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Pentagon Memorial Designers Sought Somber Yet Inviting Design - 2003-09-10

Two years after the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon near Washington, family members of the victims who died at the Pentagon will soon have a memorial to honor their loved ones. A competition announced shortly after the attacks invited architects from all over the world to submit their ideas for a Pentagon Memorial. Out of more than 1,100 entries, two young architects from New York were chosen for their winning design.

American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001, and flown into the side of the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington. That fiery crash resulted in the deaths of 59 passengers and crewmembers on board the plane and 125 military and civilians at work inside the Pentagon building. Almost immediately Congress authorized the secretary of defense to establish a memorial on the grounds of the Pentagon.

"Anyone who came in contact with this project immediately put their heart into it," said Carol Anderson-Austra, a landscape architect with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. She is the manager of the planning and design competition for the Pentagon Memorial Project. Ms. Anderson-Austra says the announcement for the competition on July 11, 2002, drew thousands of applicants. "We didn't want a huge firm to be able to dazzle the world with a huge presentation. Everyone had to do one [presentation] board. That meant a five-year-old child or an 11-year-old child could do it or a huge firm. And some firms put many architects on that project for many months. Others were done by solitary designers. So by September 11, [2002] we had 1,126 actual submissions that met the criteria."

But Ms. Anderson-Austra says the real driving force behind the memorial design and competition were the dozen family members of Pentagon victims who worked with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to steer potential designers in the right direction. They call themselves "the Steering Committee."

"We said to the families, Here's a dozen potential sites; a good memorial needs a good site. The family members said it had to be as close as possible to the impact site and they had to see the impact site. So that really narrowed it down. And they were very specific about what they wanted or didn't want - no airplanes, no flames, there were certain things that were very clear to them that might not have occurred to a designer."

After examining more than 1,000 architectural designs which were displayed at the National Building Museum in Washington, the Steering Committee and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers announced the winners of the Pentagon Memorial project. Partners Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman of New York City won for their one-hectare park of objects and trees, marked by sculpted aluminum benches that parallel the flight path of Flight 77.

"We wanted this place to have an emphasis on life," stressed Ms. Beckman. "So through materials, we wanted to engage the senses and remind everyone that comes to visit that it is a peaceful place to really appreciate their own lives as well as respect those and honor those whose lives were lost that day."

Architect Julie Beckman says she and her partner, Keith Kaseman, had always appreciated the interpretative qualities of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where visitors could touch and feel the names of those soldiers carved in the long black slabs of granite.

"So we knew right away that we wanted to create a place that is dedicated to each of the 184 victims here in Washington and that is dedicated to their family and friends," she explained. "And so, collectively, these 184 places would create a memorial for the nation at large. And begin to tell the story of who these individuals were, how 59 passengers on the plane were brought together with 125 individuals in the building."

"And just as important was the idea that this place should be like no other," added Mr. Kaseman. "Because that day was like no other. And aside from being a somber place, we felt it should be an inviting place as well."

For the Pentagon Memorial, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman have engraved each aluminum bench with the name of a victim, placing it in order of the victims' ages. Light and water will surround the benches in a kind of reflecting pool, sheltered by trees. Benches representing those killed in the building will face toward the Pentagon; benches representing those on the plane will face away from the building.

"What we wanted was a place of remembrance and a place of comfort for those of us left behind," said Jim Laychek, a spokesman for the families on the Steering Committee. He lost his brother David, a Pentagon worker in the 9/11 attacks. "Another thought is that it's a gift to future generations to be able to go to a place and really understand the enormous tragedy and horrific nature of that day."

Mr. Laychek said he could defend any design that was the result of such a fair and democratic competition. He says he is especially pleased by the way the memorial captures the randomness and range of individuals who were lost that day.

"It wasn't selective," he stressed. "People of all different ages died and it had a ripple effect in terms of how many other lives were affected after these people were kind of 'snatched.' It really hits you when you look at those benches on the right hand side and realize that those were children. And there's a section of people all the way to up to age 71. So that idea of having it arranged on an age line ... The family members early on felt that we didn't want to tell you what to think, we wanted to make you think."

Jim Laychek's focus today is helping to raise money to fund the construction of the Pentagon Memorial, which will cost about $12 million to build over the next 20 months. In New York City, a similar competition is underway for the design of a memorial at the former World Trade Center site. New York's Municipal Art Society is overseeing the "Imagine New York" competition, which has registered over 5,000 entries so far. The winning design will be announced later this fall.