There's a moment on the road to the Flight 93 crash site when you think that maybe no new memorial is necessary at all. After driving through, well, let's just call them the boonies, you go downhill on a two-lane road. A forlorn series of hauntingly cruciform electrical poles, surrounded by contrastingly exuberant wildflowers, follows the road and then simply and poetically comes to an end. It's not exactly an analogy to the great tragedy of Sept. 11, but it's somehow a soulful pairing of the natural and the manmade, leading the viewer up to a point of contemplation in a (mostly) beautiful landscape. Nice.
Then, just when you think you think you've achieved something transcendent, you go up the hill a bit, and, at a climactic crest, there is a gigantic pile of discarded pop machines. Whoa. And to think I was getting all philosophical about the delicate presence of human mortality in nature. Here we have the abandoned infrastructure of high-fructose corn syrup.
The real problem, though, is that even though this spot is supposed to be reclaimed for a reverential purpose, this embarrassingly gigantic pile of garbage is weirdly compelling. Beyond that, it says some things about artifacts in the landscape that could be very helpful in developing a meaningful memorial for Flight 93.
Authorized by an act of Congress a year after 9/11, the Flight 93 Memorial Competition is being run by the National Park Service to create a suitable design for recollection and reverence on the rural site where the plane went down. To its credit, it is running a very professional and open process. Currently, five finalists are on display at the Shops at Georgian Place in Somerset and on the Web at www.flight93memorialproject.org (driving directions also provided) until Sept. 25, with a winner to be announced on Sept. 7. Both the crash site and the display are worth a car trip before the price of gas gets too high.
As the site where heroic passengers and crew forced the plane down rather than allow an attack on Washington, D.C., the field near Shanksville is in a sense random, but it is certainly not a clean slate. Picturesquely, it has rolling hills and a farm in the distance. But it has also been extensively mined for coal, as attested by collecting pools and a huge crane. And then there are those pop machines. Certainly we need to honor the dead of 9/11, but making designs in the landscape should also mean engaging the real meanings of that landscape.
We revere the esthetic properties of these rolling hills even as we despoil them to harness cheap energy and dump the castoffs of consumerism. These processes create esthetic phenomena that appeal to contrarians, but they also raise issues not unrelated to terrorism. How many people have to die before this land is more than a mine, a business or a dump? I mean nothing but respect for the dead. I just happen to think that the pop machines are an important lesson for the living. And it is no coincidence that a recent show at the Carnegie Museum, Terrain Vague, featured beautifully photographed images of scenes of discarded tires and other forms of industrial waste as troubling art.
Now is a moment, culturally and artistically, when a strong-minded designer can seriously and meaningfully engage issues of garbage and consumerist detritus while still making a respectful memorial. After all, no one thought that you could make an abstract, statue-less, in-ground war monument until Maya Lin did so with huge success as the Vietnam Memorial.
As much as they have other virtues, I don't think any of the five finalists approaches the sort of watershed design that this moment calls for. Only one, "Disturbed Harmony," recommends leaving the huge crane, whose historical and esthetic significance is easy to grasp. Instead, the designs alternately smooth over and beautify the site, or adorn it with an angular but precious box. The odds-on crowd favorite is the arboreal "Crescent of Embrace," which would create a dramatic sweeping curve of red maples, punctuated by a tower of chimes at one end and a viewing platform at the other. But it would remove the pop machines and the crane, which would presumably simply get dumped in a different field somewhere else.