The four basic elements — water, air, earth and fire — provide us a rich tradition for honoring the dead.
On this day, we remember the events of September 11, 2001, in which the hijacking of four planes and their suicide crashes into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Penn., claimed the lives of over 3,000 people from more than 70 nations. Today, a decade later, the National September 11 Memorial opens in New York City. In creating a space to remember those who lost their lives, the memorial’s architects rely on the four classical elements of water, air, earth, and fire.
At the center of the new memorial are two pools created in the footprints of the two towers of the World Trade Center. As in the water gardens of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, the sound from the rushing waterfalls mutes the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city. The flow of the water starts with a gentle stream from numerous individual jets that unite and strengthen on the downward path. Water’s ability to act as a mirror creates physical reflection of the space as well as encouraging inward reflection. Associated with healing and cleansing, Water is the element of release and renewal.
The element Air, representing the soul and the breath of life, may be found in the large empty spaces above the pools. Filtering the air and reaching to the sky, the trees that were added to the original sparse design make the memorial a living entity that will change over time and that celebrates the continuation of life.
The strength and stability of Earth is represented by the stone basins of the reflecting pools, the steel tridents from the face of the North Tower that are enclosed by the September 11 Museum, and the bronze names of those who died in the events of the day. The tradition of stone as a memorial demonstrates the endurance of memory and resonates with the Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble on a gravestone rather than flowers.
Although Fire as an element has been used in monuments such as the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, it is the one element that is noticeably absent from the memorial. It is, however, vividly present in the memories visitors bring of September 11, 2001, and in the flame of life and hope that we carry forward.