Memorial sites scattered across the United States dedicated to the nearly 3,000 victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are considered sacred ground by many, but it has taken 17 years for the Flight 93 National Memorial to reach its final phase of completion in Pennsylvania.
Plotting to overwhelm the hijackers taking their flight on a collision course with the United States Capitol Building, passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 had already learned about other planned attacks in Washington and New York City. And nearly an hour after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, Flight 93’s cabin and crew rushed the cockpit before hijackers decided to crash the plane into the ground in response.
The airplane’s smoldering remains scattered across the remote hilltops of Somerset County just two miles north of Shanksville, PA. One year later, Congress passed the Flight 93 National Memorial Act that included the government’s recommendations for the planning, design, construction, and long-term management of the site.
Although a temporary memorial was installed in the 400-acre center of what became nearly 1,000 acres of protected land, visions for a permanent plan began in 2004 with a design competition ultimately won by a team led by Los Angeles architects Paul and Milena Murdoch one year later. Selected from over 1,000 submissions, their “Crescent of Embrace” featured a large parabolic pathway lined by red maple and sugar maples.
But controversy quickly trailed the Murdoch proposal. Criticism from victim families and conspiracy theorists alike accused the plan of secretly adopting Islamic symbols into its design, purportedly denigrating the deaths of Flight 93’s victims through such religious iconography. These detractors specifically points to the crescent-moon design of the site, which is a primary symbol of Islam when shown alongside a star. Others have even claimed that a person facing directly into the design would be facing Mecca.
In May 2008, five people told members of the Flight 93 Memorial Task Force and the Flight 93 Advisory Committee that the design should be scrapped. One of those speakers, Harry Beam, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, presented petitions with 5,300 signatures opposing the design to members of the Flight 93 boards, who were holding a quarterly meeting.
In response, Paul Murdoch released a statement saying that there was no open or hidden Islamic symbolism in his design; rather, the proposal was based on the bowl-shaped terrain of the site. Other supporters noted that the crescent image was also the shape of an embrace. Nevertheless, Murdoch acquiesced and amended his designs in an effort to avoid a larger political controversy. The architect therefore revised his design into a circular shape bisected by Flight 93’s path toward its eventual crash site. Additionally, site planners installed a visitor’s center and a marble “Wall of Names.”
Seventeen years and $60 million later, the final phase of the Flight 93 National Memorial has ended with the completion of Murdoch’s “Tower of Voices.” Here, the architect presents a variety of numerical homages to the tragedy of September 11. For example, the tower is 93-feet-tall and contains forty wind chimes, one each for the Shanksville crash victims. On the architect’s website, Murdoch explains that each aluminum tube has been designed to capture the scale and complexity of forty different sounds. To complete the tower, he partnered with a number of consultants: a musician, a chimes artist, an acoustical engineer and a wind consultants.
Alluding to the biblical Tower of Babel, Murdoch’s monument similarly investigates the cacophony of voices. As the chimes blow in the wind, their near-similar frequencies will create aural harmony and dissonance. A space for meditation, the “Tower of Voices” speaks to the specific tragedy of September 11 and its incomprehensibility for the many people still trying to understand the implications of that day. More meta-theatrically, one might argue that this collision of harmony and dissonance evokes the very battle between advocates of the Flight 93 National Memorial and its conspiratorial opponents.
In fact, some of Murdoch’s longstanding enemies have again attacked the “Tower of Voices,” which they believe functions as a minaret or prayer-time sundial. The Pittsburg Post-Gazette outlined the issue in 2007 when the tower was in its initial phases of construction. Commenting on the theory, then-superintendent of the memorial, Joanne Hanley, noted that following such faulty logic would lead one to conclude that even something like the Washington Monument could operate as an Islamic sundial.
Rather, I think the design of Murdoch’s monument evokes something more universal. Unlike other sculptures that memorialize the human condition through the presentation of bodies (mangled, triumphant, or otherwise) Murdoch has chosen to go bodiless. Abstraction first became popular for a generation of artists who witnessed the carnage of the World Wars only to contemplate the atomic bomb’s potential obliteration of humanity. When faced with tragedies such as 9/11, artists still rely on this technique to make sense of senselessness. Accordingly, the minimalism of Murdoch’s tower focuses our attention on the overwhelming din of American history. Yes, its chimes clang with conflict, but even within that noise a good listener might observe a unifying chord.