Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Those new to the D.C. area—or even long-timers—may not know that we have our own 9/11 memorial, smaller and less dramatic in gesture than the black hole in Lower Manhattan, but no less affecting in its own way. The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial sits on the southwest side of the Pentagon, yards from where terrorists flew a jet into the building on the sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001, killing 184 people and changing the course of world events. 

Wedged awkwardly between the Pentagon and a swirl of I-395 ramps, the elegant and understated memorial opened eight years ago. It conveys the scale of personal losses suffered, if not the global repercussions of the plane’s impact. And it’s obviously an appropriate place to reflect on this week’s 15th anniversary of the terror attack.

But that requires getting there, and good luck with that. The approach by car is confusing, with irregular signs that instruct drivers to double back on themselves, then leaving them adrift in a vast sea of Pentagon parking. Take Metro instead. Either way, the approach to the memorial is strange: With acres of parked cars on one side, there’s a line of waist-high security planters on the other, beyond which lie a buffer zone and the Pentagon. I’m not really complaining—the sense of unease fits. After all, this kind of hyper-securitized landscape, with signs telling visitors that taking photographs is forbidden, is a major legacy of 9/11.

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At the memorial itself (where photography is allowed), a grove of trees stands in a field of multicolored gravel, and benches are set in angled rows. There are 184 benches, one for each victim, and the angle of the rows follows the trajectory of American Airlines Flight 77. The benches, made from stainless steel and a warm-hued granite, rise out of the ground and cantilever over small linear pools. Victims’ names are inscribed in the metal. The rows ascend by age: An “age wall” displays a series of years, and benches in each row memorialize victims born the same year. So they are densest in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and thin out at the ends. The most heartbreaking benches are near the sparse entrance, for child victims such as Dana Falkenberg (b. 1998) and Bernard C. Brown II (b. 1990).

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

This landscape is abstract, visually restrained, and, except for dates and names, almost wordless. It has none of the bombast of the World War II Memorial and is much more of a piece with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The design was plucked from more than 1,000 submissions in an open competition. Echoing how Lin was chosen to design the Vietnam memorial when she was still an undergraduate, the winners, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, were a couple fresh out of architecture school, and drew up their entry in the small studio apartment they shared. Although they were novices, the design they produced is clear, resonant, and functional.

Apart from a few aspects that seem overdetermined—for instance, the height of the age wall, in inches, corresponds to victims’ ages—the logic reveals itself as you walk around the outer path. An early worry about this design had been the combination of gravel and dozens of small pools: Wouldn’t they end up full of rocks? On a recent visit, most pools had just a few pebbles in them, and blossoms from the crepe myrtle trees floated on some, which was pretty. The form of the benches nods to the Air Force Memorial up the road. It is unmistakably plane-like. Beckman and Kaseman took what was an agent of destruction and reclaimed it as a symbol of hope.

No one sits on the benches. They are polished granite, like headstones, and sitting on them feels wrong. Instead, people sit on the low walls around the memorial, and the benches remain hauntingly empty. The plants seem healthy and well cared for. Eight years on, the crepe myrtles are maturing and will turn a vivid red in the fall. Lights in the pools and under the benches make the whole grove glow at night.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The Pentagon Memorial won’t be off the beaten track for much longer. There are plans to build a three-story visitor center nearby, inside the loop of a highway ramp. Exhibits will recount what happened on Sept. 11, celebrate the lives of victims, and describe “how the United States and governments around the world are working to help prevent another 9/11,” according to the Pentagon Memorial Fund’s website.

As 9/11 crosses the line from recent tragedy to historical event, it’s inevitable that future visitors will need more context to understand it. There is also a need for better basic facilities at the site, like real bathrooms (not portacabins) and a shaded place to get refreshments. The view of the memorial from the top of the visitors center ought to be memorable.

Still, there’s a risk of the center overshadowing and over-explaining this delicate memorial. Go there now, try to block out the rush of traffic, and sit with your own thoughts while you can.