Analysis in the Service of Aesthetics and Healing

The 9/11 Memorial in New York City was designed by Michael Arad. It consists of two cascading pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Along the sides of the pools are bronze panels with the names of the dead inscribed.

The designers faced an unusual challenge: how to arrange the names in a way that would respect the wishes of relatives for certain names placed together, to reflect logical groupings (such as victims on one of the fatal flights grouped together), and to present an aesthetically balanced appearance, such as avoiding names of similar lengths stacked one above the other, creating visually jarring “gutters” or vertical columns of blank space that creates an almost mechanical and oddly disconcerting appearance that detracts from the sense of flow and peace the Memorial seeks to establish.

There are 1,568 names around the north pool, representing 1,475 people who were in or around the north tower, 87 people aboard the jetliner that hit it and 6 victims of the 1993 bombing of the trade center. The 1,414 names around the south pool include 441 emergency workers — chiefly firefighters and police officers, 690 people from the south tower, 60 from the plane that hit it, 125 at the Pentagon, 59 from the jetliner that hit it and 39 from the jet that crashed in Pennsylvania.  The designers decided that cut-out letters would work best for the rubbings they were certain people would make and that could be back-lit at night. The typeface they chose, Optima, was designed by Hermann Zapf in 1958. Below is a simple illustration of one of the parameters the designers sought to avoid. It turns out that laying out the names, given the various requirements, is a highly complex mathematical puzzle. Last year, The New Yorker magazine’s Nick Paumgarten described the process of arranging and grouping the names of the dead.

In 2004, Afghanistan had a new constitution, bin Laden had a new videotape, and the 9/11 memorial had a new architect, Michael Arad, whose winning design, “Reflecting Absence,” consisted of two cascading pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers, and, ringing these pools, a parapet of bronze panels inscribed with the names of the dead. Arad began to consider ways to arrange them. He ruled out an alphabetical distribution. “Having one pool be A-L and the other M-Z—that didn’t feel right,” Arad said last week. Also, there were, for example, two men named Michael Francis Lynch, and it seemed off, both graphically and emotionally, to have their names appear side by side. A chronological order made no sense, either, considering the manner in which people died. Whichever system he thought of—by workplace, by floor or seat number—seemed to favor some people over others.

In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg, who had become chairman of the foundation, suggested that people be loosely grouped according to their location that day. And so Arad created nine categories. Around the south pool, he’d list everyone who died in the South Tower and at the Pentagon, along with the first responders and the passengers on Flights 175, 77, and 93. Around the north pool would be those who died in the North Tower and on the plane that crashed into it, along with the six who died in the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993.

But how to group these? Arad and Daniels settled on the idea of a distribution that would seem random, reflecting the chaotic and arbitrary nature of the event itself, but that would have some kind of underlying logic, reflecting the bonds that preceded or came of it. “One of the biggest messages of the memorial and the museum is that the people who got up and did whatever they did that morning, and then died doing it, were no different from the rest of us,” Daniels said. “They were us, we are them.” In 2009, the foundation sent out letters to the victims’ families, soliciting “meaningful adjacencies”—that is, the names of others with whom each victim should be listed.

“It was a big risk,” Arad said. “We didn’t know we’d actually be able to do this.”

By the end of that year, the foundation had received twelve hundred requests for adjacencies (and these didn’t include the self-contained adjacencies, such as, say, Ladder Company 7 or Cantor Fitzgerald, which, with six hundred and fifty-eight names, represented the biggest, and most challenging, adjacency block of them all). The reasons for these requests were varied. Sometimes the victims were cohorts, or best friends. In other cases, the families knew, from last phone calls, whom their loved ones had been with in the end—in an elevator, on a ledge—and wanted those people listed together. A same-sex couple and their three-year-old son all perished on Flight 175; their names, certainly, belonged together. One woman, Angela Houtz, died in the Pentagon, in a conference room with seven others coordinating a response to the attacks in New York. Her mother requested that Angela be listed with these seven. Another woman, Abigail Ross Goodman, lost her best friend, who’d been on the ninety-sixth floor of the North Tower, when Flight 11, with her father aboard, crashed into it—a meaningful adjacency, to be sure.

Arad arranged the requests using index cards. Each pairing set off a chain reaction, the strings of connection growing ever more tangled and frayed. There were two thousand nine hundred and eighty-two names. The deeper he and his staff got into this puzzle, the more complex it became, especially in light of the aesthetic requirements: for example, he didn’t want names lining up evenly atop each other, lest there be gutters between them. He had to factor in the number of letters in each name. He had to consider the leading.

At a certain point, the foundation recognized that this job could use the assistance of a computer. Even so, the first few computer scientists and statisticians the foundation got in touch with said that it couldn’t be done. “It really did seem insurmountable,” Daniels recalled. But then his chief of staff called Jake Barton, the principal at the media-design firm Local Projects, who took on the assignment, and, with a data artist named Jer Thorp, designed an algorithm that could sort the names in keeping with all the overlapping requests. Before long, they had a distribution designed to please everyone, including Arad.

“It was a computer-science problem, but it was also a big, crazy typography problem,” Barton said last week. As a spatial puzzle, it also owed a little bit to the so-called “knapsack problem” in mathematics, which involves trying to optimize the fit of irregularly shaped or weighted objects in a backpack. Their solution was really a combination of algorithms, which they called the Names Arrangement. A graphic representation of the computational armature, color-coded on a laptop screen, brings to mind Tetris, but the sight of the names themselves, inscribed in bronze, linked together by happenstance and blood, calculus and font size, is a little like the faint silhouette of a cosmic plan, or else of the total absence of one.

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