Poised on the edge of a war of their own seeking, Americans have not forgotten the event that, in their leaders’ minds, at least, brought them to this point: the three-pronged attack of Sept. 11, 2001. While the plans to invade Iraq proceeded, so did the competitions to design fitting monuments to the people who died that day in New York and Washington, D.C. In late February, New York’s Lower Manhattan Development Corp. announced its choice of a design for rebuilding the World Trade Center site, and last week a jury chaired by the chief curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art also declared a winner in the competition for a memorial at the Pentagon.

Both these competitions have aroused tremendous interest, in part because of the variety and merit of the ideas proposed, but in part, too, because of the way they have refocused attention on the question of just what it is we do — or should be doing — when we build memorials. This is what makes the Sept. 11 efforts fascinating even to those of us who are not American. Quite apart from the fact that people of many different nationalities died in those attacks, every nation has its own sad or traumatic events to remember and cannot help but be curious as to how others choose to translate loss or outrage or grief or even defiance into physical form.

Fashions change in public memorials, as in all things. Over the years, they have taken one of several well-worn paths. There are shrines, such as the Meiji and Yasukuni memorials, and churches, too numerous to mention. There are houses where the revered dead once lived, such as Gen. Maresuke Nogi’s simple home in Nogizaka. Sometimes the ruins left after an attack or invasion are preserved, as with the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche in Berlin or the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. There are statues, men on horses, pillars and obelisks — like Nelson’s Column in London or the U.S. capital’s monument to George Washington. There are gardens, such as Hiroshima’s Peace Park, and museums, including the trio of notable buildings commemorating the Holocaust: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. These are the standard embodiments of grief.

In recent years, however, memorials have cut free of such conventions. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, designed by the young Chinese-American architecture student Maya Lin, was one of the first to break out of the mold. A black gash of marble, descending into and returning from the earth, inscribed with the chronologically ordered names of the dead, Ms. Lin’s memorial replaced simple remembrance with a kind of frozen art or theater. It did not just refer to an event, it re-enacted it.

And that is what the winning designs for the Sept. 11 sites do. At the Pentagon, cantilevered, illuminated stone benches will be arranged in a formation echoing the hijacked jet’s flight path into the building’s west side. Each bench will be named for one of the 184 victims. The benches commemorating those on the plane will point toward the Pentagon; those commemorating the Pentagon workers will face away from it. Under each bench will be a pool of water; surrounding them, a grove of maple trees. Stone and water and light will interact in a solemn and symbolically lucid place of meditation. Designed by two unknown young American architects, it promises to be a most impressive memorial, all the more affecting for its simplicity.

World-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind’s plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center site is necessarily more ambitious and grandiose and has, in fact, drawn some criticism on those grounds. It does not actually include a memorial to the victims. That will come later. But it does provide the framework, and, like the Pentagon plan, it seeks to tell a story as well as repopulate an empty space. Libeskind envisages a 1,776-foot (almost 600-meter) tower — 1776 being the date of America’s origin as a nation — surrounded by lesser towers in the shape of shards and slivers of glass. At the center of the site, the gaping hole left by the Twin Towers’ collapse will be preserved in the form of a 10-meter-deep “bathtub,” a black hole, an image of irrationality.

Finally, the design ensures that each Sept. 11 a wedge of sunlight will fall unimpeded through the center of the site from 8:46 a.m., when the first tower was struck, to 10:28 a.m., when the second imploded. As some have pointed out, there is almost too much symbolism going on here. And yet New Yorkers have generally embraced the plan as a uniquely imaginative way of expressing their complex feelings about the site.

How one responds to these designs depends on whether one is persuaded that the function of a memorial is to enlighten as well as to remember. Those who are will find them inspiring.

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