Arts & Culture

Book looks at the meaning of memorials

Fifteen years after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, Lester Levine is striving to bring meaning to the memorials we design and build to commemorate our losses from national tragedies.

“9/11 Memorial Visions” (McFarland & Company: 2016) is a book that chronicles 150 of the 5,201 entries for the 2003 competition for a memorial at Ground Zero in New York’s Lower Manhattan. Levine and his wife, now living in Chapel Hill, are both New Yorkers who had worked in that city at some point in their careers. Both knew someone who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

In 2003, they designed their own entry for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Competition, collaborating with an artist and an architectural technician. Their team designed a sculpture of a single, giant glass teardrop – and sought to identify each victim as an individual, rather than as a name chiseled into a wall.

They tallied up the count of victims of the terrorist attacks – 3,026 men and women from around the globe – and determined that there were enough colors in the light spectrum to assign one to each. Their lights, they reasoned, could be stored inside the glass teardrop and a computer could generate random rays for each one. Visitors could access the victim and his or her associated light via computer.

Alas, their entry would not win. That honor went to Michael Arad, a young Israeli-American architect. His triumphant solution – a series of waterfalls along the edges and walls of the twin tower’s excavated foundations – has since been built as a moving shrine to those who lost their lives on site.

But piffle! Winning was the least of the Levine team’s concerns. They entered the competition — like 1,700 other New Yorkers did – to work through their grief over the events of that day. “We wanted to heal ourselves and the rest of the nation,” Levine says.

Once the competition was over, they forgot about it, until 2011, when one of its jurors came to UNC’s Friday Center for a lecture on Memory and Memorials. The pair introduced themselves at a reception afterward, and during a brief chat learned a little-known fact: each of the competition’s entries had been photographed upon receipt and entered into a searchable archives on the internet.

“I said: ‘You mean they’re still there?” Levine recalls. “And he said: ‘Absolutely, they’re still there.’ 

Levine began digging through the archives and identifying specific entries that were different from the traditional arch, pool, lawn, statue, column, pyramid or copse of trees. He was looking for entries that were colorful, that used light in new ways and that asked people for an interactive means to memorialize 9/11.

Over seven months’ time, he found no books or dissertations on the competition – only a few newspaper and magazine articles dating back to the announcement of its results. But he did find 300 entries that were very different from the rest. And then he narrowed that list down to 200 that might comprise a book

He reached out to contact their designers – spread out over 60 countries around the globe. Some were unavailable. Others were uncooperative. Still others had passed away, their obituaries serving as sole documentation on the internet.

Of the 150 he contacted, he asked a series of questions ranging from what their day was like on Sept. 11, 2001, to whether the events of that day changed them, to what they thought of their entry now. The resulting answers formed the chapters of his book.

They fall into categories about light color, sound, digital technology and even about breaking the rule of where the memorial should be. “Some said it needed to be in a greater New York City area or another part of the nation or the world – because the victims were from all over,” he says. “Some said it should be a school, a power station or a farm – and multi-functional.”

Levine cites two reasons for developing his book. First, he wanted to assure that the designs and the stories behind them did not get lost. The larger concept, though, was to contribute to the discussion of what memorials are and can be – and how they’re evolving. For example, Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington differs mightily from Butzer Design Partnership’s 2000 Oklahoma City National Memorial. And Leo A Daly’s 2004 National World War II Memorial in Washington – an eerily ironic throwback to the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer – couldn’t be more different from both.

Levine’s succeeding in his desire to open up a dialogue about memorials in the public life. He was part of a panel discussion on Thursday at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., along with Paul Murdoch, architect of the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Penn., and Julie Beckman, co-designer of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. They discussed the interplay of the built environment and memory.

On Thursday, Oct. 20, he’ll be signing books from 6 to 8 pm. at a “Thirst for Architecture” event sponsored by North Carolina Modernist Homes and Raleigh Architecture, at Trophy Brewing, 656 Maywood Ave. in Raleigh.

And on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m., he’ll be speaking at the Mid-Manhattan Library at 455 Fifth Ave. in New York City, in a talk aimed at those who were affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

It is an unfortunate truth that we will be building many more memorials to national tragedies in the future. So the question of how we – and future generations – respond to them is an excellent one to ponder. “I was thinking the other day that anyone coming to a college bookstore to hear me talk now would have been 3 years old at the time of the attacks,” he says.

Our legacy is to assure that we leave behind meaningful memorials that can be interpreted on both the emotional and intellectual levels – with a sensitive visual impact that enhances our environment over time.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at He is the author of “Drawing From Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand” (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at

Upcoming lecture

Mount Airy native Thomas Woltz, of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA) in New York and Charlottesville, Va., will be in Raleigh for a lecture at N.C. State University at 6 p.m., Sept. 21.

NBWLA partnered with Paul Murdoch on the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, designed Duke Pond in Durham, and is currently working on landscape designs for Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

Woltz’s lecture, “Master Planning Urban Parks in the Twenty First Century – Ecology and Culture in the work of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects” – will be in Burns Auditorium, Kamphoefner Hall. It’s the 6th Annual Richard C. Bell Lecture.