Austin and Pihlak’s Presentation Synopsis on the Flight 93 Memorial’s ‘Idea-Drift’

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By Steve Delahoyde Comment

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For the past little while, you might recall that we’ve been reporting on both fronts of the issues surrounding the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, with Alec Rawls and his people trying to get a complete redesign, saying that the whole thing looks too similar to an Islamic symbol, to the other debate over whether or not Paul Murdoch borrowed some of his ideas from other designers who were submitting concepts during the initial stages (you’ll recall that this has just recently been making some headlines again). Two of the people involved with the later issue, Lisa Austin and Madis Pihlak, were kind enough to write in to us and offer us a synopsis of their recent presentation at a National Parks Service-sponsored conference about park planning and design, held at the University of Virginia. As we’re always keen to share both sides of the story, allowing you to make up your own mind, so you’ll find the synopsis, which we found pretty interesting, below and continued on to a second page:

Idea-drift is the inadvertent migration of design elements from one proposal to another that occurs with some frequency in 2-phase competitions. The phase-1 section is open to anyone who registers. Submissions are usually exhibited in a gallery and, in larger competitions, on a website. In phase-2, a few finalists are paid to expand their ideas, and a winner is selected.

Idea-drift seems to have flourished in the competition to design the $50 million-plus Flight 93 Memorial. The original January 2005 design by the eventual winner (Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch, AIA) was submitted without a site visit, and apparently, without the guidance of a landscape architect. After visiting the 2,200 acre site in February 2005, Murdoch he said he realized he had to make major changes. With the help of the $25,000 finalist stipend and a noted landscape architecture firm, Murdoch transformed his initial proposal.

Paul Murdoch’s phase-2 design, Crescent of Embrace was submitted in June 2005, and was selected as the winner in September 2005. But, Murdoch’s abstract form of a red crescent had unfortunate religious associations. A public outcry followed the announcement that Crescent of Embrace had won the Flight 93 Memorial competition. Murdoch returned to the drawing board and in November 2005, eleven months after his first entry, he published a third design.

Murdoch’s third design included ten features similar to those proposed in another phase-1 design, Sacrifice by Lisa Austin and Madis Pihlak. Though not identical, a comparison shows Sacrifice to be a closer match to Murdoch’s final design than is his own phase-1. Requests for attribution were rebuffed by the organizers who said that the ten elements claimed as part of Sacrifice were also included in other phase-1 designs. In fact, data provided by the competition organizers indicates that ten percent of the original designs contributed at least one element to Murdoch’s revisions. This observation is supported by the organizer of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Paul D. Spreiregen, FAIA, who was quoted in the Fall 2006 Competitions magazine editorial (by Dr. G. Stanley Collyer) saying the winner of the Flight 93 Memorial competition appears to have mixed and matched elements from other designs.

Though one finalist did download and review all the phase-1 entries, Murdoch did not.

Instead, after becoming a finalist Murdoch became an attentive student of the site, carefully listening to the suggestions of landscape architects, park staff, jurors and others. His revisions have resulted in a better design — this is good. But, shouldn’t the organizers honor the competition guidelines and give “acknowledgment to the author or authors of any material used?”

Idea-drift is a big issue, but this memorial has a larger problem. Despite the winner’s extensive revisions, accusations of deliberate Islamic imagery continue to escalate. At a May 2008 board meeting – as the Families of Flight 93 voiced public support for Murdoch’s design – one retired military officer (unconnected with Flight 93) presented thousands of signatures urging that Paul Murdoch’s design be abandoned. One phase-2 juror and family member, with the help of vocal bloggers are organizing a protest against Murdoch’s design at the August 2008 board meeting in Somerset, PA.

Why are so many people convinced they see religious iconography in this design?

An architectural critic at the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne, wrote about 9/11 saying, “what many of us want to remember of the day are examples, however rare or symbolic, of American action rather than inaction.” Another architectural critic, Patricia Lowry, commented in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that most of the finalist designs for the Flight 93 Memorial did not “communicate persuasively what the memorial is about.” The Weekly Standard columnist, Jonathan V. Last, said that “the problem isn’t that we’ve run out of heroes in America, we just don’t know how to honor them any more.” The continuing controversy over perceived Islamic imagery in the Flight 93 Memorial may be an unarticulated desire for a memorial that addresses the actions of the 40 men and women who stopped an attack on America. In the absence of strong, vital content, some viewers will continue to supply their own.

Thanks very much to Lisa and Madis for sharing this with us.