Q&A with Michael Arad, designer of the 9/11 memorial in NYC

Architect Michael Arad was chosen from thousands of applicants during a 2003 competition to design the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center site. The memorial is open to the public by reservation only as surrounding World Trade Center construction continues.

Eleven years on from the terrorist attacks, the New Yorker, a partner with Handel Architects, weighs in on what it means to be a part of creating something that means so much to so many.

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Q: How did you first become involved in the 9/11 memorial design competition?

One of the reasons I wanted to become involved with the project — I actually felt compelled to do so — was, I think, being here in New York and seeing the events firsthand, and equally important, witnessing the response of the city — how everyday New Yorkers came together to support one another, to come together as a community with a lot of courage and compassion and stoicism. It was remarkable. I think New York has this reputation as a city of strangers, but there were no strangers in New York [that day]. We were all together. And for me that was an incredibly affirming experience, and I really wanted to find a way to relate to that, and as a designer, in turn, to design. I started to sketch ideas, and when the memorial competition was held a few years later, I felt I wanted to suggest ideas that I had already been working on for a number of years independently.

Q: What were those ideas?

The two main things that I’ve tried to bring to this design were one, this idea of making absence a presence … And the other to create a public democratic space in the city, a memorial plaza where people could come together as they had been together in places like Washington Square and Union Square, which are also large open public places in New York City that commemorate other things. They are memorial plazas as well.

Q: Your design won out over thousands of other submissions. Was it a bittersweet moment learning you had been chosen?

It was a very emotional and busy day. I had actually heard on the radio that a design had been selected that morning, and since nobody had told me … I figured it must have been one of the other competitors. It was only a few hours later that I got the phone call asking me to come in for a meeting.

Q: It’s a big responsibility. Was it ever overwhelming to think you were creating something that will stand the test of time?

The design is the first step in a very long road. And I’m incredibly proud of the memorial that we’ve built, and it’s the work of many, many people. But I think I was guided by a lot of optimism and naïvete. It’s been a tremendous responsibility and an honor, but also very difficult at times and very challenging and a very tough process. 

Q: So many were affected by that day. How have you juggled their wishes with your vision for the memorial?

This is such a public site with such meaning to all of us, not just to Americans but to everyone in the world. And you had to find a way to let everybody express what was important to them about this site. And it had to do with every aspect of the design. I think one of the most charged aspects was how the names are arranged on the memorial. And you can’t satisfy each and every request that you get from family members; it’s a very diverse group of thousands of families who are often at odds with one another … You had to find a way to listen to all but also have your own clear compass to guide you through a process like this. Which is not to say that you ignore people; you have to hear what their concerns are and try and address them, but not necessarily with the solutions which they’re proposing.

Q: Washington, D.C., is full of memorials. Are there any that inspire you and have influenced your work?

I think there’s something so moving about both the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They are side by side, but they are so different from each other and they’re both incredibly powerful memorials … Those two and the Washington Monument, they’re probably the big three. 

Q: What do you hope people feel when they visit the 9/11 Memorial?

What I was really going for, I think, was actually trying to create … a moment of silence, a moment for quiet introspection. And what people do with that opportunity or that moment of inner thought is really up to them, and reflects on each one of us and what’s important. There is no single correct, so to speak, way of experiencing the memorial. It’s very much determined by the people that come to the site. But that was what was important to me, to give people the opportunity to go sort of within, to be reflective and to do that not alone but as a community with others.

Q: It’s been more than a decade since the tragedy. As a New Yorker, do you feel that things have returned to normal?

I think things have returned to normal, as they should. It was remarkable to see how we came together as a community, how an event that was meant to strike terror in our hearts actually brought resolve and a community together. And it’s wonderful that that’s how we responded … Communities should give us some way for diversity of views and opinions, that I think that is what is fundamentally great in a place like America, that we do have these rights to see things differently from each other and to agree on some things and disagree on others. But in a moment like 9/11, we do come together and support one another.