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Remembering and Rebuilding

By Brian D. Goldstein

Michael Van Valkenburgh says he does not rely on memorials to deal with his grief. But he found solace in choosing the design for the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial. Van Valkenburgh, the Charles Eliot Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), was one of 13 jurors to select the design that will eventually commemorate those who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Once a Cambridge resident, Van Valkenburgh’s home in New York is not far from the former site of the World Trade Center. “The year after 9/11, reading the obituaries of the victims [in The New York Times]…it was a healing sort of memorial experience for me,” says Van Valkenburgh. “So I looked at this as an opportunity to offer me that. And it was, it did.”

Selecting the WTC memorial took six months and involved three rounds, in which the initial pool of 5,201 open competition entries was pared down to eight, then to three finalists, before the winning design, “Reflecting Absence,” was chosen. The jurors came from a variety of backgrounds, including art and politics. One juror, Paula Grant Berry ’79, is the widow of a victim of the collapse of the south tower.

“It was exceedingly like solace and mourning are,” Van Valkenburgh says. “It was very painful at times, especially in the beginning of the jury process when we had many very long meetings with family members who had lost people they love in the building.”

Van Valkenburgh describes how the background of each juror contributed to the understanding of the other 12. “Those of us that are designers or architects or landscape architects sort of talked to the people about what design was, how it worked, and what drawings were because nine of the 13 jurors were not artists or designers,” he says.

James Young, an expert on memorials from the University of Massachusetts, talked to his fellow jurors about the significance of memorials in general and especially one to which the public is paying so much attention.

“One of the things James Young was always reminding us of is that every memorial becomes a historic memorial after the generation that it was made for is deceased, and so you have to say to yourself ‘What are we doing with four acres of open space in Lower Manhattan?’” Van Valkenburgh says.

The site’s location and its importance to the collective memory of Americans underscores the competition’s magnitude. For a submission to get to subsequent rounds, Van Valkenburgh says the necessary element was often somewhat fleeting, some characteristic of the design about which the jurors may have just had a hunch.

“In these one board submittals, you are looking for a glimmer of magic...it’s like having a crush on somebody who is so far away you can’t see them,” he says.

Van Valkenburgh’s rise to the top of the field of landscape architecture—and his role in making the far-reaching decision for the WTC memorial competition—is tied closely to his relationship with Harvard.

Educated at Cornell University and the University of Illlinois, Van Valkenburgh has been at the GSD for more than 20 years. After graduate school, he began teaching at the Radcliffe Seminars in Landscape Architecture. By 1988, he was a tenured professor at the GSD and eventually became the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture.

During the same period, his Cambridge office became distinguished for its professional work. A 1988 project in the Radcliffe Quadrangle, a series of mesh screens that became “ice walls” when the temperature dropped below freezing, was a result of innovative research Van Valkenburgh conducted to understand ice as a potential medium in landscape architecture. The ice walls were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Light Architecture” exhibition in 1996.

The subtlety of this project is characteristic of a larger tendency in Van Valkenburgh’s work, often extraordinary in its light touch. He has received acclaim for Mill Race Park, a project he did in Columbus, Indiana, which reclaimed a former industrial site in order to provide a public gathering space. The gradual slopes, which recall landforms native to the Midwest, make this enormous project seem perfectly natural.

This quality of Van Valkenburgh’s work is also apparent at the center of campus, as he has directed the restoration of Harvard Yard over the past decade. Many of the original trees were ravaged by Dutch elm disease, so Van Valkenburgh has guided the careful replanting and replanning of this space. In addition to adding more resilient trees, his firm has modernized the system of paths and removed vegetation inappropriately planted at the base of many buildings.

Van Valkenburgh received an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for this restoration, which blends into the existing landscape and represents the antithesis of the sort of project that trumpets the artist’s own ego.

The ability of Van Valkenburgh, and the jury, to recede from the center of attention was important as they worked with finalists to refine ideas before selecting a winner. “What happened was the eight teams came in November, and we were kind of universally aghast, we were quite disappointed…the reason we had eight schemes was that there were so many different favorites among the jury,” Van Valkenburgh says.

Before each of the finalists presented their final schemes, jurors engaged them in conversation, attempting to bring out the best of each design. “Reflecting Absence” was at that time the work of Michael Arad, a young architect for the New York City Housing Authority. Arad’s design featured a barren plaza, with two voids where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Streams of water poured into the voids. Names of the victims were to be located in a space in the memorial itself, which visitors could descend into.

Van Valkenburgh saw the potential in Arad’s entry but says he saw a degree lifelessness in its starkness. “I think all of us kind of had our eyes wide open but were also looking for things to see if they validated our own predilections. And I was sort of looking for a scheme that boldly forested the site. That somehow said a forest is a healing thing...it opens our imagination,” says Van Valkenburgh.

Arad added renowned landscape architect Peter Walker to his team before the final round of the competition. “I insisted that he have a landscape architect of national stature added to the team,” says Van Valkenburgh. “I said I wouldn’t care who it was and I didn’t think it was appropriate that we tell him who to use...I think his wisdom in choosing Walker was the beginning of him winning.”

Like Van Valkenburgh, Walker was once the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the GSD. Among his works is the Tanner Fountain in front of the Science Center, which has become a part of the quotidian at Harvard. This insistence on the role of nature in public life was initially missing from Arad’s entry, Van Valkenburgh says, and was recaptured when Walker added legions of trees to the plaza that created an urban sanctuary in the middle of downtown Manhattan.

Van Valkenburgh says he sees a brilliance of the winning design due to its collaboration, a practice that he has carried through in many projects. “He was very wise in picking Pete [Walker], and you know Pete’s in his early 70s and Michael [Arad] is 30,” says Van Valkenburgh. “They had good chemistry.”

He also sees the merits of this type of open process, which allows a young architect like Arad the chance to design one of the most visible American architectural projects of the near future. As such, Van Valkenburgh bristles at criticism of the process like that from Michael Kimmelman, the chief art critic for The New York Times.

Kimmelman initially dismissed the final entries as a “disappointment” and “unmemorable,” suggesting that the populism of the process was its flaw and that the memorial’s design should be limited to entrants of the jury’s choosing. What Kimmelman proudly touts as “elitism,” Van Valkenburgh views as problematic. “Excellence isn’t necessarily the consequence of either picking a star or of a public process, but the consequence of the evolution of the design which has to be guided by a client,” Van Valkenburgh says.

This was especially relevant to the jury of the WTC memorial, as one of its most prominent members, Maya Lin, famously had her big break when she won the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial competition as a Yale architecture student. Although Walker brings expertise to the table, his role has been to heighten the virtues of Arad’s design that jurors recognized from the outset.

Van Valkenburgh compared the WTC and Vietnam memorials, finding the merits of each in their differential treatment of the dialectic of minimalism. “I think Maya’s project, the Vietnam Memorial, is extremely beautiful...but I don’t think it’s about absence. It’s a powerful object,” says Van Valkenburgh. He points out that in contrast, “[Arad]’s initial idea was that the Hudson flowed into these displaced tower voids.”

Arad’s design is a simple contrast to the extreme verticality that once marked the WTC site, but Van Valkenburgh says the downward movement of water into the abyss will continue to mark the collapse that made this the site of tragedy. Van Valkenburgh believes the addition of the landscape component has made a compelling idea that much stronger. “What happened for me was when Arad added Peter Walker, he turned the upper level into a place with civic responsibility. I mean it was an austere and mean plaza initially. But Walker made it a very humane place,” he says.

In this balance between the sensitive and the shocking, the key ideas of remembering the event and the fallen are both embodied. What resulted from the strenuous jury process, Van Valkenburgh suggests, is the start to the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.

“It’s really a strong foundation,” he says, adding that he hopes “Reflecting Absence” will allow Americans to come to terms with their grief from Sept. 11 and that the public space it creates will serve also as “a gift to the future.”

—Staff Writer Brian D. Goldstein can be reached at bgoldst@fas.harvard.edu.

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