Flight 93 Memorial: A Critique
Since the winning entry in the Flight 93 Memorial was announced last week, there has been a firestorm of protest centering on the major feature of the memorial, the so-called "Crescent of Embrace." by Paul Murdoch. In his defense, Mr. Murdoch, and those who support the design have claimed that they are “misunderstood.”
"It's a disappointment there is a misinterpretation and a simplistic distortion of this, but if that is a public concern, then that is something we will look to resolve in a way that keeps the essential qualities," Murdoch told The Associated Press.
Hamilton Peterson, president of the Families of Flight 93, also considers this just a misunderstanding:
"We're very sensitive to everyone's concerns, even if the concerns are born of misunderstanding," said Hamilton Peterson, whose father and stepmother were killed when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanskville on Sept. 11, 2001.
If you are struck by the arrogance of Mr. Murdoch’s tone, rest assured, at least you aren’t misunderstanding that. It is clear from the title of the design that Paul Murdoch intended his "allée" of red maples to dominate the memorial and this is by far the biggest (and should be fatal) flaw of this design. It is difficult to comprehend the mentality of someone who would make the symbol of the murderer the grave marker of the victim. It is symbolic; by his own description, it is an "embrace," a "healing hug" so to speak. The problem is that while you may be able to convince a relatively small committee of grieving relatives, local townsfolk and some judges that you are redefining an ancient symbol by putting it in a "different context," more objective observers, some of them fairly intelligent, will have a different take.
Mr. Murdoch's protests to the contrary, it his intention is to call to mind Islam. First, a crescent doesn't symbolize an embrace, a circle does. An embrace enfolds and encloses to protect and to comfort. The crescent in this design, looks like it is going to devour the crash site, or is a sickle ready to mow down the victims perennially. The fact that the design calls for it to turn red every September 11 is another interesting choice. The most benign interpretation of this is that red would look pretty. So would gold and orange, but red has real significance. It means blood and war: this is ancient symbolism. A more contemporary meaning of the Red Crescent is of course, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross Society. Again, this is not an arcane interpretation or a “simplistic distortion.”
One of the justifications that has been put forth about the use of the crescent shape is that it follows the topography of the land itself, and thus is semi-dictated by the natural environment. At first glance, the impression is that the "Crescent" follows a ridgeline that overlooks the “Bowl” where the crash site is located. The crash site and debris field (the “Sacred Ground”), however, are not located at the lowest point of the “Bowl” (really, the original strip mine pit), so as the crescent is circumscribed around this focal point, it descends from the northernmost high point and crosses some wetlands that mark the low elevation. The crescent will be created deliberately by building a berm on a gentle downward slope. Its function is to give a long multidirectional view and approach to the site itself, in which case it doesn't have to be a crescent at all. The deliberateness of the crescent is all the more obvious.
Indirectly, the absence of all other symbols of religions or nationalities belies the notion of "healing" or reconciliation of victim and perpetrator (the word healing comes up frequently in the description of the design: this is supposedly a primary goal). This absence denies the context in which most of the victims and there families would define the sacred. One is at a loss to explain why the families of the victims didn't require some symbolism of the faiths that inform their views of death and life and make them meaningful. This is the final resting place of their loved ones, after all. If we were to hazard a guess, it would be to say that everyone has been made terribly nervous about putting religious symbols on public property out of fear of litigation by crazed atheists. So there are no crosses, no Stars of David, no other symbols of peace, religious or otherwise, and no American flags. This last is the most obvious indication of the designers’ worldview. More than any other, the American flag is the bellwether of the cultural divide. For one side, it is the ultimate symbol of our freedom; for the other, it is the symbol of our self-centeredness and the immorality of our culture. The lopsidedness of the symbolism here goes far beyond multicultural pandering, which would be offensive in any case. The aerial view of the site says it all: "We are offering a human and cultural sacrifice to the gaping maw of radical Islam."
There are other difficulties with this design that point to lack of critical views and expertise on the part of the judging panel, which is distressing. The hardscape (the buildings and walls) of the design is quite striking, though minimalist, and calls to mind the velocity of the doomed plane on its trajectory toward the corner of this rural field. The use of lighting, frosted glass and translucent marble will be visually pleasing. One aspect of the hardscape that has come under harsh criticism is the “Tower of Voices” at the entrance of the park. In the outcry about the crescent, the minaret comparison was bound to come up as people began to look for other signs of rampant Islamophilia. A more objective take is that it is simply creepy. Forty chimes clanging as the breezes waft through sounds ghostly, which is undoubtedly intentional but not appropriate to this context. Furthermore, the name and purpose call to mind the Towers of Silence in India. Followers of Zoroastrianism customarily dispose of their dead by placing them inside large elevated towers for the vultures to consume. It goes without saying that this is a grotesque image, and while probably unintended, is sadly consistent with sensitivity displayed to this point by the design team.
As a point of detail, the chimes are one of the few things left to Nature’s control in this design. It would have been more Western, indeed more American, to have a bell tower instead, but this would undoubtedly be deemed too reminiscent of say, Christian churches and that other Pennsylvanian icon, the Liberty Bell.
The other half of the design, the landscape, is mediocre on its face, sloppy and fraudulent. The first indication of a shoddy design job is to be found in the slide show of the project on the Flight 93 Design Competition website. Thumbnail photographs of various plants adorn the side of each slide as a visual aid. They are labeled with their common and scientific names. In at least two cases, the scientific names are spelled incorrectly. This may seem an arcane criticism to the average person, but in the world of landscape architecture, and architecture generally, precision is everything. By attempting to look very thorough, they begin to reveal a certain carelessness.
The designers use the color of the trees and flowers at certain times of the year to deepen the meaning of the overall plan, even going so far as to show renderings of the site by season. This conscious choice is legitimate. It is meant to achieve a certain effect, sometimes referred to in literature as the pathetic fallacy, in which nature seems to echo human feelings ("It was raining as he left the hospital where his best friend had just died.") There apparently was no one knowledgeable enough about landscaping and plants to vet the plant choices and the claims that were made to convey the depth of this design. The worst by far was the assertion that the “allée” of maples would be bright red on September 11. This is patently not true. As of this writing (September 18) the forests in the most northerly part of Pennsylvania have just begun to change color and will reach their peak in about three weeks. This is true every year. Since this is the most obvious error and a big one, as it involves the principle design element, it begs the question: was there no one on the judging panel who was scrupulous enough to check? Anyone who simply knew? Representatives from the National Park Service were on the panel: they could have checked this information on their own website. It boggles the mind. At a minimum, the landscape architects partnering with Paul Murdoch should be fired. Presumably these were the “experts” and there was no one around to check their work. There were other dubious claims: red, white and blue flowers in the meadow, again, timed to bloom. Some of the wording is appropriate (“will be in bloom on July 4th,” or “blooms all summer”) but then there is the thumbnail of Rudbeckia hirta: “blooms on September 11.” Gratuitously, they include a bulb called "Resurrection Lily," a name that surely tugged the heartstrings of the judging committee. The only problem: this bulb, Lycoris, won't last one season in a meadow environment. It can't compete with the vigorous grasses, goldenrods and composites that will ultimately dominate the meadow. At this point, all of the landscape choices should be put under a microscope. That there was no one around to catch the errors, large and small, reveals an astonishing lack of expertise and quality control in the judging process.
As to the landscape design itself, it relies rather monotonously on two different trees: white pine (Pinus strobus) and red maple, for which they use two different species (Acer saccharum and Acer rubrum). The pines are used at the entrance and are planted in resonating rings around the “Tower of Voices,” a tall structure housing wind chimes. This concept looks fascinating from the air, to some, but will be completely lost on the ground. This tree in a mixed forest environment is called “super-dominant,” it juts above everything else, so a large stand of these will be very imposing, and in fact will completely obscure the 93' tower when they are fully mature.
The use of the term red maple to refer interchangeably for two different species is also misleading. The designers give no indication where they will use each or even that they will not commingle them. This is very strange. The two trees have slightly different growth habits, are different sizes and turn different colors in the fall. Calling them both “Red Maples” indicates to the reader that the designer is looking for uniformity, yet they are not similar enough for that. If the designer is looking to break up the monotony, they aren’t dissimilar enough for that purpose. Again, a knowledgeable critic of this design would be left with serious questions about the intent and the competence of the designer. As a matter of personal taste, the maple does not seem to be majestic enough for the intent or scale of this project to merit such prominent use. A much better choice would be the American elm, which, at maturity, is a graceful vase shape and is monumental in size. It is also an appropriate sentimental choice. Earlier in the last century, the native population of American elms was almost completely wiped out by Dutch elm disease. The elms that lined Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. were saved by the heroic efforts of the scientists at the National Forestry Service and the National Arboretum. Since then, the National Arboretum has developed a disease resistant cultivar, “Valley Forge.” It seems very fitting that the nation’s capital, which was spared attack thanks to the heroism of those here memorialized, should give the scions of these magnificent trees to this spot. To some, this symbolism would even redeem the loathsome crescent.
The reliance on only two types of tree for the principal design also seems to be at odds with one of the goals of the design “to preserve the rural character of the setting.” So while the hardscape design is relatively harmonious (with the exception of the Tower of Voices) the vast groves of these two trees are the landscape equivalent of Crystal City in the middle of a Pennsylvania meadow. They abut surrounding forests and will be very jarring visually. There are ways to have a thought out, organized, planned landscape that brings the best of the surrounding countryside to this memorial, to make it a truly wonderful place to contemplate the deeds of our heroes and their final resting place. It will apparently take someone else to achieve this but there are many designers, landscape architects and others who are up to the task. It begs the question: what were the judges’ qualifications for judging?
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the competition process was seriously flawed and showed an offensive anti-Western, anti-American tilt. Certainly, there is an extreme disingenuousness in the claim that the crescent is a “healing embrace.” The crescent aside, the quality of the design, especially the landscape design, is not of the caliber to merit such a prestigious contract. It insults the intelligence to be presented with a final design that has spelling errors and ludicrous claims about major features of the design. When one examines the composition of the panel of judges, it becomes clear how the process was so easily manipulated: there are those who are there for sentimental reasons (the relatives) and for practical reasons of geography (the locals), the bureaucrats (National Park Service) and The National Figures, who shall apparently remain nameless. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and in the world of art and design, the one-eyed man is always a Leftist. In this case, a Leftist who doesn’t know much about landscape design.
B. B. Moeller
• Graduate coursework in Plant Sciences at CUNY, including Physiological Plant Ecology, Taxonomy, and Plant Physiology
• Over fifteen years residence in Eastern mixed deciduous forests
• Served as board member and volunteer for Useful Wild Plants, an environmental non-profit. Served as proofreader and contributor for the principal product of UWP, the Encyclopedia of Useful Wild Plants of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and the Southwestern and Southeastern United States. Had extensive contact with nurserymen, landscape architects, landscapers and foundations, as well as environmental scientists.
• Volunteer in the Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden