At Celilo Park, where we were headed, a sense of loss was inescapable. An unimpressive expanse of grass on the south bank of the Columbia River 16 miles east of The Dalles, the stretch of river had for millennia been the region’s most important fishing and trading center, as well as a sacred place where religious ceremonies had been held. The mighty falls that once thundered there had been inundated by the Dalles Dam in the middle of the last century, an event generally regarded as a final death knell for the native tribes’ salmon-based economy, if not for their culture itself. Fifty years later, the wounds were still raw. In a few hours, spiritual and political leaders from various tribes would bless the future Confluence Project site, and Lin hoped to glean clues from the ceremony about how to proceed.
It seemed an apt moment to broach the topic of memorials in general, a topic I’d so far carefully avoided, knowing Lin’s distaste for it. Celilo, it seemed, opened a door to discussing the larger subject of architecture and public mourning. I told Lin that in light of the distinction she drew between memorials and memory works, I’d like to ask her about her service on the competition jury for the World Trade Center memorial.
Predictably, she asked that the interview be curtailed.
However, after a tense few moments during which she delivered a lament about the tragedies of being typecast as a monument maker, she allowed the conversation to proceed.
Because the country had rushed to memorialize the attacks on the World Trade Center, some people had argued that a neutral design such as Arad and Walker’s, one that could be imbued with various meanings, was the only possible response, I said.
“This is the thing we’ll never know,” Lin replied, interrupting me. “They moved very quickly. And I think when you’re in the throes of grief, you’re going to reach and grasp and move fast, thinking that’s going to make you feel better. But in a way, only time is going to make you overcome it. I think there’s this false expectation laid down on memorials, because of the success of the Vietnam memorial, that you’re going to feel so much better from it. And that’s a false hope.”
Her comment shed an interesting light on the memorial at Celilo. The similarities between the drowned falls and the felled towers were considerable, after all. Both the World Trade Center and Celilo Falls had previously been potent symbols of national identity; both had been powerful centers of trade and cultural interchange; both had been destroyed in cataclysmic inversions of vertical space (the towers having fallen, the waters having risen); and in both cases, the memorials would commemorate the loss on the actual ground where the loss had occurred.
But the differences were just as remarkable. On Sept 11, nearly 3,000 people had been killed and an icon of American capitalism destroyed by foreign attackers. In March 1957 an international cathedral-cum-agora had undergone a scheduled demolition by domestic colonizers. One event represented a threat to a way of life; the other represented a culture’s near-extinction. And strangely, where Arad and Walker’s design had been embraced by a public eager to assuage its grief, Lin’s had been met with doubt. Her first proposal—to excavate the riverbank and erect a glass wall that would peer into the watery wreckage of the falls (in an eerie echo of Arad and Walker’s scheme)—had been dismissed by tribal members who perceived it as tantamount to digging up their mother’s grave. Some had suggested that the tragedy should not be memorialized for seven generations.