Yale alum reaches finals in Sept. 11 memorial contest

In the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, New York architect Edwin Zawadzki GRD ’96 and his wife and partner Mason Wickham observed dozens of impromptu memorials of teddy bears and votive candles all over their Fort Greene neighborhood. Now a memorial they designed — a table bearing the names of the victims of the attack on the Pentagon — is one of six finalists in the Pentagon memorial competition.

As the couple watched time and weather decay the impermanent shrines, both said they were motivated to create a more permanent expression of remembrance. So when the Pentagon memorial competition offered them a chance to design a permanent memorial, they decided to enter.

“There were a couple memorials we used to walk by, and we watched them deteriorate and rejuvenate,” Wickham said. “We wanted to combine the notion of something that’s permanent and can last, but can also be really visceral.”

The contest, which is being sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, consists of a two-step process. The first stage, now complete, was open to anyone who registered by the Aug. 23 deadline. An 11-member jury, composed of professional architects, government representatives, and victims’ family members, then chose six finalists — including Zawadzki and Wickham’s firm, In Situ Design — from the 1,126 entries and announced them on Oct. 11. The immediacy of the Pentagon memorial competition is especially striking in contrast with the competition to design the World Trade Center memorial, which has not yet begun accepting submissions. The immediacy of the contest’s competition, and the anonymity guaranteed to each entry during the judging process, attracted many younger architects from smaller firms — like In Situ Design — which may not have been interested in designing a memorial otherwise.

Zawadzki said that the personal nature of the project appealed to him.

“We wanted to do the competition because, being New Yorkers, we could see the devastation of the World Trade Center from our windows. Here was a competition that was a means to address Sept. 11 personally,” Zawadzki said. “It was a kind of catharsis. It was a way for us to contribute.”

Zawadzki and Wickham said they strove to fulfill their vision for the site while satisfying the technical requirements of the memorial, which included security and height constraints. They also had to find a way to minimize the distracting presence of a highway that runs along the western edge of the site, which is located directly across from the plane’s point of impact.

Zawadzki and Wickham’s design minimizes the impact of the surroundings by sinking the memorial into the ground and erecting a wall on the western border of the memorial to block both the sight and sounds of the highway. The wall is polished to reflect the western facade of the Pentagon, and planted wildflowers and trees run along the eastern border of the memorial.

All of the final designs show the influence of another Yale graduate, Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Wickham said the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a turning point in memorial design and credited Lin with the more personal nature of today’s memorials.

“We try not to dwell on past memorials, but it’s hard to get over the Vietnam Memorial because it’s so perfect,” Wickham said. “We’re big fans of hers.”

Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose central feature is a long wall containing the names of those who died in the conflict, Zawadzki and Wickham’s design also has a specific focus. The visual and emotional focus of their design is a long table down the center, made to seat 184 people — the number of people who died in the attack on the Pentagon. Zawadzki said they intended it as a way for people to truly understand the magnitude of the attack.

“It’s always really abstract to understand the number of people — We wanted there to be an immediate, graphic image of how many people died,” Zawadzki said.

Wickham said it was important that each bench not be correlated with an individual life. The victims’ names run down the center of the table, and are not assigned to specific benches.

But the table is also meant to be a democratic symbol and will hopefully remind visitors of their rights and responsibilities as Americans, Wickham said.

The finalists each received $20,000 to further develop their designs before the final deadline on Dec. 11. Zawadzki and Wickham said they will be presenting more detailed, less theoretical plans for the memorial to the jury.

The winning design will be announced Dec. 23.

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