What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The 9/11 Memorial: Gopnik v. Filler

Adam Gopnik, in his "Stones and Bones" (The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2014), is critical of the fountains that mark the footprints of the North and South Towers at the Michael Arad-designed National September 11 Memorial, New York City. He calls them “crashing double sinks” (“The crashing double sinks seem unsuited to the necessary reticence of an effective memorial”). He says,

Although officially described as “reflecting pools,” they are not pools, and they leave no room for reflection. Wildly out of scale with the rest of the site in their immensity, they are subterranean waterfalls – two huge sinks spilling chlorinated water from their edges, which then flows up and over a smaller platform at their center, and down the drain, only to rise and be recycled. Their constant roar interrupts any elegiac feeling that the lists of engraved names of the dead which enclose them might engender.

Contrast this with Martin Filler’s effusive view, as expressed in his memorable “A Masterpiece at Ground Zero” (The New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011):

As one nears the pools, walking across the light-gray granite paving stones installed by Walker, the murmur of rushing water rises from the cascades that pour Niagara-like down all four sides of the sunken fountains. The sound becomes louder and louder, until it reaches such a steady crescendo that the noise of the surrounding city, even from the construction going on very close by, is drowned out completely.
The veil-like flow of water down the dark-gray granite-clad sides of the recirculating pools is a feat of hydraulic engineering achieved by the installation of weirs—downward-curving comb-like spillways—set all around the upper perimeter of the giant squares. Looking down into the equilateral thirty-foot-deep pits, one sees yet another, far smaller square recessed even more deeply at the midpoint, bringing to mind a simplified, monochromatic version of Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square series. With that last, centered quadrangle, the water vanishes into nothingness.

The propulsive aural and visual excitement of the three-story-deep waterfall and its mysterious disappearance captures and holds your attention in a way most unusual for the static medium of conventional architecture. That distraction makes one’s next perception all the more shocking, as you focus on the names of the victims, incised into the continuous tilted rim of bronze tablets that surround each pool.

The initial perspective provided by the cascades mimics a technique employed in classical Japanese gardens, through which one’s gaze is briefly diverted by a change in paving, screening, or some other element to dramatize a coming transition. Here, after you take in the diaphanous waterfalls, you discover spread out before you at waist level the names, the names, the names. Nearly three thousand victims—not only those lost at the World Trade Center, but also those who died at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania—are memorialized with their names inscribed in Hermann Zapf’s classic Optima typeface of 1952–1955 (an elegant, slightly flaring sans-serif font), with the letters cut through the bronze so they can be backlit after dark. This is a typographic tour de force.

Filler calls the Memorial “a sobering, disturbing, heartbreaking, and overwhelming masterpiece.” His beautiful piece inspires me to visit the Memorial and see it with my own eyes.

But even without viewing it firsthand, I think I see an error in Gopnik’s description. He says that the pools “are not pools, and they leave no room for reflection.” The above aerial photograph, used to illustrate Benjamin Anastas’s "Atrocity Exhibition" (Los Angeles Review of Books, July 24, 3014), an absorbing account of Anastas’s recent visit to the Memorial and Museum (he calls the Museum a “mindfuck”), shows one of the Memorial pools beautifully reflecting a wedge of brilliant sunlight and the tops of at least two trees. This is reflection in the sense of a surface throwing back light without absorbing it. As Filler points out, the abstract nature of the pools also invites meditative reflection: “But of course it is precisely the abstract nature of Arad’s design, which eschews all representational imagery, that will allow visitors to project onto it thoughts and interpretations of a much more individual nature than if the memorial had been laden with pre-packaged symbols of grief.

Who is right – Gopnik or Filler? Although the validity of Gopnik’s view is seriously undermined by his erroneous representation of the pools as non-reflecting, I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen the Memorial myself. I hope to do so later this year.


  1. I think it might seem almost inescapable, not to be able to reach a judgment about this Memorial, given the congestion of memorial development enveloping it. It isn't only speculation which fuels this concern, it's experience of Maya Lin's monument, which truly comes into its own only when proximity banishes its grandiose environment. The genius of Eisenman's Holocaust memorial in Berlin, a maze of incarcerating slabs, is not only in its symbolism but in its enclosing solemnity. This proliferation of memorials in NY may compromise solemnity with a Disneyland of options, like its retail malls exploiting the return of population.