"If You Can Dream It…
Architect Paul Murdoch designed the award-winning Flight 93 National Memorial Plaza, which opened to the public in 2011 on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His firm’s blueprint, selected among 1,099 entries from 27 countries, features a solemn design that earned the international WAN Concrete in Architecture Award in 2017 for its simplistic nature that speaks grandiose volumes. The Tower of Voices is the final piece of his overall memorial design, an idea he first conceived a dozen years ago."
“It’s not just an emotional memorial for those of us who have lived through it, especially those who lost [loved] ones,” Mr. Murdoch said recently, “but something that needs to be here to tell the story of what happened.”
Architect for the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Paul Murdoch, speaks to the monument he designed to honor those who lost their lives on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, describes what ceremonies take place on the anniversary of 9/11, how he came up with the schematics of a memorial this important, describes the Tower of Voices memorial and park, and what it’s like to be with the family members when they enter the grounds.
“This is the culmination of 13 years of work, a critical milestone in the project. It’s the last major memorial feature that we originally envisioned in the larger framework of the memorial expression. The tower is the iconic piece as you enter or exit the park to really set the tone for the overall experience. It’s really a welcoming beacon or sentinel, an important moment in the experience of the park,” says Murdoch, whose work is influenced by his travels through India and Japan.
The Tower of Voices is arguably the most dramatic of Murdoch’s interventions, symbolically towering 93 feet like a steeple. Within the confines of the memorial’s precast columns, which are clustered together like a group of reeds, are the aluminum chimes, each between five and 10 feet long. Each chime (the largest weighing up to 150 pounds, according to a press release) is specially tuned to create a unique tone (Arup provided both structural and acoustic expertise). In concert, these instruments create a rich, resonant melody as the wind moves among them. Visitors are able to pass beneath to gaze upward at the chimes, or out to a grove of white pine, serviceberry, hawthorn, and redbuds.
Murdoch worked with a sound artist who specialized in chimes and a musician and tuning theorist on simulating the haunting, melancholy music that would be created by the movement of wind through 40 aluminum tubes of differing lengths.
“When we talked I said, you know, this is not a composed piece. This is always going to be changing. And initially we talked about there being kind of a harmony of these 40 sounds but also some dissonance because of what happened that day.”
Architect Paul Murdoch has overseen the design of the park since 2005.
He said the Tower of Voices was the most ambitious part of the memorial. But just a few weeks before the dedication, he got word most of the massive, custom-made chimes wouldn't be done in time.
“This is still a very young-looking park ... you can see the trees that were planted around the field of honor filling out and really taking shape – giving it the definition that’s so important to the design,” the Los Angeles-based architect said.
And that type of natural growth, over time, is “vital to all of these spaces,” he added, noting many other orchestrated plantings still have years to go before the sites themselves they decorate will be in full bloom.
The memorial in Pennsylvania is an enormous sculpture of wind chimes leading to the sky — each one echoing the voices of those who were killed. Tuesday is the 17th anniversary of the terror attacks.
"The first thing I want them to do is feel," Murdoch said. "Whatever they feel. The tower itself is quite heroic; it's a monumental piece, it's meant to be heroic. But the sounds are not booming chimes. They're meant to be actually quite subtle and intimate, so that people can be there and have a very personal experience, whatever it is for them."
The chimes are eight-inch-diameter tubes cut to somewhere between 5 and 10 feet in length. The length determines the chime’s pitch, but each chime sounds with overtones and undertones, Murdoch said. The goal was to create pitches that would sound distinct, despite those tones, and that would ring in harmony, symbolizing the actions of crew and passengers on that fateful day, but also with a degree of dissonance, reflecting the tragedy, he said.
The chimes are designed to produce a subtle sound that can be heard by people who walk up to the structure — not a booming sound that can be heard on Route 30, although it can be seen from the highway near the park entrance.
The first thing you notice is the wind. It accompanies a quiet chorus of chirping birds, rustling leaves from surrounding trees, and the whoosh of muted traffic on a nearby highway. It makes for a deceptive tranquility, belying the horror of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville in rural southwestern Pennsylvania field after passengers and crew thwarted hijackers’ attempts to hit the U.S. Capitol on September 11, 2001.
Styling a suitable sound for the Flight 93 memorial chimes was a long and arduous process. But Murdoch seems certain it was worth the struggle. While most memorials are unchanged from the day they open up to the public, “through sound and wind activation, it becomes a living memorial, in the sense that it is always changing,” Murdoch says. And while other designs provide one shared experience, the tower will ensure that every visit is unique, even personalized. “There’s an emotional aspect to memorialization where tapping into different sensory experiences can be very valuable,” he says. “It’s offering yet another type of commemoration.”
California architect Paul Murdoch designed the memorial – set on 2,000 acres of former strip-mine property – and the 93-foot-tall Tower of Voices. He said the biggest challenge was the scale of the land and ensuring the heroic expression architects were aiming for wasn’t lost in the rolling landscape.
The Tower of Voices is perched on a mound overlooking the 2,200-acre site. A lighted stone path winds through the trees to the tower and around the mound, allowing visitors to go inside. The tower not only holds a place of prominence, but pushes the 40 individual wind chimes higher into the air.
The task of memorializing what occurred on September 11, 2001 has taken many years and many forms. If you’ve had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 memorial in New York and or visit the 9/11 Museum there, you get a sense of the magnitude of the loss as well as the creation of a solemn dignified response that remembers the almost 3000 victims who lost their lives that day.
“The vastness of that field of honor and the crash site is a very poignant moment in the experience,” Murdoch said.
“The land speaks for itself.”
Because the memorial is situated on a former strip mine, Murdoch said “the land is still healing,” with reclamation still ongoing.
The chimes represent the key component of the nearly 100-foot-tall Tower of Voices, the final installation of the Flight 93 National Memorial, a 2,200-acre park located on a former reclaimed strip mine in Somerset County, Pa. It is where United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark, N.J. crashed, killing everyone on board.
"It's the memory of these people, through these ephemeral voices from the chimes, actived by the wind," says architect Paul Murdoch; his firm's design was chosen from more than 1,000 concepts to design the memorial.