To honor Flight 93, designers merge land and history

Arup is working with Paul Murdoch Architects on the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

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Of the four commercial jets hijacked on 9/11, only one failed to hit its target. When the passengers of San Francisco-bound Flight 93 realized that they had been caught up in a major attack against the United States, they rushed the cabin where the terrorists had taken control. The plane ultimately crashed in rural Pennsylvania, far from its intended destination: the US Capitol Building.

The following year, Congress designated the impact site as a national memorial — raising the question of how best to commemorate the 40 individuals who lost their lives.

A supporting role

Architect Paul Murdoch has spent more than a decade reflecting on this question. Selected in 2005 from more than 1,000 competition entries, the design he created with his wife and business partner Milena, along with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, emphasizes subtlety over spectacle. Instead of aiming for a singular iconic form, the team designed a landscape that highlights particular qualities of the site and its history.

Competition sketch of the Field of Honor

Competition sketch of the Field of Honor

“[Our work] remains… I won’t say invisible, but it takes a back seat to why people come there,” he said. “Design is playing a supporting role in creating a powerful, meaningful memorial experience, and a place that honors these 40 people.”

This bold but understated approach is consistent with the Murdochs’ overall design philosophy, but the sober theme and vast scale of this project made it a particularly good fit. At 2,200 acres, the site is nearly three times as large as Central Park. A conventional memorial would have been dwarfed by its surroundings. Instead, the designers chose to compose an experience that would guide visitors through the landscape, offering prompts for contemplation along the way.

Mapping the memorial

Travel to the park today and you’ll exit the highway onto a winding 2.5-mile drive leading to the visitor center. This angular concrete form sits on the edge of a large bowl-shaped field, as does the crash site. The sight line connecting the two, framed by the visitor center’s walls, follows the path of the plane’s final descent.

Visitor center walls framing flight path walkway

This distinctive topography nods to the site’s previous life as an open-pit strip mine. Forty groves of trees, each containing 40 trees, frame your view of the field as you move around it, crossing a bridge over restored wetlands at one point.

Aerial view of the Field of Honor, with Memorial Plaza visible at the top of the image and the visitor center on the right

Aerial view of the Field of Honor, with Memorial Plaza visible at the top of the image and the visitor center on the right

The decision to make the bowl a central feature of the park was inspired by the memorial’s mission statement, which was developed by the families of Flight 93’s passengers and crew, among others. The first lines of the preamble — “A common field one day. A field of honor forever” — resonated deeply with the Murdochs, helping to crystallize the design strategy for the park as a whole. This language now appears on an overlook at the visitor center.

“[The field] already had special meaning; we didn’t have to create that. So we just heightened it a bit,” Paul said. Working with civil engineers, the architects subtly altered the grading of the bowl to facilitate visitor movement and accentuate views.

The walking path terminates at Memorial Plaza, which abuts the crash site.

Memorial Plaza

Due to its sensitive ecology, the point of impact is closed off; a large boulder provides a contextually appropriate marker.

The plaza affords views to the site through a ceremonial gate, next to which stand 40 marble slabs positioned along the flight path. Each bears a passenger’s name.

The Wall of Names

The Tower of Voices

The final major memorial element will debut in 2018. In contrast to the low-slung walkways and plazas near the crash site, this tall tower, currently being designed, will welcome visitors near the main entrance and serve as a landmark from the highway.

This feature grew out of the Murdochs’ desire to include an acoustic component in the memorial, reflecting the critical role of telephone conversations in the plane’s final hours, when passengers learned of the terrorist plot and called their loved ones to say goodbye. “The last memory that many [family members] have of the people on the plane is through voices on those phone calls,” Paul said.

Rendering of the Tower of Voices

Rendering of the Tower of Voices

In keeping with the broader design goal of immersing visitors in a natural environment, the architects wanted to harness the site itself to generate sound. This led to the idea of wind chimes, which are a good fit for the Tower’s exposed location. When the structure is finished, 40 individual chimes will represent the voices of Flight 93’s 40 passengers.

American precedents

While this park commemorates a particularly modern American tragedy, Murdoch said that after the initial design was complete, he realized that it has strong affinities with memorials from the distant past.

One precedent, Gettysburg, is just a few hours away in Pennsylvania. Although it honors a very different kind of event, “It’s a burial place, and it’s a historic place that still resonates with what happened there,” Paul said.

An older model can be found in Native American memorials, which often used earthworks to honor the dead and mark special sites.

Ohio’s Serpent Mound, believed to have been constructed around 300 BC

“We’re very much grading the land to create this field of honor, and using the land to form a distinct edge, to make a special quality for the field,” he said. “These are all things that Native Americans did hundreds of years ago to make or honor sacred sites.”

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