9/11 Memorial and Its Graphic Impact

May 28th, 2012

Today being Memorial Day, I thought it to be a good day to show you a bit of the 9/11 Memorial in NYC, which I was fortunate enough to have visited a couple of weeks ago. It’s a somber place for sure and I found myself just standing there among the rest of the hushed crowd feeling  the emotions, even reliving a bit of the horrors of that day. And of course, the 9/11 Committee  worked  hard, sometimes contentiously, to impart just those feelings in all who visit there.  I came to think they had done well in their final choice of solutions: massive amounts of waters falling deeply into the darkened voids standing fully in place of each building’s footprint, which are made most meaningful by having surrounded the entire perimeter edge of each waterfall with every name of every individual who lost his/her life that day at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania.

It is those names and how they have been fabricated and presented that I wanted to bring to my blog today. Many of us in sign design, fabrication and procurement wrestle with the same sorts of issues that they did. What materials and lettering methods will last over long periods of time when exposed fully to all weather events and sunlight, while remaining legible and good-looking.

Decisions related to costs vs. durability and longevity plague the process, regardless of the exterior-based project. And I could see that they, too, must have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to get it just right. Beauty, legibility, durability and substance have all been conveyed in a most palpable way there at “Ground Zero” through the decisions that the Committee and its advisers made.

In order to meet each of those parameters, the material they chose has actually been the material of choice (not necessarily for those with tight budgets, however) for signs, graphics and commemoration throughout the ages: bronze. Massive plates of bronze 1″ or more thick, have been laid side by side along the perimeter of each watery building footprint.

These plates, for some reason (probably to enable better legibility and contrast for reading the names, as well as to underpin the intent of solemnity) have been painted black. Bronze is the right material, no doubt, but I did wonder about the painting of those exposed metal surfaces, though. The front-most edges, where people put there hands and lean against the display to look over and into the voids, are already beginning to chip and show wear, revealing the yellow-red bronze beneath.  (I’ve pondered the use of these painted bronze surfaces here a lot since being there that day and if there happens to be a reader who can fill me in, please fill me in and I’ll share it everyone, for sure.)

For durable lettering, I was happy to see that the decision-makers knew the pitfalls of glued on letters out-of-doors (the glue will eventually weaken and/or fail and souvenirs are often taken away by visitors), exterior-grade, screen-printed graphics on painted metal (the inks will fade and peel), and/or etched, incised lettering (the recesses will catch dirt and capture water, which in the winter will freeze and cause damage via the freeze-and-thaw cycles over time).  Instead they chose cut the letters completely through the thick bronze. Along with the 1”+ thick bronze, the lettering will be there long after other materials crumble and the water pumps and filters fail. The choice to use bronze with letters cut away has resulted in just the kind of “forever and ever” material and graphic impact that is most appropriate there.

Then, of course, the issue of gathering and verifying the lists of names, as anyone who has ever worked to gather and arrange an array of names on donor walls or any other sort of public listing knows, will complicate the presentation and organization of any group of names in an appropriate and “user-friendly” way for viewers, to say nothing of getting each one spelled correctly after the lists pass through so many approvals along the way.

But when I read in the brochure that the nearly 3000 names had been arranged “based on layers of  ‘meaningful adjacencies’ that reflect where the victims were on 9/11 and relationships they shared with others who were lost that day, honoring the requests from victims’ families for specific names to be next to each other,” I could see that their efforts to compile these lists were at best “daunting”. The task, though obviously undertaken with love and respect, had to be a most tedious, time-consuming and difficult one to accomplish. And they have programmed electronic searching kiosks to assist all who come. They too were done as simply and as effectively as I’ve seen. Since I’ve done enough lists-gathering to understand the monumental (no pun intended) task that these organizers overcame with just this one detail within this remarkable place of reflection and remembrance, I found myself literally shaking my head as I stood there pondering what all of the memorial must have entailed to get this site to this moment of near completion. I could not even fathom it.

For a bit of additional visual reference, here’s an overview of the space, offering a good orientation of the positioning of everything throughout the park along with a better understanding of the mass of the place.

9/11 Memorial Brochure's Overview

And lastly, I wanted to leave you with a bright spot. The redevelopment of the entire area is signified by this image of the new 1 World Trade Center, which actually topped out the day we were there. I am only hopeful now that those who lost so much can move on with their lives, not forgetting what horrors happened that day, but being strengthened by the heartfelt commitment of those who have brought this commemoration of their loved ones to life in such a powerful and thoughtful way. Written by Robin E. Willliams

1 World Trade Center May, 2012