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Planting to Heal: World Trade Center memorial previewed at COPIA.

Mirroring Loss

Garden design at 9-11's Ground Zero a reflection of absence

By Charyn Pfeuffer

Nearly four years after 9-11, Ground Zero is still a place teeming with emotions—sometimes conflicting, always powerful.

It was inevitable that proposals for reconstruction on the site of New York's World Trade Center would stir heated debate. How could architecture meet the practical needs of New York City and also honor those who were killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with grace and elegance?

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which coordinated the reconstruction efforts, selected seven teams of architects and designers to prepare proposals for the site. After nearly two years of deliberation, the World Trade Center Memorial jury selected the proposal titled "Reflecting Absence," by New York architect Michael Arad and Berkeley-based landscape architect firm Peter Walker and Partners, as the design most appropriate to memorialize the events of 9-11.

Peter Walker and Partners, best known for creating problem-solving landscapes that attain artful expression, is responsible for some of most beautiful and iconic works of landscape architecture in the world. Also responsible for the more than three acres of edible gardens at COPIA, the firm has fittingly chosen to preview its plans with a special exhibit previewing the World Trade Center memorial gardens, titled "Reflection and Renewal: Garden Design at Ground Zero," at COPIA. The exhibit includes models, drawings and digital rendering of the site in Lower Manhattan and is organized in cooperation with Walker's firm.

Especially noted for exploring the relationship between art and culture, Peter Walker and his 30-some employees challenge traditional concepts through their urban design and planning and landscape projects. Their work is a culmination of historical knowledge coupled with an understanding of both conceptual and material processes and contemporary needs. In addition to the WTC memorial, the firm has received many honors and awards and won numerous design competitions over the years for work that includes the Library Walk at the University of California, San Diego; the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade in San Diego; and Saitama Plaza in Japan, a project that is currently featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The proposed memorial design by Michael Arad encompasses two gigantic voids that mark the footprints of the fallen towers and provide the primary symbol of loss. Cut deep into the site, they will be lined with water cascades that fall into reflecting pools. Passageways will descend through darkness to this level below the street, down into the outlines left by the destroyed towers. Here, the names of the lost will be inscribed on the walls and the remains of unidentified victims interred.

While the footprints remain empty, Walker has designed the surrounding plaza to be filled with beautiful groves of trees as affirmations of life and rebirth. Paved and planted to emphasize the level plane into which the voids are cut, the park will provide a quiet setting, separated from the bustle of city life, where all can come together for reflection and renewal.

The memorial will help proclaim the city's resolve to regenerate itself and the nation's resolve that freedom is paramount. "Reflecting Absence" is poised to be the centerpiece of a renaissance in Lower Manhattan and a place to commemorate the tragic loss of life with dignity.

Q&A with Peter Walker

Peter Walker is a landscape architect with 40 years of experience in practice and teaching. He grew up in California and studied journalism, but changed his mind and enrolled for an education in landscape architecture under Stanley White at the University of Illinois. He completed a master's degree under Hideo Sasaki at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and later worked with his tutor in the firm Sasaki, Walker and Associates.

Peter Walker and Partners was formed in 1983. This past June, the International Federation of Landscape Architects gathered in Edinburgh to award the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Gold Medal to Walker (the highest award that can be given to a landscape architect, it recognizes the recipient's unique and lasting impact on the welfare of society and the environment) Walker also writes and lectures widely on landscape design.

It must be extremely difficult to commemorate loss with such dignity. What considerations were taken when creating the design for "Reflecting Absence"?

The memorial is both a sacred place and a respectful public open space for Lower Manhattan.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project thus far?

Working within the public gaze and public emotion.

You've worked on many high-profile projects during your four-decade career, but this project is garnering worldwide attention. How does it feel to be commissioned to create something that will inevitably strike an emotional chord with every person who sees it?

Overwhelming and humbling.

Can you tell me a little bit about the logistics of how you will go about building the memorial gardens? We will have a six-foot-deep earth layer over the structure for tree planting.

What will you be planting at the site?

Oak, sweetgum, grass, moss and groundcover.

Can you explain your philosophy on creating a relationship with nature in your work?

We try to make nature visible and accessible.

What is the feeling you hope to evoke for visitors who come to the gardens?

Respect, welcome, sadness and, finally, catharsis or comfort.

'Reflection and Renewal: Garden Design at Ground Zero' exhibits through Sept. 12 at COPIA in conjunction with its 'Botanica,' exhibit, opening on Friday, Aug. 26, with a launch party and auction from 6pm. $50. The 'Botanica' celebration continues Saturday–Sunday, Aug. 27–28, from 10am to 5pm, with demonstrations, lectures, workshops and of course, excellent eats. $15–$22.50; under 12, free. Peter Walker speaks about his work on the memorial on Saturday, Sept. 10. COPIA, 500 First St., Napa. 707.259.1600.

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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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