A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes: The Oculus and the 9/11 Memorial

Day 19 of my 30-day writing challenge


It’s hard for me to believe, but until yesterday, I had never visited the site of the 9/11 memorial, in spite of living in New York for over a decade, including during the attacks on the Twin Towers. Part of me wishes I had gone much, much earlier, but another part is glad I saw it for the first time after the completion of the World Trade Center 1 (also known as “The Freedom Tower”), the 9/11 Memorial, and the Oculus, the soaring, white, steel structure that resembles the body and flight bones of a bird of prey about to take flight behind the memorial’s north reflecting pool.

Constructed of over 100 ribs of steel weighing over 50 tons each, and approximately 800,000 square feet, the Oculus is a monumental piece of public architecture. With its vaulted ceiling, blinding whiteness, clean lines, and light-flooded interior, it looks like an interstellar space port crossed with the Chartres Cathedral. As I walked into the main transit hall, which is larger than the main concourse of Grand Central Station, I immediately imagined a Bach canto winging its way up to the heavens, sung by a choir several hundred strong.

oculus.jpg interior

The curators of the space are literally capitalizing on the Oculus’ resemblance to a sacred space with their current installation, “Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.” It consists of 34 reproductions of Michelangelo’s frescoes, including “The Creation of Adam.” Its centerpiece, a reproduction of “The Last Judgement,” is over two stories high.

oculus interior 2

The exhibition is not free. It costs twenty dollars for an adult, fifteen for a child. Should you choose not to pay, you can still see almost everything, but not as well, and not up close and at eye level, which is the supposed advantage the exhibition gives you over the real thing (other than not having to travel to Rome). You also have to pay to enter the real Sistine Chapel, of course, but when you get inside you see, well, the Sistine Chapel. With “Up Close,” you are paying to see reproductions. In a shopping mall.

Because while the Oculus is primarily a transportation hub, linking several New York subway and ferry lines as well as the New Jersey PATH trains, it is also, inescapably, a high end shopping center, filled with luxury brands. It’s impossible to walk in and not wonder if New York City has built itself nothing more, and nothing less, than a giant place of worship to consumerism. To be fair, it’s located in the heart of the financial district, a place on which the world’s economy depends. But it is also forever linked to the loss of life on 9/11, spatially, visibly, temporally, and architecturally — according to the New York Times, the design purposefully allows for clear sightlines and thus, better security, and for easy evacuation of large crowds — and something about the blatant and unapologetic materialism of its usage just feels . . . off.

I think my unease with the Oculus is partially because it so effectively gestures towards the sublime before miring itself in crass commercialism. If Wordsworth had been into architecture instead of clouds, I think he might have written poems about it, the way that Hart Crane immortalized the Brooklyn Bridge. Certainly the “Reflecting Absence” 9/11 memorial fountains and the 9/11 Museum deserve something transcendent in the skyline, something more elegant and less obvious than the Freedom Tower.

freedom tower

At the same time, I have to shrug and admit that there might be nothing more consummately American than the Oculus. It’s simultaneously a crossroads for people all over the world; a secular cathedral that exchanges the beauty and belief of the past for a $500 handbag or the cost of admission to quality fakes; a pheonix rising from the ashes of an era-defining tragedy; a space that feels otherworldly and yet is grounded in the practical considerations and fears of a post-9/11 world. All our country’s energies and vices, our sorrows and successes, our mean preoccupations and hopes for transcendence might just be summed up here.

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