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WTC memorial should celebrate America's producers

By Dianne Durante
web posted January 19, 2004

"Reflecting Absence," the winning WTC memorial design, offers a list of randomly scattered names, a pool, and some trees, which elicit in most viewers nothing but bemused boredom. For those of us who loved the sight of the Towers and still grieve over the thousands of lives lost on September 11, it's time to ask: what is it we're trying to say here? And how are we going to say it?

A memorial is not primarily a medium for political propaganda, a way to decorate a landscape, or a means to fill a hole in the ground. It's a way for the living to remember those no longer with us--men and women who smiled at us, heartbreakingly, in flyers of those missing after September 11. So much could be said: that we won't forget the victims as beloved family, treasured friends, valued colleagues. That we won't forget the brave members of the New York Fire Department and New York Police Department who perished while striving to save innocent lives. That we won't forget the spare, elegant buildings that used to be the twin focal points of lower Manhattan. And that we won't forget that they were destroyed because they were symbols of capitalism and freedom.

Architect Michael Arad stands behind a model of 'Reflecting Absence', the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial, incorporated into the WTC site, unveiled at Federal Hall in New York
Architect Michael Arad stands behind a model of 'Reflecting Absence', the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial, incorporated into the WTC site, unveiled at Federal Hall in New York

To erect a single memorial that would express all those ideas and emotions would be impossible. Yet there is something those people and those buildings had in common, which we could ask an artist to represent. The people who worked at the World Trade Center were all productive people: they were there to do a job and earn money. They died on September 11 because they symbolized that productivity, not just to millions around the world who aspire to live like Americans, but also to the terrorists who despise all that America stands for.

New York's policemen and firemen were, and continue to be, our defenders--the ones who protect our lives, and the property without which we could not support our lives. The Towers, soaring upward in the greatest city of the most productive nation on earth, were a concrete symbol of man's rise from caves to skyscrapers--with all that implies about our ability to think, to act, to create, and to produce and keep wealth. "Productive work," wrote Ayn Rand, "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."

A monument to productive ability would celebrate the lives these people lived, not commemorate the way they died.

What would be the form of such a monument? Certainly not landscape gardening and a random list of names meant to convey, in the words of the designer, the "haphazard brutality of the deaths." A likely form would be a sculpture incorporating one or more human figures, and an appropriate setting for such a sculpture would be within a new business complex.

All around New York and the United States, one can see memorials using expressive human figures in positive ways. Think of the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle, with its dramatic, gilded allegorical figures commemorating the sailors who died in an 1898 explosion in Havana Harbor. It doesn't show shattered remains, it shows the virtues those sailors lived and died for. Think of the Firemen's Memorial at West 100th St., with its narrative relief of firemen doing their jobs. Think of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, which shows our sixteenth President not lying in a pool of blood, but quietly meditating on momentous affairs.

What should we say with the memorial at the World Trade Center site? We should say that although an unforgettably horrendous event happened there, we choose to celebrate the positive. We choose to erect a monument to the productivity of our family, friends, and colleagues, whose efforts we will continue; and to their lives, which we shall not forget.

Dianne Durante, PH.D., a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA, writes and lectures on art history in New York City and is author of the recent book on Manhattan's outdoor sculpture, Forgotten Delights: The Producers. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Copyright © 2004 Ayn Rand® Institute

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