The Pentagon’s Memorial Landscape

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I recently ventured to Virginia to a place I’d never been before – the Pentagon Memorial to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Its design by two young architects had been selected in a heated international competition by a group that included family members of the victims, as well as design professionals, and it’s a complicated one: a grove of trees and “memorial units” composed of a glowing light pool and bench-like marker inscribed with the name a victim, arranged in the order of the victims’ ages and along the flight path the plane took into the building.  The units for the 59 victims aboard the hijacked plane face one way, and units for the 125 inside the Pentagon face the opposite direction.

I’d seen plans and mock-ups presented by the designers and heard the agency that would have to maintain the Memorial protest that it would be an impossible task, due to the design’s 184 separate pools of running water beneath deciduous trees (originally paperbark maples) and surrounded by gravel.  Others objected on various grounds but the design-pickers won out, and the Memorial opened in 2009.  I decided to wait for the plants to grow a bit before visiting, and also to time my visit with prime fall color, giving the Memorial its best chance to win me over.

So on a sunny weekday with almost no other visitors around, I found the Memorial to be moving and lovely, overcoming its challenging site between a noisy 8-lane highway and the gargantuan Pentagon itself.

Here are some of the memorial benches over reflecting pools of moving water, a design feature that went a long way toward drowning out highway and airport traffic.  But see all that gravel right up against the edge?  No wonder lots of it ends up IN the pools.

You can see a bit of a victim’s name incised at the edge of the bench.  In the background you can see the spires of the new Air Force Memorial by James Freed.

I didn’t take this photo (credit), but it sure makes me want to visit at night sometime.  Here are lots more night images, conveying the magical or even surreal nature of the space.

Above you see part of the wall along the edge of the Memorial that begins at a height of 3 inches and rises to a height of 71 inches, corresponding to the ages of the youngest and oldest victim of the attack.  Inscribed in the top of the wall are dates that indicate the time lines from which individual benches are arrayed, according to the year of birth of each victim.  (See what I mean by complicated?)

I love the repeating masses of grasses along the wall, including sea oats, Miscanthus, Pink Muhly grass and others I couldn’t identify.

Close-up of the Pink Muhly grass with crapemyrtles and Pentagon in the background.

These ‘Natchez’ crapemyrtles do look fabulous, especially in their fall color.  I may have to go back in the summer just to see them in bloom.  They replaced the original papermark maples, which quickly expired on the hot site.  According to this source, “the trees will grow up to 30 feet to provide a canopy of shade over the Memorial for years to come.”

The other plants (chosen by a local landscape architecture firm) are doing well.  Perennials selected are all drought-tolerant and sun-loving for this blistering site.  They include goldenrod, sedum, black-eyed susan, coneflower, yarrow, heuchera, geranium and the aforementioned grasses.  Trees and shrubs include arborvitae, winterberry holly and oakleaf hydrangea, in addition to the crapemyrtles and nandinas.

All memorials in D.C. have their detractors, and this one just outside the city is no exception.  But when the event being memorialized is recent and emotionally charged, as in this situation, criticism is generally sotto voce, or at least not for publication.  I did find one outspoken critic:

The Pentagon 9/11 memorial…is a set of ugly modernist “seats”, one for each employee killed, on a gravel-covered pad that looks overall like an industrial installation. It is utterly cold… How about soft green lawns and planted trees and flowers instead of these ghoulish “chairs” and “seats” and grey gravel lots? Wouldn’t that have been more life-affirming? Of course it would have. But not to today’s “artists” and “designers”. These people are all unimaginative, uncreative people who want to imprint negativity on us with their meager talents.

I can see his point, and memorial design is always controversial (other recent examples include the Martin Luther King and Eisenhower Memorials).  But if the families and friends of the victims love this Memorial, then I suppose it’s a success.  It’s certainly worth a visit, and thanks to the nearby Metro stop, it’s a surprisingly easy thing to do.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on November 29, 2013 at 11:01 am, in the category But is it Art?.

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  • Autumn is definitely when this memorial is at its best and you captured it very well in this photos.

    admin 1st January 1970 4:00 am
  • I like the plantings but I really don’t find the gravel and pools and “seats” appealing. Seems very sterile to me.

    Susan 20th October 1995 9:08 am
  • I haven’t been, so thanks for sharing your great pictures Susan!
    The critical voice you shared is a typical one – he calls the designers uncreative, but his solution is “life affirming” lawn and flowers. Generally, people who are confronted with a piece of art or design that requires them to actually think get very defensive. I think the piece is a moving and is a poignant tribute. The benches with water running beneath have an eloquent resonance with flight, and I imagine that is amplified in the space. I like being asked to think, to ponder, to engage with issues that are difficult – and an outdoor installation that can do this well is a big win for me.
    Yes, we can all see where better choices might have been made – keeping the gravel out of the water would have been one of my first concerns, but it is easily fixed. Replacing plants is common – it often takes a few tries to get the gardens in a public space humming along nicely.
    To me, this seems to work, and the fact that it was chosen by the families, like you said, shouldn’t be overlooked. Why should it be life affirming? Why should this memorial be for something other than the quiet contemplation of what happened on that day? There are plenty of places to go to see lawn and flowers, but memorials are supposed to be different. I like the chance to be solemn, thoughtful, respectful, and the designers created a space for that deep thought. Kudos to them.

    Ivette Soler 15th May 1997 9:14 pm
  • Do you recall the uproar over Maya Lin’s deep V and the Vietnam Memorial? Begun in 1982, many considered it a travesty. In all these years since, I only hear how incredibly moved people are by it/their experience at the Wall. It can still make me weep just to drive by it. The families win. It was their loss. And it’s up to them. Personally, I think it looks beautiful. I will visit it as soon as I can.(I was there in December – right after the 9/11 crash. It felt like someone had kicked you in the chest.)

    Mary Ann Newcomer 19th March 2009 10:15 am
  • The pentagon and air force memorial are both strong and stark and cold. I think the garden design is good way to deal with site; concepts such as height of wall equaling age of victims is overly wrought — as design by committee always is, but I like the play of plants against all that coldness of war. Gardens don’t need to be at their best in summer or at noon; we have lots of other choices for then. It evokes the shock of the moment and the healing from that moment.

    markbrown 20th March 2012 6:35 am
  • Was maintenance considered on this project during the design process?

    Frank Baltimore 4th October 2016 10:24 pm
  • This memorial is a built landscape – it requires specific maintenance like any other monument, bridge, park, etc. Considering that there is a maintenance team dedicated to the upkeep of this site, I see no issues in keeping these elements functioning – changing bulbs, making sure water jets aren’t clogged, raking gravel – these aren’t unusual or taxing maintenance issues, IMO. If I had to do regular painting touch-ups on a tall vertical structure or change lightbulbs along the span of a bridge … well, that’s another story. Susan said there was an issue brought up by the maintenance of the memorial, but those concerns were obviously overridden by the desires of the families of the victims to see this memorial installed. They felt it honored their loved ones, and I think ideas of clogged water jets and changing led fixtures and raking gravel on a flat area must have paled in comparison.

    Ivette Soler 6th February 2017 1:02 pm
  • Sorry to the artists souls who can see deeper than I can, but those benches and gravel are hideous. Yes, I well remember the controversary over the Vietnam War memorial, but it looks great…the controversary was only during the planning stage, not after it was built and people felt it. This just looks bad. And it is not even unique; too similar to the Oklahoma City memorial and its chairs.

    admin 2nd June 2017 5:17 am
  • totally cool at night

    marsha weil 21st June 2017 9:30 pm

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