How memorials to 9/11 help us remember and mourn

Moving from metal to metaphor, recent monuments reveal a shift in how we confront past trauma.

At New York City’s 9/11 Memorial & Museum, bronze parapets are engraved with names of the 2,977 victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The memorial, on the grounds of the former World Trade Center, is one of many monuments to collective traumas erected in the last 20 years.
Photograph by Terrence Jennings, Redux

Figuring out how to memorialize 9/11 has been a monumental undertaking. The terrorist attacks 20 years ago reshaped the world in unfathomable ways. 

But at three sites in the eastern United States, where thousands of people died in terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, tributes aim to help visitors process those painful events. The sites also reveal a marked shift in how we collectively confront past trauma.

In Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once soared, a pair of waterfalls now plunges 50 feet into the ground. Beside the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, a park holds 184 steel and granite benches, each bearing the name of a life lost when a passenger jet crashed into the building on September 11, 2001. In a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a 93-foot-tall tower sings with 40 aluminum wind chimes. 

Compared with realistic, figurative memorials commissioned by previous generations, these three 9/11 tributes can feel abstract, personal, even puzzling. Why the shift?

“This new set of memorial makers is engaging in metaphor, trying to evoke complexity,” says Spencer Bailey, author of the new book, In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials. He and other experts suggest that creators of memorials now recognize that collective trauma transforms over time. As pain changes, so do the edifices we construct to remember it.

It’s an approach that lends itself not only to the shared grief of 9/11, but also to other tragedies. Here’s how such tributes in metal, stone, water, and fire are helping people mourn and move forward.

The complex task of honoring 9/11

The modern memorial movement was ignited in the early 1980s by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a V-shaped ledge of reflective black granite on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“With that memorial, the earth moved. It was a landform—not representational, not a statue,” says J. Meejin Yoon, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. Although some traditionalists complained, and sculptures of soldiers were later added to placate critics, the design proved its staying power. By the turn of the millennium, echoes of Lin’s wall were everywhere.

Such abstract ideas and forms now show up in the more than 1,000 memorials to 9/11 in the U.S. and around the world. One of the earliest was “Tribute in Light,” two shining beams that illuminated the night sky south of the site of the Twin Towers for six months shortly after the attacks. The lights now reappear annually on September 11. “It’s a beautiful way to remember that doesn’t get mixed into the everyday built environment,” says Yoon.  

(Read about how artifacts pulled from the wreckage of 9/11 symbolize what we lost.)

Other inventive monumental remembrances of the attacks appeared in the following years, demonstrating a stylistic progression away from literal representation. The Staten Island September 11 Memorial opened in 2004 featuring a pair of 40-foot-tall carbon fiber “postcards” lined with silhouettes of the faces of the 263 borough residents who died in the attacks. “It’s figurative in a way that’s still abstract,” says Bailey.  

Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence”—part of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan—opened in 2014 on the World Trade Center site. The footprints of the Twin Towers now hold two enormous pools framed with cascading water. “It’s literally and figuratively reflective,” says Bailey. “Someone born after 9/11 will feel something different than someone who had been there that day, but they’ll still feel something.”

One of two reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City sits on the site of the former Twin Towers. The pools are framed by parapets engraved with names of the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

9/11 Memorial Museum, New York City

One of two reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City sits on the site of the former Twin Towers. The pools are framed by parapets engraved with names of the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Photograph by Gregor Kallina, Anzenberger/Redux

Light, sound, and movement are also newly relevant in monument design. The 40 chimes in the 93-foot-tall “The Tower of Voices” in Shanksville peal in the wind. The memorial, completed in 2018, represents the passengers of American Airlines Flight 93 who, on 9/11, helped to crash their plane into a field, perishing but keeping the hijacked jet away from Washington, D.C. 

The most literal symbols of the attacks are salvaged parts of the World Trade Center wreckage, on view at New York’s 9/11 Museum as well as around the globe. Daniel Libeskind’s “Memoria e Luce” in Padua, Italy, suspends a length of steel inside a structure that resembles a giant book. In London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, “Since 9/11” is simply a piece of ragged, recovered steel with one part polished to reflect light.

Sites and memories

These evolving conceptions of what memorials can be and how they help us grapple with the past haven’t been limited to 9/11. Even before 2001, public art projects had started shifting away from honoring specific individuals and toward recognizing tragedies that touched entire populations. Abstract forms allow viewers to infuse the structures with their own perspectives and emotions.

For instance, the Irish Hunger Memorial, which opened in 2002 two blocks from the World Trade Center site, transports visitors to a 19th-century hillside landscape, supported by a base of Kilkenny limestone and illuminated glass. Text etched on the glass tells of the famine that saw millions starve, as well as the continued tragedy of global hunger.

In 2011, Vardo, Norway, launched the Steilneset Memorial in tribute to 17th-century residents burned for witchcraft. Set in a barren, coastal region, it features a 400-foot-long swaying passageway and a black glass cube holding a chair that shoots jets of fire. The memorial evokes not just memories of the 91 victims, but also the cruelty that can come from scapegoating.

(See unforgettable photos that capture New York on September 11, 2001.)

Europe continues to address the horrors of the Holocaust with works like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which debuted in 2005 in central Berlin, Germany. Peter Eisenmann’s vast grid of concrete slabs—reminiscent of coffins or tombstones—features no names or images. 

It’s part of an urban landscape full of remembrances, including the tiny, more specific stolpersteine (stumbling stones) honoring individual victims that began appearing around the German capital in 1996. “In Berlin, you don’t feel the past has been swept under the rug,” says Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based design and history studio conducting a survey of U.S. memorials. 

Monuments are no longer static

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, open since 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, remembers victims of racist lynchings. It holds 816 six-foot-tall steel slabs, each hauntingly suspended from the ceiling of a square, concrete pavilion. Each represents a U.S. county where a lynching took place and is engraved with a list of victims’ names. 

Duplicate slabs are lined up like tombstones next to the pavilion; the memorial encourages individual counties to haul them home and create satellite tributes. “It’s not treating memory as static,” says Farber. “It’s not just a window. It’s a bridge.”

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a tribute to enslaved Black people who lived and worked there opened in 2020. Yoon’s architectural firm collaborated on the design of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. The low granite ring symbolizes a broken shackle. The stone is engraved with 577 names and 4,000 “memory marks,” wound-like slashes representing enslaved people whose identities remain unknown. 

(Learn how visitors are reconsidering Georgia’s controversial Stone Mountain.)

Gazing back at visitors on the outside of the ring: a much-larger-than-life pair of eyes by Black artist Eto Otigigbe. Yoon says the juxtaposition is meant to help viewers “navigate the historic desire for more literal representation and prompt contemplation and learning.” As research reveals more names of enslaved people, they will be added to the memorial. “That turns something made of stone into a living memorial that will continue to evolve,” she adds.

Such a sentiment stands in stark contrast to the aesthetic values and symbolic meaning of the equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, which was finally removed this week. This new wave of memorials honors historic events without forgetting about the future, a shift that feels especially significant in this moment. 

“We’re 20 years since 9/11, but just starting to see the effects of the past on the present,” says Farber. “There’s more to commemorate and understand.”

Vicky Hallett is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in travel, family, and health. 

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