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Designer reflects on campus memorial

"I've never felt as close to a true collective will from MIT as I did in working on the wall." - John Fernandez
"I've never felt as close to a true collective will from MIT as I did in working on the wall." - John Fernandez
Photo / Donna Coveney

As an architect, a former New Yorker, an MIT alumnus and a member of the faculty, Assistant Professor John E. Fernandez had the special skills and sensitivities to create a space for the MIT community to reflect on the tragedy of last Sept. 11.

As a human being, he found the experience compelling and therapeutic.

"It seemed to be a project, like many others around the country, that sprang out of the collective will of a community that wanted to mark an experience that none of us would forget as individuals," said Fernandez, the Class of 1957 Career Development Professor in the Department of Architecture's Building Technology Program. "Since graduating from MIT in 1985, I have felt a continuous and tangible link to the MIT community. However, I've never felt as close to a true collective will from MIT as I did in working on the wall.

"It seemed necessary to build because not building anything would leave an undeniable emptiness. Going about one's business without such a marker would be too difficult. In a way, having the wall was a way of externalizing the pain and setting outside of ourselves the most unbearable thoughts."

Fernandez designed the 12-by-25-foot wooden replica of a fragment of the Twin Towers next to the MIT Chapel, constructed in 30 hours by the MIT Department of Facilities and dedicated on Sept. 14, 2001. The Reflecting Wall will be veiled during a community gathering on Kresge Oval today that culminates a day of activities that commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy.

Fernandez, who worked as a senior designer at New York architectural firms for 10 years after receiving a master's degree from Princeton in 1989, started studying the World Trade Center towers' structural design and construction details in MIT's Rotch and Baker libraries on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the towers were demolished by terrorists. As a result, reproducing a portion of the building's exterior wall sprang to mind when he was invited to design a temporary site for members of the MIT community to reflect upon the tragedy.

"The idea seemed appropriate because of the resonance that one would have with the final experience of those caught above the impact point in the towers," he said. "For many hundreds in the tower, the final experience they had was clinging desperately to those perimeter columns and leaning out of those narrow windows. Having a portion of that wall would give one an opportunity to commune with those who were killed. The wall could serve for grieving, remembering, reflection or anything else that one brought to it ? What had collapsed in New York could be rebuilt in Cambridge, at least as a small and abstracted piece.

"Building the wall was also a way of steering clear of the politics of the situation. What was needed was a construction that would address the huge human suffering. At that time, it was clear that events were progressing quickly, with talk of a war against Afghanistan and a search for terrorists. It seemed tricky to capture the tragedy and not take a political position, but focusing on the experience of those who were killed that day seemed like the most important priority."

Fernandez, who is attending an academic conference in Italy, will not be present today. The wall will be dismantled after the ceremony, although a section may be preserved.

"I'm lucky to have been involved in the building of the wall," he said. "The wall has been one small part of a very long process of grieving. It has done its job and now is a good time for the wall to be taken down. The feeling I'm left with is the thought that it did its job. For some in the MIT community, the wall helped them through a difficult time. I know it helped me.

"I'll feel the pain of that day (Sept. 11, 2001) when it comes down. During the planning meetings for the marking of the first anniversary, I was very afraid of the imagery of the wall coming down during the service. I was and still am afraid that the taking down of the wall will be felt more as a process of destruction rather than a process of renewal. The last thing MIT should do is be host to a ritual of destruction."

As a result of his research, Fernandez contributed two chapters to "The Towers Lost and Beyond," edited by Professor Eduardo Kausel of civil and environmental engineering, which will be published this month by Wessex Institute of Technology Press.

For the complete text of the interview with Professor Fernandez, click here.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 11, 2002.

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