When I arrived at the entrance to the Pentagon Memorial on the evening of September 11—the day it opened to the public—my first view in the parking lot was of a man in motorcycle-club garb holding forth to a crowd. “The people who are remembered here were heroes,” he was saying. “They didn’t know it, but they were heroes.”
He was wrong, of course. The Americans who brought down that plane over Pennsylvania that September day—those were heroes. But the poor souls in the Pentagon? They were much like you and me—sitting at their desks toiling away at dry office tasks—when fire and steel struck them, literally out of the blue.
So it was a kind of relief to discover that the memorial itself doesn’t make the same mistake as the man in motorcycle garb. Nothing about it tries to pretend that those who died here were anything other than what they were. Husbands and wives. Parents, brothers, and sisters. Lovers and friends. Americans.
The memorial’s mood is somber, elegiac. It inspires you to reflect on the lives lost here without telling you what to think about them. The core of the design is 184 benches, one for each person killed, lined up in parallel rows that reminded me of flight paths. The design of the steel and granite benches is, to my eye, an elegant fusion of a jet aircraft in flight and a gravestone laid flat—so that the overall effect is of a cemetery where grave markers cruise at just above ground level.
Commentators are beginning to react to the memorial. Cathleen Falsani, the religion editor of the Chicago Tribune, who has visited shrines and temples here and abroad, was impressed. She wrote that the memorial is “a transcendent sanctuary” that “grabs hold of my soul and shakes it like no other house of the holy has.”
I can’t honestly say I felt that way. The memorial is admirable in its restraint and extremely elegant in its design. But soul shaking?
For one thing, the Pentagon context is a disincentive to feel anything very soulful. True, this is the very spot where the dark and terrible event took place, so any memorial built here is, or should be, very powerful. Yet this is one of the most sterile contexts that could possibly be imagined, ringed by high-speed urban streets, seas of parking, an interstate highway, and the utterly banal facade of the Pentagon itself. Designers like to believe that a beautiful design can rise above the most vacuous context. After visiting the Pentagon Memorial, I have to ask: Can even the most elegant design succeed in a place that’s no place at all?
Beyond that, I have become increasingly skeptical about the capacity of the rigidly formal, highly finished memorial to inspire profound feeling. The sorrow and gratitude I felt when I visited a very different 9/11 memorial—the temporary one at the crash site in Pennsylvania—was triggered by the outdoor display of small, humble tributes that many Americans had brought to the site and by hearing a moving spoken tribute by a woman who witnessed the crash. Sometimes the most ephemeral memorials touch us the most profoundly. Can the rigid elegance of the Pentagon Memorial really grab hold of our souls and shake them?
J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
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