Updated September 11, 2018. Today marks 10 years since the Pentagon Memorial was opened to the public.
September 11, 2001, was a typical Tuesday morning in Manhattan for Julie Beckman, who now serves as director of student services and adjunct assistant professor in UT’s College of Architecture and Design.
Beckman was working for an architecture firm in New York at the time and was walking along Fourteenth Street when she overheard bystanders talking about a plane crashing into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. A short time later, while standing on the corner at Sixth Avenue, she witnessed United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the South Tower.
She hurried to meet her partner, Keith Kaseman, at his office in midtown. Kaseman is now an assistant professor of architecture at Georgia Tech.
The couple walked home to their studio apartment, turned on the TV, and spent the evening weeping, in complete disbelief over what they’d witnessed that day.
“We lived through the shock and grief of it all,” said Beckman. “There was sadness all around us throughout the city.”
A June 2002 announcement from the Pentagon sparked their interest. The Department of Defense was sponsoring an international design competition for a new memorial to be placed at the site of the Pentagon crash.
“Keith and I had been looking for a way to give back,” said Beckman. “We heard about the competition and knew that there would be a conversation about how to remember the 184 lives lost at the Pentagon. Given what we do as designers, we could contribute an idea to that conversation.”
Beckman said they started the process by identifying some priorities: to create a place like no other because September 11 was a day like no other, to express the magnitude of what happened, and to demarcate a special place for each individual lost while collectively telling the story through design.
For the next several months, the couple spent evenings and weekends on the proposal. It marked their first competition entry. They were living in a 280-square-foot apartment on Amsterdam Avenue above an Italian restaurant. They’d meet at the restaurant after work, sit at the bar, and talk about their ideas. They didn’t tell anyone they were working on the project.
On September 11, 2002, they dropped off their proposal at FedEx and headed to Central Park for a 9/11 commemorative concert. In late October, they were notified that they were one of six finalists selected from 1,200 entries.
“When I first listened to the voicemail asking us to contact the planning committee, I thought we’d filled out the entry form wrong,” said Beckman. “We were just happy to meet the deadline and submit a proposal. We had no idea our design would make it so far.”
The six finalists were given a stipend to bring their designs to Washington and meet with the Pentagon Memorial Family Steering Committee, a group of victims’ family members that would later form the Pentagon Memorial Fund.
“We were asked to bring a model and additional renderings of our design,” said Beckman. “We met with the Family Steering Committee, which helped set the foundation for what this memorial would become. It was such an indescribable honor to be a part of the entire process.
“There wasn’t a spirit of competition among the six finalists, either, and all of the designs were beautiful. After an emotionally charged day, Keith and I were the last of the finalists to make a presentation. During this time we had the opportunity to answer the families’ questions and received tremendous feedback from them.”
In late February 2003, the committee unanimously selected Beckman and Kaseman’s design.
“I was at my job when I got the call,” said Beckman. “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.”
The couple left their jobs in New York and moved to Alexandria, Virginia, in the spring of 2003 to begin the project. They lived there through the bulk of the research and design process.
Beckman said they strove to create an inviting place that allowed visitors the freedom to interpret the memorial in their own way without being told how to think or feel. They incorporated natural aspects—water, trees, and stone—into the space to allow for a peaceful experience.
The memorial was built 165 feet from the Pentagon wall where the hijacked plane crashed. The design uses visual and spatial layers to tell the story of what happened that day.
“We wanted a place for the families to be comfortable, to sit for a few minutes or a few hours and find solace,” said Beckman. “And for the larger national audience, we had to find a way to honor those who were killed and tell their story in a respectful way without words.”
Beckman and Kaseman created the concept of a cantilevered bench, engraved with a victim’s name, resting above a pool of water that glows at night. The field of 184 memorial benches is organized along stainless steel age lines that run parallel to the trajectory of American Airlines Flight 77. Each age line marks a birth year ranging from 1930 to 1998.
“The age lines are a way to show who was taken from us,” said Beckman. “The field of benches signifies everyone who died that day—both on the plane and in the building.”
The engraved benches are oriented in different directions to distinguish the two groups of victims. For those who died inside the building, the Pentagon is in the background when the name is viewed. For those who died on the plane, the sky is in the background.
Along the edge of the site that is adjacent to a busy interstate, the memorial benches are surrounded by a sloping “age wall,” which serves a visual cue indicating the age range of the victims—spanning from three-year-old Dana Falkenberg to seventy-one-year-old John D. Yamnicky, a Navy veteran.
Victims from the same family are linked by a plaque at the end of the pool of water, which lists their family members who also died in the attack.
The memorial was dedicated on the seventh anniversary of the attacks. It was the first national 9/11 memorial to open. The project took six and a half years to complete.
Beckman says 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 said. “If you can instill that value in students, we’re all that much better moving forward.”
The couple was honored with 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,” said Beckman. “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.”
Beckman and Kaseman were married in 2006 and have one son, Oskar. In December 2013, they accepted positions at UT and moved to Knoxville. Kaseman now is a faculty member at Georgia Tech.
Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, firstname.lastname@example.org)