“From Memory to Memorial” – Book review by Lisa Horne

In memory of the lives that were lost, saved, and changed forever in the attacks on September 11, 2001, here is a review of Bill Thompson’s recently published book, From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93. Thank you, Lisa Horne, for this review

“We Did Not Forget” – Book review by Lisa Horne of From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93 by J. William Thompson

Bill Thompson is personally grateful for the passengers’ heroic charge that ended in Flight 93’s crash in Somerset County, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. He was only six blocks away from what was likely the target of Flight 93’s hijackers on that fateful day. In From Memory to Memorial, Thompson explores personal and professional questions through this narrative of the people and events in the creation of the Flight 93 National Memorial following the events of 9/11. The prologue establishes many themes: the role of temporary tributes, elusive closure for the victims’ families, the appropriate expression of a memorial, and the causes of the extended delay in building this particular memorial.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The first chapter opens with vignettes of where residents of Somerset County were that day as they saw the airplane, and moves progressively through its descent to close with the two metal scrap cutters who actually witnessed the impact. Events unfold as they would have been experienced. Where is the airplane? There must be one. Where are the bodies? There are none. As the narrative progresses, we see it through the eyes of the first responders, who come to realize that the smell of burning flesh and the small pieces of scrap metal littered everywhere is all that is left. Most, but not all, of the human remains have been vaporized into the tree canopy, into the land. The text is visceral, raw, and immediate.

Most journalists miss the influence of land on culture while many designers, who understand these things, cannot express it well or communicate the emotion and nuances of these dynamics. With past experience as Editor-in-Chief of Landscape Architecture Magazine for nearly a decade, Thompson exemplifies both skillsets so that the reader can experience the interconnectedness of the landscape and the people who live on it. The book traces the history of the nearby village, Shanksville, from the late 1700s to the present day and underscores how the farmers’ value of cooperation became a bedrock of the community’s way of life. The theme runs like a ribbon through the book in the village’s efforts to provide support and comfort to the victims’ families. Within this backdrop, we understand and applaud as Wally Miller, the county coroner, tells news anchor Katy Couric that she cannot film the crash site. It is sacred ground containing the remains of the heroes of Flight 93.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Alongside the minute details of the events unfolding after the crash of Flight 93, there are larger implications at play. Since there is little information and no survivors, the motive of the brave passengers is unclear. Was it self-sacrifice? Are some of the passengers heroes or are all of them heroes? What defines a hero? These questions are painful, but important for the American culture and for the expression of the memorial. Thompson takes the reader through these different considerations and sensitively presents different views. Memorials are built so that we remember what we can easily forget. What about the phenomenon of visitors leaving behind temporary, mass produced objects such as hats, teddy bears, and flags with messages marked on them? How do we preserve these? Some of these questions do not have resolution, but Thompson shares how all of it unfolded for this memorial site and also adds perspectives from Erika Doss, an American studies scholar on temporary memorials and Rhoda Schuler, a theology student who connects the behavior with the theory of an American civil religion.

The last half of the book focuses on the events around the design and construction of the memorial. Much of it was unprecedented. A summary of outcomes for places of mass tragedy by a cultural geographer Kenneth Foote identifies three outcomes: obliteration, designation, and sanctification. Places of mass murder are rarely sanctified with the exception of the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. It is not coincidental that the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and its design and construction process served as a precedent for the Flight 93 crash site. We also learn that memorials are often either heroic with overt symbolism such as the National World War II Memorial or minimalist and understated as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Flight 93 National Memorial Map

It was important that the process of selecting the memorial be through a competition open to any and all although, as Thompson reminds us with an experienced perspective, only the skilled professionals had a realistic chance of winning. Thompson summarizes the differences and major themes of the five final entries and explains the jury’s selection process. We can fully understand how they came to select the entry that they did even though there was early concern about the way the design might be perceived. The final entry, of course, eventually led to a considerable controversy with its Crescent of Embrace that was compared to the symbol of an Islamic crescent. In the end, the designer adjusted the design to be a Circle of Embrace with some additional trees. Not having yet seen the memorial myself, I appreciated the site description from Thompson’s visit during the grand opening and his assessment of how effectively the design achieved its original intent.

The immersive details in the book, and the inclusion of dialogue and quotes drawn from hundreds of oral histories and interviews, create a unique and important non-fiction story. With restraint, Thompson folds in scholarly research and definitions only where they are needed to provide perspective with the greatest economy of words. It is never academic, but the depth of thought takes the story past the superficial and poses questions of importance to the profession of landscape architecture and to Americans.

Lisa Horne, ASLA, is a project leader at Studio Outside in Dallas, Texas, and incoming chair of the ASLA Professional Practice Network. She may be reached at lhorne (at) studiooutside.us. Thank you, Lisa, for this excellent book review!

Thank you to Pennsylvania State University Press for providing a review copy.

And thank you, Bill Thompson, for such a thoughtful, meaningful book.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service