The Art of Healing at the 9/11 Memorial Glade

From Art & Object

By Dany Chan

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9/11 Memorial Glade


One of six stone monoliths at the 9/11 Memorial Glade. Design by 9/11 Glade designers Michael Arad and PWP Landscape Architecture; Inlay by Chris Powers from KC Fabrications.

Time may heal many wounds, but some wounds only erupt with time. Years after the attacks of 9/11 we discover that tens of thousands of rescue, recovery, and relief workers, and the survivors and members of the lower Manhattan community are sick. Moreover, over a thousand people have already died from exposure to toxins at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of 9/11. How can such wounds heal?

For Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the original architects of the 9/11 Memorial in New York, they envision healing for the community in the form of the 9/11 Memorial Glade, a redesigned outdoor space to honor the selflessness, courage, and perseverance of the women and men involved in the rescue and recovery effort.

The Glade comprises a pathway, its location marking the historical placement of the main ramp used during the recovery period. Flanking the pathway are six large stone monoliths that incorporate steel from the original World Trade Center in a design inspired by the Japanese repair technique called kintsugi.

When the architects decided to incorporate the steel into the design, the kintsugi tradition first came to mind. Meaning “golden joinery,” kintsugi emerged around five centuries ago in Japan when artisans repaired broken ceramics using lacquer and gold. Traditional kintsugi method uses lacquer as a glue and filler. When the lacquer is dry and hardened, it is sanded down flush with the vessel. Then, the lacquer seams are painted over with gold pigment. Kintsugi was a practical and beautiful method of repair that was used in Japan, China, and Korea. For the Glade’s stone monoliths, “mending” occurs with melted steel.

Each of the Glade’s monoliths comprises rough-hewn stone slabs that have been shaped by stonemasons in Barre, Vermont using chisels, sledgehammers, and blowtorches. Each horizontal slab measures 8 by 12 feet which appear to be layered on top of each other on a slope, and seemingly erupt from the ground up to about three feet high.

The melted steel is sand-casted by New-York-based KC Fabrications, Inc. to fit newly-cut grooves and embedded flush with the stone surface. And this is where the monoliths’ design slightly diverges from traditional kintsugi—the melted steel “repair” is not an external application, but rather something that appears as internal slippage or fissuring.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“We wanted the sense that the steel emerged from within the stone,” Arad describes by phone, “as if the trauma brought the steel, which is inside the stone the whole time, to the surface. The stone [then] heals itself from doing so.”

In this way, the monoliths’ design indeed recalls Japanese kintsugi. Arad perceives it as an act of mending and healing. In analyzing the lasting psychological impact of 9/11 for Psychology Today, Dr. Joseph Pierre believes that “[w]e’re all children of 9/11 and we’re all survivors, one way or another.” Moreover, we’re all scarred, though “[n]o doubt, some of us have deeper scars than others.” Kintsugi has endured in the public imagination primarily as a metaphor for embracing such scars and recognizing the beauty of imperfections.

For healing physical illnesses, a series of efforts and legislations have established funding through 2020 for people who are affected by the toxins. For psychological and emotional healing, the 9/11 Memorial Glade hopes to provide a sanctuary. A stroll through the tree-lined, paved pathway of the Glade may be the balm to temporarily soothe all survivors still in the process of lasting healing. Sloping skyward, each monolith is certainly worn and scarred, but not broken or beaten. They embody the heroism of the women and men of the rescue and relief effort who have shown strength and determination through adversity.

The 9/11 Glade will be dedicated on May 30, 2019, marking the 17th anniversary of the official end of the recovery effort at Ground Zero.