Reflecting Absence

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Eric HermanThis past September 11, while spending a few quiet moments contemplating the events of 11 years ago, I couldn’t help but take careful notice of the waterfalls and reflecting pools that now occupy the footprints of the Twin Towers.

It struck me that in this most hallowed ground, the people guiding the development of the memorial chose water as the element to mark the central footprints of Ground Zero. The features have been in place for just over a year now and are fast becoming two of the most iconic waterfeatures ever created. Yet, as often as I see them on TV and online, they become evermore fascinating in their cleverly simplistic design, overall size and scope and, most important, their profound meaning. 

It’s a truly dynamic, yet somber sight: the two massive square waterfalls measuring 178 feet on each side, falling 27 feet into reflecting pond, which in turn falls into smaller square waterfalls in the center of the ponds; the names of the fallen, both from 9/11 and the 1993 WTC attack, engraved on parapets mounted above a specially-designed toothed weir. 

Less-widely reported: The features are known as “Reflecting Absence,” a concept first proposed by architect Michael Arad. He originally suggested creating two voids in the Hudson River as the memorial, but over time, the concept became the two waterfalls in the footprints of the towers, nestled in a tree-filled plaza. The features are reportedly the largest man-made waterfalls in the United States. That’s a tough one to fact check, but regardless, there’s no question these are the most important waterfalls ever built in this country, or perhaps anywhere else. 


Not the least bit surprising, creating the features was an almost epic undertaking, one that involved a number of people and organizations from the aquatics industry. Delta Fountains and Siemens teamed up to handle the engineering of the automation system, pump and flow controls, and aquatic consultant Dan Euser of Dan Euser Waterarchitecture built a 40-foot mockup of the system in his backyard where the design scheme was carefully tested. 

There have been so many words about 9/11 and the development of the site in the 11 years since, it’s become almost pointless to add anything further. How we regard the horror of that day is now, and has been for a long time, a personal matter of deeply spiritual dimensions. Yet, it will always be part of our collective consciousness as well. 

In seeing the water that now cleanses those horrible wounds, I’m struck by how this most essential and temporal of life-giving chemicals says almost everything that needs to be said. I love how the designers used a subtle flow and texture of water to create a soothing sound and gentle visual that invites visitors to stay and regard both the loss and continuance of life. And I’m transfixed by the way the water flows endlessly into an abyss.  It’s all works to form a sad and beautiful metaphor of human experience; all distilled in what is ultimately the simplest of concepts, the eternal flow of water.  

In the surfeit of coverage of the new memorial that’s flowed over the past few years, I ran across this quote from Scott Johnston, co-owner of Delta Fountains. He said, “Water is a sign a life, so it's not uncommon that it is used in memorials.” 


I couldn’t agree with Johnston more with the added comment that this is most arguably the most profound example of water used to memorialize events, movements or individual achievement and sacrifice. There are many other fine example, but none mean as much or have been so well. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Joseph C. Daniels, president and chief executive of the memorial and museum, said the following as he looked over the expanse. “The way the wind plays with the water, it makes it feel living.”


Photo Credits: Susan Velasquez (top), Squared Design Lab (bottom).


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