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An Inspired Architects’ 9/11 Pentagon Memorial Design is Reflective in Many Ways

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial

Photo by Laura Novak

The moving 9/11 Pentagon memorial design and park paying tribute to those who perished at The Pentagon on September 11, 2001 is rooted in an architect couple’s personal experiences of that day.

A deeper, more profound love between architects Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman took shape in their bid to win, and later, design one of the most significant monuments of the 21st Century. If a memorial is well designed, it should transcend its purpose as a prompt for reflection and discussion. The Pentagon Memorial, dedicated on September 11, 2008, does far more than serve as the first national 9/11 memorial design paying tribute to the 184 souls lost on September 11, 2001 when American Airlines Flight 77 was steered by terrorists into the Pentagon. The design, developed by Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, stirs the soul and makes an emotional impact through its carefully rendered details down to the landscaping and reflecting pools. It deftly acknowledges of the events of 9/11 with a calm, peaceful and inviting setting to remember.

9/11 Pentagon Memorial design

Photo by Laura Novak

To say Beckman and Kaseman’s concept came from the heart is an understatement. It also game from the gut and their shared personal desire to create a space of positivity during an uncertain time in American history…especially as they lived in New York City and witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center first hand and literally from the ground up. The couple, who lived on the Upper West Side and were working at different architecture firms, were front and center to experience the unthinkable. They watched the start of the workday go up in billowing cloud of smoke and soot and saw the ensuing confusion on the streets. Their proximity to the attacks (especially Beckman, who went downtown to meet up with her boss) made the local, national and international coverage all the more heartbreaking.

Like many New Yorkers, Beckman and Kaseman needed a way to cope with the events of 9/11. Although they initially threw themselves into work at their respective jobs, the announcement of the Pentagon Memorial Design Contest less than a year later provided them a personal creative outlet to express what they would do if they could create a memorial that underscored the events of the brutal day but do it in the most comforting way possible. Each created his or her own sketches of the physical monument as well as brainstorm lists of words and ideas a successful execution of the monument would stir up in visitors.

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial DC

Photo by Jacob Novak

In interviews with the The Washington Post, the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s newsletter (the couple ultimately moved their firm, Kaseman Beckman Advanced Strategies, or KBAS, there to assume university faculty positions) and other publications, the couple affirmed they entered the competition not to win, but to heal their personal wounds, spark productive conversation about 9/11’s impact, design something as a team that had great personal meaning, and pay their respects to those whose family members and friends perished at the Pentagon.

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Even with top architecture firms and designers competing in the international competition, the experience brought the couple closer in their efforts to put together the best entry possible. They would brainstorm after their work hours in local restaurants and their small Manhattan loft over the course of two months. What they ultimately rendered as a 911 Pentagon memorial design would successfully balance loss and life affirmation, as well as have a communal accessibility rather than a large, imposing presence.

Personal cantilevered benches made of anodized aluminum and polished granite commemorating each victim would rise out of the 184 pools giving visitors a place to sit, gather, and remember lost friends and family members.

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial DC

Photo by Laura Novak

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial

Photo by Laura Novak

The concept came together as a place outside the rebuilt Pentagon that froze the moment (9:37 am) in time by integrating elements from the original building’s wreckage and striking steel markers indicating the ages of the victims (3 to 71) at the time of the attack. However, the impact would be offset through the presence of 85 Crape Myrtle trees, water reflecting pools, and sunlight pouring in and out of the park-like setting. Personal cantilevered benches made of anodized aluminum and polished granite commemorating each victim would rise out of the 184 pools giving visitors a place to sit, gather, and remember lost friends and family members. Those benches would be oriented to distinguish who was on Flight 77 and who was an employee inside the Pentagon. The point of impact would be best viewed, in a subtle manner, between two age lines (1959 and 1961).

“For me, one of the first things I was thinking was that it should be a place where, say, a mom and her kids could go on a Sunday afternoon to be near the husband and the father and how we could make it a very welcoming and inviting place,” Beckman told the The Washington Post in May 2003. “(where) they could go for five minutes or a couple of hours and sit and read a book… So, the idea of someplace to sit was there from the get-go.”

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial DC

Photo by Laura Novak

With their shared basic goal to contribute to the conversation of remembering 9/11 in a thoughtful and tasteful way, the last thing the couple expected was to get a call from the Pentagon Memorial Committee in October 2002 to learn they were one of five teams selected to receive a stipend and two months to further develop their concept to a higher level of realization and then travel to Washington to meet with the Pentagon Memorial Family Steering Committee, a group of victims’ family members that would later form the Pentagon Memorial Fund. Beckman noted she was astonished that the entry stood out among 1,100 submissions that were judged by architects, family members, and public figures in the Washington, D.C. area, including two former Secretaries of Defense

“I was at my job when I got the call,” Beckman said in a UTK newsletter article published on September 11, 2015. “I remember it being my one and only out-of-body experience. I then had the pleasure of calling Keith and telling him the good news. Three days later, we had to be at a press conference at the Pentagon. We were thrust into the national limelight. The announcement was the first positive piece of news related to September 11 in a long time.”

Beckman also recalled that there wasn’t a spirit of competition among the six finalists, either, and all of the designs were beautiful. The couple was the last to make their presentation to the competition’s jury and got the opportunity to answer the families’ questions and receive feedback about their design from them. In late February 2003, they learned their design was selected by the competition jury. When people would ask who designed the Pentagon 9/11 memorial, the answer would be them. This prompting them to quit their New York jobs, move to Alexandria, VA to keep an eye on the project, and form their eponymous company.

9/11 pentagon memorial design

Photo by Laura Novak

During the six years between groundbreaking and completion, the young architects under the KBAS umbrella worked closely with a variety of organizations and agencies to see their vision come to fruition. The Pentagon Renovation & Construction Program Office (PENREN) served as the construction agent and provided project management support. The Pentagon awarded Centex-Lee, LLC a contract in August of 2003 to complete all design and construction activities. During the contract, Centex-Lee was acquired by Balfour Beatty, PLC (later Balfour Beatty / Lee + Papa and Associates).

Even with some road bumps in the construction process, Beckman had high praise for the entire design-build team, whose efforts were bolstered by, “hundreds of people and dozens of companies from around the U.S., including academic and industry advisors, material scientists, fabrication specialists, testing facilities, construction experts and design professionals” to ensure every important detail of the construction to honor the fallen in a lasting way.

“What my experience has given me is realizing how architecture can positively impact people,” she reflected. “If you can instill that value in students, we’re all that much better moving forward.”

The memorial, dedicated in 2008 (on the seventh anniversary of the attacks), was the first national 9/11 memorial to open. Beckman recalled to the UTK’s newsletter that entering the competition was like therapy and that it gave her grief a purpose. “What my experience has given me is realizing how architecture can positively impact people,” she reflected. “If you can instill that value in students, we’re all that much better moving forward.”

9/11 Pentagon Memorial Washington DC

Photo by Laura Novak

The way the monument resonated with the families and the general public won a National Medal of Service from the American Institute of Architects for their design. They received the award at the 2012 Architects of Healing ceremony, which honored architects involved in 9/11 memorials and rebuilding efforts. “Words will never describe how honored we feel to have played such a significant role in the Pentagon Memorial,” assessed Beckman in 2015 after the monument had been open for seven years. “It has been such a privilege to be a part of something like this and to have worked so closely with so many people who poured their heart and soul into the project.”

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