“Reflecting Absence”: The World Trade Center Memorial Fountains

“Reflecting Absence”: The World Trade Center Memorial Fountains

By Najee Johnson |

The twin reflecting pools are located at the World Trade Center and are surrounded by five buildings. As a representation of the twin towers’ absence, the memorial fountains are placed at the former footprints of the North and South towers. The pools give New Yorkers, tourists, family and friends an opportunity to reflect on the absence of their loved ones. The fountains run 24 hours a day and while the water flows, we are constantly reminded of September 11th, 2001, and the many lives lost. There are over 3,000 names engraved into the granite surrounding the pools, representing the people who lost their lives in the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks.

The 9/11 terrorist attack spurred writers to create literature about the tragedy. Calling attention to what is absent by putting names to those lost, Billy Collins, the United States poet laureate at the time, wrote “The Names” in remembrance of the victims of 9/11 at the request of Congress. The poem explores feelings and memories of losing loved ones to this tragedy by incorporating the last names of victims, as the poem progresses through the alphabet. But Collins reminds us in his poem that the victims are more than just names: they were “Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers / The bright eyed daughter, the quick son.” In a PBS NewsHour interview, he explains that while in the midst of writing the poem, he guessed the names he included in the poem, and after doing some research, he realized that the names he guessed matched victims and “sadly every letter of the alphabet is represented.” In the poem, Collins writes, “letting X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound,” which is a worthy symbol of what the fountains represent. They stand for the ones unfound. The seemingly bottomless waterfalls illustrate wounds that will never heal, and people who will never receive closure because of their unfound loved ones.

The design of the memorial has, for many, become a soothing space of reflection and meditation, in addition to one of mourning. Created by Michael Arad and architect Peter Walker, it is a space of remembrance for many families. The two men submitted their proposal for the memorial to a contest, which gave people an opportunity to help choose a memorial that would be acceptable to the victims and their families. The contest received over 5,200 entries from 63 nations. Arad and Walker’s design, named “Reflecting Absence,” was the perfect addition to the World Trade Center Memorial. The Memorial’s twin reflecting pools are each over an acre long and currently serve as the “world’s largest manmade waterfall.” The fountains are made of granite, and as the water flows over the top rim, which is at eye-level, it travels down to two lower levels, which then descend into the ground. There is no visual bottom to the fountains, which is what many people find transfixing. The sound of the flowing water makes the space one of the most serene places to relax, meditate, or remember the history that lies over the very same grounds on which they stand.

People visit the memorial site daily. Some come from other countries to take a piece of history back with them, while others are in search of a name—a name which represents a loved one, an open wound, and possibly a sense of security. I have often watched people there and know their habits. They walk around the fountain quickly, scanning the names as their hearts must race, in hopes of finding a representation of their mom, dad, sister, brother, or spouse. When they find the name they are searching for, they exhale visibly, as if a Band-Aid has been placed over their wound. To them, the names must symbolize the chance to connect to their loved ones, and the appreciation they have towards the memorial is indescribable as it is the last resting place for someone they loved.

As my hands run over the names engraved into the fountain, I am reminded of the many people who worked in the twin towers for years, as well as the people who lost their lives there. The people who were never found, remembering that they too have names. It is a profound feeling to stand at the south fountain, only to realize that I have no view of the north fountain, which testifies to the size of each area and speaks volumes about the lives that are affected daily by this loss. During my most recent visit, a woman and her son stood by one of the names. Using a long white piece of paper, they were stenciling the name of her husband, whom she lost on September 11th. When asked, she said that since 9/11 she has moved out of New York and this stencil allows her to take “a piece of him home with her.” In the midst of our conversation, she explained that she has a stencil from each visit, making this one her third. At that moment, it held true to what the fountains represented. It allowed families to remember their loved ones, tourists to see how New Yorkers have survived the tragedy, and New Yorkers like myself, who may not have known anyone who died in the tragedy to reflect on the absence of those who are no longer with us. The roaring, bottomless fountains allow us to collectively experience a wound that will never close. As Collin describes it, “Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory, so many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”

Works Cited

“9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum || World Trade Center. Web. 18 May 2016.

“About the Memorial.” National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Web. 18 May 2016.

“Billy Collins Remembers the Victims of Sept. 11 with ‘The Names’.” PBS. PBS. Web. 18 May 2016.

“Poet Billy Collins Reflects on 9/11.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 18 May 2016.

Topousis, Tom. “9/11 Memorial’s Fountains Flow.” New York Post. 2010. Web. 18 May 2016.



Najee Johnson is an English major with a concentration in Professional Writing at Lehman College. She enjoys traveling, trying new foods, and reading novels on the beach.

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