ROGER ROSENBLATT: Now that the design competition for the buildings to replace the World Trade Center is over, another has begun. The competition to create a memorial to the victims of September 11 was opened a few weeks ago. Entries may come from anyone over the age of 18 who can pay the $25 application fee and stay within the required format. Thus the invitation is not to professional architects alone, but to everyone. It suggests that the design inspiration could come from ordinary people, because the memorial will be for ordinary people, and to ordinary people.
This represents a relatively new tendency in memorial-building. The idea is that the death of the un-prominent count for as much as the confident statues of presidents and of bronze generals on bronze horses. The thought behind the tomb of the Unknown Soldier has expanded to embrace the 50,000 soldiers of the Vietnam Memorial, known but obscure; and the federal office workers killed in the Oklahoma City bombing; and more local deaths as well -- flowers at doorsteps, at the walls of schools, at the base of trees.
All signify a common mourning for the fallen, usually in violent circumstances-- as if the suddenness of the deaths could not be accepted, and thus required instant memorialization in a heartfelt effort to dull the shock, symbolically to keep the life going.
The goal of the World Trade Center competition is to create future memory. What can one design in the present do to affect observers years from now with a recollection of an event that occurred years ago?
The Vietnam Memorial created future memory by leading one on a walk down along the wall, a descent where one may touch the names of those permanently absent. It is like entering a grave where only memory is alive. When one ascends again, memory has a future.
I have been in places where the dead are not memorialized, where bodies were thrown into rivers or burned to skeletons, and there is no national inclination to remember the dead. It seems to me that people pay a price for such neglect. Not because of the worn dictum that history unrecalled repeats itself-- generally history will do that whether one recalls it or not-- but rather because memory informed by sorrow makes one attached to others, both dead and alive. In a way, all recent memorials commemorate our common helplessness.
We come to this year's Memorial Day shortly after a war in which Americans and others died. No memorial is likely to be designed for them, except in the houses where they lived not long ago. One way or another, we naturally tend to design memorials out of photographs, letters, old baseball gloves, school souvenirs. The dead collected such things to arrange their lives, and we rearrange them to keep their lives moving forwards. On Memorial Day, every day, it is our way of acknowledging a design we cannot account for.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.