Out of the Shadow: The Revised Flight 93 Memorial Design
About ten days after the final design was announced for the Flight 93 Memorial, I sat down to write a comprehensive critique of the design, the whole design, from my perspective as a reasonably literate American with a particular knowledge of eastern forest ecology and landscaping. I was appalled initially, as many were, by the dominant design element of the red crescent. As I studied the details of the plan, there were many features that baffled me: I didn't understand the aesthetics or the rationale for their inclusion. There were still other elements that were clear evidence of sloppiness and/or outright pandering to the emotions of the grieving relatives or the naive public that seemed to me to reek of the most cynical condescension. No sooner had I finished this opus magnus, then the powers that be, Paul Murdoch and Associates and the Flight 93 Memorial Committee agreed to modify the design, to make it more palatable to those of us who thought that having a red crescent in the middle of the memorial was offensive. I shelved the essay, hoping to turn it into a retrospective case study of bad design and how monuments and memorials fall victim to political correctness and even more sinister agendas. Frankly, I was very happy that the redesign was going to make my little critique obsolete.
Well, no, it hasn't. The newly tweaked design has been announced and careful examination reveals that more trees have been added so that the crescent looks more like circle. Otherwise, it's the same, with all of the problems that I found still intact. This comes as no surprise: the public outcry focussed almost exclusively on the red crescent, and secondarily (and rather superficially) on the Tower of Voices. A couple of months, a few more trees and a nice PR letter on the website about lofty goals and consider the public placated.
About two weeks after I finished and shelved my critique, Alec Rawls, author of the blog Error Theory, did an analysis of the design. He is considerably more quantitatively-minded than I, and spent considerable time analyzing the architect's renderings. Because these were generated by CAD (Computer Aided Design), the shadows shown in the design are accurate with respect to the sun's position in the sky at that location and time. Mr. Rawls took screen shots of the Crescent PDF's, pasted them into Microsoft Paint, and used Paint's pixel counting tools to generate pixel-accurate analyses of the design's geometry and its orientation on Mecca. The results of his analysis are deeply disturbing, so much so that reasonable, normal people look at it and start muttering, "Grassy knoll..." I am one of those. But I have read and re-read his analysis. It explains all of the elements that I originally found incomprehensible aesthetically, symbolically, and functionally. While I was willing to ascribe the impoverished design to a combination of political correctness, leftist tendencies and cheap hucksterism, Alec Rawls demonstrates that there is an embedded homage to the terrorists and to radical Islam in all of the major elements of the design that is carefully conceived and has passed several layers of vetting, cloaked in sentimental prose and lovely graphics.
Of particular note is the Tower of Voices. My original analysis was
...[that] 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.
I was also baffled by the concentric rings of white pines: they served no aesthetic purpose that I could see and in fact were detrimental to the look of the site. This is also an excellent example of the incompetance of the landscape design team: Pinus strobus grows to over 100' at maturity and would completely veil the Tower of Voices, which is supposed to be seen from all around.
Now, thanks to Mr. Rawls, I understand that I was right to question the Tower of Voices and very wrong to besmirch those who found rampant Islamophilia. The oddly eccentric curves of the tree line and the design of the tower itself, with its deeply incised notch in the top serve as a sundial for the calculation one of the Islamic ritual prayer times As he states here:
Is the Tower of Voices from the Crescent of Embrace memorial for Flight 93 an Islamic sundial? Islamic prayer times are determined by shadow positions. Muslims are instructed to commence afternoon prayers (called Asr prayers), when the length of an object’s shadow is the length of its mid-day shadow, plus the object's height. The “Tower Section” detail from the Crescent of Embrace PDF’s gives the tower height as 93 feet. Plugging this height, and the latitude and longitude of the crash site, into J. Giesen’s awesome Sun Shadow Applet, it is easy to calculate for any date the exact direction and length of the Tower’s shadow at the time for Asr prayers. The following graphic plots mid-month Asr-prayer-time shadows on the Tower Plan for June through October.
Asr prayer shadows for June 16th (the shortest day of the year) in red; July 16th, in green; August 16th, in blue; September 16th, in yellow; October 16th, in orange. Scroll down to Part II for calculations.
Mr. Rawls concludes:
What is unambiguous is that it shares the Islamist orientations of the red maple crescent: one orientation coinciding with the terrorist memorial wall, one orientation pointing precisely towards Mecca. Whoever did this was thorough. He didn’t want to miss a trick. I think the Islamist plotter wanted it to be undeniable, after the memorial was a fait accompli, that he had succeeded in planting a terrorist memorial on the graves of the infidels. It’s almost as if he knew how hard it would be to convince some people!
This is precisely what may happen. In my original essay, by far the most troubling aspect of the whole process was the ease with which it was manipulated to favor those who are anti-American, anti-Western and certainly anti-Judeo-Christian. Even without the relatively complex analysis that Mr. Rawls has done, there was plenty to hate about this design and fortunately, whoever was in charge of the design thought that the red crescent would fly with the general public the same way it did with the judging committee. Fortunately, it served as a large red flag to concerned citizens who then proceeded to delve into the entire design and discover just how sinister it was.
That the Paul Murdoch design made it made it to the finals over 1000 entries tells us two things: that the people who would do this country harm are in all walks of life, are well placed, well educated and well connected and that ordinary Americans, Conservatives, have such a low profile in the arts and design establishment that we are supremely ineffective at stopping this process manipulation. Paul Murdoch, accustomed as he was to selling his "vision" (this is what architects do, by in large) has undoubtedly had much success that he really thought he could sell a forty acre red crescent as a national memorial. If this design is scrapped or modified to unrecognition it will be because of his colossal arrogance. If the crescent hadn't been there, no debate of any consequence would have ensued, such was the insularity of the process. Alec Rawls' excellent and telling examination and my complaints would have been lumped with the perennial moans of "Memorials just aren't monumental enough!" which, while true, trivializes the the debate: it makes design a matter primarily of taste and cedes much ground to to the Left which has rightly (and now very obviously) used these opportunities to convey a message about our history and culture. The Left's message: now do we get it?