Twelve years have passed since the tragic 9/11 attacks in New York City, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In just a few short years the 9/11 memorial in New York is planned to be completed. Many people have had the experience of walking the grounds and looking over the fountains in memory of a loved one lost or simply while visiting the site on a day off.
The firm PWPLA, driven by landscape architect Peter Walker, was selected as the designer for the memorial grounds alongside Michael Arad and his winning scheme. Recently Walker came to the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design and gave the kick-off lecture for the Church Memorial Lecture series.
While most people are aware of the design for the grounds and have either seen a picture or visited the site in person, they are not sure what inspired Walker. Walker shared his inspiration with us and we would like to share it with you.
It could be said that many designers, if not most, have developed as a reflection of those influences which have passed through their life. Walker certainly believes so. Early experiences with design and his long time collection of minimalist art have influenced his design moves in extraordinary ways.
One of his most defining moments in his younger years was his visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte by famous landscape architect Andre Le Notre. Here, Walker’s education began to make sense. Le Notre commanded space with simple geometries placed on axial grids and a flat plain. The design is powerful and reveals that simple geometries have the ability to create space.
Upon returning to the states, Walker began exploring these concepts of utilizing the plane, geometries, grids, and forced perspective. In the 1980’s Walker set out to explore these concepts. The Marlborough Street Roof Garden in Boston Massachusetts was an experiment with Martha Schwartz. They applied Le Notre’s technique of forced perspective by decreasing the sizes of pots in a row. Mirrors were placed on the ground to capture the sky just like Le Notre's water features.
Necco Garden, a temporary installation at MIT and the sculpture garden design for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Texas also used the effect of a flat plane and grids. Walker had begun to catch onto something that earlier designers had realized. When a surface is completely flat, anything placed on that surface gains importance. Walker compared this to a painting on a wall at an art gallery. The Sony Center in Berlin and the Saitama Plaza in Tokyo are additional projects where he had the opportunity to test these design theories. Each of the surfaces are practically flat.
But landscape architecture was not the only art to influence Walker. His love for collecting and seeing minimalist art works has also had a great impact on his designs. Carl Andre, an American minimalist artist and Michael Heizer a landscape sculptor have left their mark too.
In each of these influences, simplicity through restraint commands power of place. This is what has taken place at the 9/11 memorial.. Here Walker used the grids of Carl Andrea, Andre le Notre, and his own previous designs. He also expressed power through his minimal use of plants, materials, and layout.
Like the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte the objects placed on the flat plane commanded power. They commanded the space above as well. This is most pointedly experienced as one walks from any location at the 9/11 site towards the voids. The absence of space and the absence of those lost that day are experienced.