Puddles: New York Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center Memorial (Reflecting Absence). The end of the book has an illustrated, annotated list of 30 memorials in Manhattan dedicated to people whose job is to keep us safe: soldiers, policemen, firemen, and so on. If you want to see other memorials that are both effective and memorable, it’s a great place to start.
  • This blog post is available as a video to my Patreon subscribers. (Thank you!)
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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