This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a day that changed the trajectory of our nation. On this landmark anniversary, aspire spoke to LA-based architect Paul Murdoch, who designed the solemnly powerful Flight 93 Memorial across 2,200 acres of rolling hills in Western Pennsylvania. It is composed of several memorial pieces, including a visitor’s center that tells the story of Flight 93 and the heroes on board, as well as the Memorial’s final work: the Tower of Voices. Standing at ninety-three feet tall, the monument is filled with 40 flowing wind chimes, one for each passenger and crew member who died on the land. Here, Murdoch speaks to his inspiration, the inclusion and integration of the victims’ families, and his reflections on the Memorial as a whole.
aspire design and home: This Memorial is massive in both physical and emotional scale. What inspired you to want to be a part of it?
Paul Murdoch: When my wife (a fellow architect) and I watched the events on 9/11 unfold, we knew we wanted to do something, somehow to help. The courageous action and generous sacrifice of the 40 passengers and crew members on Flight 93 inspired us to find a way as designers to suitably commemorate their lives where visitors could reflect on the actions of these forty heroes. The rural Pennsylvania site of the crash also inspired us as a place of serenity to remember them in their final resting place. The large scale of the site provided a setting commensurate with the emotional scale of what occurred that day. It offered a way to shape a memorial landscape in a monumental way, to express the heroism of the forty and to allow visitors ample opportunities for contemplation as they move through the park.
adh: Healing is a word that comes to mind when looking at the photos of the Memorial and its grounds. Was that a guiding theme or inspiration for you?
PM: Yes. Today, the site of the plane crash has been transformed into a memorial landscape of environmental and symbolic healing. The site, which was formerly a reclaimed strip mine, is now a landscape that works to repair the damaged land and water. Every component of the site works towards its regeneration. Diverse native plant species have been planted on the land, the meadows and wetlands have been restored, and the soil remediated. Where the crash of the plane once burned many of the trees, the structure of these trees now inspires the design of the Memorial’s materials, while new trees rise in their absence.
The site boasts many environmental design achievements, and this healing of the land through sustainable action serves as a metaphor for the emotional healing that takes place in this setting. From the transformation of a coal mine to a circular-shaped red maple allee to the soil amendments that facilitate healthy tree growth, the land not only serves as a site of healing but is also itself undergoing healing.
adh: What does it mean to you on a personal level to have been the architect for this Memorial?
PM: I grew up in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia and had camped several times in the Laurel Highlands where the site is located. I always loved the landscape there, so there is a personal connection to the area. I believe the memorial is an important place for Americans to visit, not only to pay their respects but as a touchstone for their own reflection on democracy. So it has been an honor to be involved in its realization. I am grateful to have been able to work with so many people dedicated to making this memorial a special place. It has been the most meaningful project of my career and one with many personal dimensions beyond simply a professional involvement.
adh: This project has been in production for 16+ years, which is really a testament to the amount of thought behind every decision and the attention to detail by you and your entire team. Why and how was the involvement of the Families of Flight 93 so vital to the project? What did they bring to this that you might not have thought of on your own?
PM: The Families of Flight 93 brought emotional gravity and support to the project. Their suffering and grief emphasized the memorial’s solemn purpose but their resolve to see the memorial to completion provided support to us through difficult challenges. Through their advocacy, they helped assure the memorial would be built and their devotion to the design helped us maintain a degree of quality throughout the process of implementing our vision.
adh: What are the most powerful architectural elements to the design?
PM: We tried to provide a variety of memorial expressions to allow different experiences for visitors because each person may respond to different features. Some are more intimate in their power, such as reading the engraved names at the Wall of Names along the flight path near the crash site. The Tower of Voices is powerful as a ninety-three-feet tall musical monument but also intimate in the chimes that sound with the wind. The entry walkway aligns visitors along the flight path that leads through large concrete walls to a dramatic overlook of the crash site and the immense Field of Honor. Forty groves of trees and a maple tree-lined walkway encircle that field, offering a mile-long walkway that leads across an 800-feet long bridge over restored wetlands to the crash site. And, the visitor center is powerful in its own way, as the place where the story of Flight 93 is told in a space that views the memorial landscape.
adh: Has anything about this project surprised you?
PM: I was surprised at how truly difficult it was to design a ninety-three-feet tall musical instrument powered by the wind. I was also surprised by the unique qualities and skill sets of people I came upon to help in the many unique aspects of the memorial, such as the Tower’s chime assemblies. The fact that I found a chimes artist, a musical composer and tuning theorist, and, of all things, a racer of land yachts, to help create such a feature is still amazing to me and validates the need for being open to collaboration from all types of people that one must always welcome.
adh: What’s your favorite aspect?
PM: That it’s available to the public for generations.
adh: What do you want the Memorial to represent or be a symbol of?
PM: I would hope visitors would feel a sense of awe and reverence for what a group of 40 people did on that plane. People going about their daily lives got on an airplane together one morning and somehow figured out what was happening and, very quickly, came together even though they didn’t know each other. They didn’t stay passive. They didn’t split up according to differences. They came together with purpose and took a heroic stand.
adh: How is designing a Memorial different or similar to your other projects?
PM: Memorials are like no other design endeavor because of the emotions inherent to such a project. And the importance of the right team and the right intentions is heightened.
The creation of the Flight 93 National Memorial was through a collaborative process across different communities that ensured this national memorial would represent the values of unity and collective action.
Throughout the design and development of the Flight 93 National Memorial, we worked closely with four partner organizations:
- Families of Flight 93, a private non-profit organization established to help develop and sustain a permanent memorial to the passengers and crew of Flight 93
- Flight 93 Memorial Task Force, a grassroots organization comprised of family members, community residents, first responders, educators, and other local, regional, and national participants
- Flight 93 Advisory Commission, a federally appointed body charged with making recommendations for the planning, design, construction, and management of the national memorial to the Secretary of the Interior and Congress
- National Park Service (NPS), long-term steward of the national memorial
Together, these different communities were able to come together to realize a landscape that presents the story of Flight 93 and offers a place of healing and emotional catharsis.
To learn more about this and other memorials, watch the “How We Remember: 9/11 Memorials and Their Meanings”, on Sept. 8th at 5:00pm ET, through the National Archives Foundation, featuring Paul Murdoch and other distinguished memorial designers.
Photography courtesy of Eric Staudenmaier Photography and Paul Murdoch Architects.
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