Keith Kaseman Reflects on Design of National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial

The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.
Photo: KBAS

Sep 11, 2021 – ATLANTA, GA

On this date each year, many recall their own experiences during the harrowing events of September 11, 2001. Most students on a college campus know the date as a historical event, rather than a personal memory. Georgia Tech is committed to the promise of remembrance.

We asked Keith Kaseman, assistant professor for the School of Architecture, to reflect on his experiences as a co-designer of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. In early 2003, Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman's design was unanimously selected from more than 1,100 entries from 65 countries. The memorial was dedicated on September 11, 2008.

From where did you derive inspiration for the memorial? What impact did the project have on your own processing of the events of September 11th?

Julie Beckman and I originally decided to commemorate the first anniversary by submitting an entry to the Pentagon Memorial Design Competition, which was due September 11, 2002. It was an incredibly heavy year for everyone living in New York at that time, as daily life was palpably impacted in so many ways in addition to the overall sense of grief that permeated the air. As young design professionals, we just wanted to contribute something positive to the conversation at hand, even if only for a few moments during the first round of the jury selection process. We quietly worked on our idea over the course of a month or so (telling nobody except for our mothers that we were doing this), successfully made the postmark deadline and spent that evening just walking around the city feeling like we made a step towards dealing with our own grief. We felt great about working hard to simply throw an idea into the mix like a dart, fully content with the notion that this would be the full reach of our contribution. When we learned that our design was selected as one of six finalist schemes on a message on our answering machine, our immediate thought was that somebody must have called the wrong number!

We will never be able to express how honored we feel to have been involved with the Pentagon Memorial, especially to the unique extent that we were. We met, worked, cried, and laughed with so many amazing people; we will never forget the multitude of both intimate and public experiences that we shared along the way. From those who lost loved ones, friends, and colleagues, to our uniquely configured and expansive team members, all of whom poured their hearts and sweat into every aspect of the project, and so many others in between, we were all in this endeavor together for six intense years. It was truly incredible.

What impact do you hope the memorial makes on its observers?

Our aim was always to simply provide a quiet place for contemplation, an invitation for personal experience and interpretation. Embedded with hints and clues about those whose lives were taken at that horrific moment, we viewed the Pentagon Memorial as an obligation to signify this space as a place like no other, specifically since that day was unlike any other. We sought to create a highly tactile experience through a limited but rich material palette - granite, stainless steel, water, light, trees and plants - as a way for visitors to be transported into their own thoughts. While worldviews of course evolve and we have all witnessed the world change in so many different ways over the past 20 years, Julie and I remain hopeful that the invitation itself is what endures into the distant future.

What lessons from the project have you imparted on your students at Georgia Tech?

I always find myself telling or reminding students that ideas are real things. In my architecture studios at Georgia Tech, I try to convey that their primary responsibility is to flex their spatial imaginations towards positive futures that are yet to be designed. Architecture is an inherently intensive profession that plays out over long arcs requiring immense amounts of dedication. It is especially important to me that students feel sincerely encouraged to take as many design risks as possible while formulating their personal positions on why, for whom, and how to practice. Whenever I happen to talk to my students about the Pentagon Memorial, I couch it in the light that it was only made possible through deeply rigorous, collaborative, and on-the-fly learning as our team fought for every one of the countless little (and sometimes large) design victories that propelled the project from an idea into real space. 

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