This article is reprinted with permission of The Boston Herald from its Sept. 23 issue. The original headline was "MIT begins to rebuild hope by erecting Reflecting Wall."
The faces are burned indelibly into our memories--red with blood, covered in dust, streaked with tears. The victims of last week's terrorist attack are memorialized in countless newsstand and TV images.
At MIT, faculty and students have created a different kind of memorial. Doing what people have done for thousands of years, they have used architecture to create a place for community and compassion in the face of the violence that surrounds us. Their design starts with the realization that images of architecture as well as of people have helped shape our memories of these events. A fragment of the all-too familiar World Trade Center facade becomes a focal element, allowing us to engage the horror of the towers' destruction. The memorial evokes such deep emotions because the center's architecture, despite its banality, has been imbued with such deep and lasting meaning.
For the extremists, the World Trade Center represented everything that they feared. Those twin 110-story monoliths standing aloof at the southern tip of Manhattan were a perfect symbol of American cultural and financial might. Identically striped packages of high-rise real estate, they stood apart from the swarm of humanity that surrounded and inhabited them. They became the ultimate expression of American arrogance.
Reduced to twisted shards rising so improbably from the debris, the facades become another sort of symbol--of American vulnerability. Unlike the faces in the photos, whose expressions speak of personal pain and anguish, those tortured fragments speak of a universal sense of loss. They bear witness to what was destroyed--lives, innocence, prestige.
The MIT memorial pulls from the jumble of Trade Center images one pure moment as the focus for our thoughts and feeling, its small segment of recreated facade lining a quiet courtyard near the MIT chapel. It is a place of tranquillity on an active urban campus separated by an existing brick wall from the noise and traffic of Massachusetts Avenue near Memorial Drive. Seen out of context, the facade has the power and simplicity of an abstract sculpture. It is connected perhaps only subconsciously to those postcards and TV images.
The Reflecting Wall, as it is called, was built within 72 hours of the tragedy. Architecture department faculty members John Fernandez and Hï¿½lï¿½ï¿½ne Lipstadt provided design guidance, MIT carpenters put it together from plywood and paint, and an enormous number of students and staff helped with their enthusiasm and ideas. The ethnically and religiously diverse MIT community, usually focused on the enduring truths of science, refocused on the enduring truths of the human spirit.
The facade section, so familiar from photos, has been subtly but meaningfully transformed in this new setting. The vertical structural columns once a quarter of a mile tall have become a line of silent sentinels guarding us in our time of need. The windows, through which terrified victims dropped to their deaths, are now niches to receive our flowers and prayers. We can reach out to them and their loved ones as we try to comprehend their plight.
The ground in front has been layered with flickering candles and notes on scraps of paper--the flames and debris of the World Trade Center plaza recalled as images of faith instead of fear. Slots in the memorial facade receive personal messages in a way that the hard, cold, corporate original never could.
Moments of pleasure and pain begin and end so quickly, leaving us with nothing but memories. Photographers, writers, anchors and architects all help reconfigure those memories and reveal their meaning. At the MIT Reflecting Wall, memories of devastation and despair have been shaped into a beacon of hope--that peace will prevail over war, love over hate, and rational response over irrational reaction. At this little memorial, the work of rebuilding our shattered world has begun.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 17, 2001.