Mercer Island artist Ingrid Lahti talks about artwork she made in response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and about the national memorial at Ground Zero in New York.
The images of 9/11 are burned into memory — horrible, terrifying images of airplanes slicing into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the massive, solid structures splintering, burning and collapsing toward the earth in clouds of smoke and dust. These images replay again and again in our minds and over the airwaves.
Imagine, then, the difficulties faced by an artist, designer or architect who is trying to create something that not only appropriately memorializes these events but also captures the sense of loss beyond just the physical destruction.
For the anniversary of 9/11 in 2002, Mercer Island-based artist Ingrid Lahti was invited to create a memorial as part of Bellevue’s 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony. Lahti studied biology and molecular biology at Reed College and Yale University, but switched gears to receive a bachelor of fine arts from Cornish College of the Arts and a master of fine arts in sculpture from the University of Washington.
After struggling with the process, visiting Ground Zero and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., Lahti ultimately chose very familiar forms: She re-created the simple, vertical, immediately recognizable forms of the Twin Towers and installed them to rise out of the pond of Bellevue’s Downtown Park.
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The 13-foot-tall forms were covered with 3,014 medallions, one for each person who, at that point, was known to have died in New York, the Pentagon and the hills of Pennsylvania, where one of the four hijacked planes ultimately crashed.
The individual pieces of metal caught the light and flickered in the wind. They appeared like the windows of the towers, but also moved in what Lahti calls an “aleatory movement,” an unpredictable, random effect that seemed delicate and fragmented, but also soothing and beautiful.
In the days and weeks that followed the terror attacks, hundreds of shrines accumulated around Ground Zero. These creations were both mourning rituals and acts of creativity, allowing artists and nonartists alike to produce tangible, visual proof of their grief and their need to remember.
About six months after 9/11, Lahti visited Ground Zero and was struck by the badges — mostly from firefighters — that had been left there as tributes to those who died trying to rescue others. These shining pieces of identification resonated with Lahti and provided the inspiration for the individual medallions that were attached to the metal frames of the tower structures.
It was always important to Lahti that it was not a solitary process; she wanted the community to be involved. More than 30 people, from structural engineers to volunteers organized by the Bellevue Arts Museum, were involved in producing and installing the steel frame for the piece.
Dozens more came together in community meetings to hand-write the thousands of names of the dead on the medallions. The act of one person writing another person’s name was important to Lahti, who says that it was “an attempt to connect people, more literally, to the tragedy.”
“We were the most powerful nation in the world and this hit and it was extraordinarily painful. But you can’t vanquish violence with violence. It was a privilege to work during a time when there was so much goodwill, such a desire to work together,” she said.
According to Mary Pat Byrne, an arts specialist with the city of Bellevue, Lahti’s work was very well-received. “It was intended to be up for only a day. The time was extended to three days, then a week and then more than five weeks … The community’s response in writing, verbally and anecdotally was very positive,” she says.
The memorial was taken down when the pond was scheduled to be drained.
Now, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, another memorial, the momentous and long-planned memorial at Ground Zero, designed by architect Michael Arad, is complete and being unveiled, first to families of victims, then to the public.
Rather than reconstructing the towers’ forms or erasing the site of devastation by building on top of it, Arad designed two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, that are set precisely within the footprints of the original towers.
Lahti, who had submitted her own proposal (created in conjunction with an architect, landscape designer and evolutionary biologist) for the memorial in New York, applauds the choice of design.
“When they announced the winner, it was perfect. Arad’s idea of leaving the two holes was right on and powerful. It’s a leap into negative space,” Lahti says.
The surrounding plaza is also important to the function of the Ground Zero memorial; it has been planted with hundreds of trees and there are spaces for people to gather. The memorial orchestrates and unifies a vast space that has been radically altered, and is heavily loaded with meaning, into a permanent site that encourages collective and individual remembrance.
Nine years ago, here in the Pacific Northwest, Lahti’s memorial for the anniversary of 9/11 was meant to be temporary and now exists only through images.
“What I wanted, in the end, was something lovely enough that some people would have some hope. To help people remember the Towers in a graceful and hopeful fashion,” Lahti says.