New York (CNN) -- When you walk in, all you see is a construction site.
Amid the hum and rumble of downtown Manhattan -- not to mention the clang of steel and the tangle of cranes -- hard-hatted workers in fluorescent orange vests yell orders, spread cement, move machines. Empty boxes litter the ground. Shop lights hang from extension cords like Christmas bulbs.
Stacks of paving stones, cinderblocks and plywood are everywhere. Scaffolding and mesh divide work areas from visitors. Chain-link fencing marks a perimeter; beyond it, iron and steel rise from bedrock.
At one end of ground zero, a new skyscraper -- 1 World Trade Center, once known as Freedom Tower -- rises almost 80 stories. A September 11 museum is nearing completion; it will open next year. Three more office towers are in various states of development. Eventually, a transportation hub and shopping arcade will connect the complex underground. The entire project is expected to be finished around 2015.
But among the construction, there is a finished plaza. And at the center of the plaza, there is only stillness.
Two pools -- "voids," as designer Michael Arad calls them -- plunge into the Earth. Located on the footprints of the old Twin Towers, they are giant, empty, open-topped cubes. Their walls are clad in dark granite, their lips surrounded by brass parapets engraved with nearly 3,000 names: those killed here on September 11 as well as in a 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
It's a sight that would appear to be almost "more than any of us can bear," to borrow the words of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, except for two things: the trees and the water.
The trees -- more than 400 -- line the walkways and plaza leading to the voids. All but one are recent transplants. The lone "Survivor Tree," a callery pear, was found in the ruins and nursed back to health. The greenery provides a bucolic sense in the midst of city concrete.
And then, in the dry granite voids, the water is turned on. It falls beneath the names etched in brass and into the pools below, washing away the city noise in a cool spray. The waterfalls create a sense of peace and solace, softening the voids' stark chasms.
"I had chills for the first time when the water was turned on," said Paula Grant Berry, who lost her husband on September 11. Berry, the only victims' family member to serve on the jury that selected Arad's design, had visited the site a handful of times but said turning on the waterfalls was the needed touch.
"It was extraordinary. The wind picked up the water, and a rainbow appeared in the voids."
Arad said he wanted to capture the feelings of emptiness and loss while emphasizing the importance of public spaces -- and public bonding. He remembers how being with people in the aftermath of September 11 -- gathering in New York's squares, looking at flyers of the missing, talking with strangers -- supplied a necessary kindness in those bitter, gritty days.
"It was so instrumental in the process of allowing New Yorkers to come together to make sense of what had happened and support each other," he said. "That sense that we will persevere and at the same time be compassionate and support each other -- I think you needed these public spaces for those expressions to come out and manifest themselves. I certainly needed it."
Arad's National September 11 Memorial, "Reflecting Absence," will open Sunday, September 11, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Dignitaries, including President Obama, and family members are expected to attend. The next day, the memorial will open to the public.
It's the end of a long, messy journey, one that has parallels in other memorials. These monuments to our memories tell stories of lives and history, and those stories don't always agree.
And if every memorial tells a story, the September 11 memorial had a more complex one than most. There was the most basic story a memorial can put forth, that of the commemoration of 3,000 lives lost. But there were also layers of stories underneath: stories of randomness, stories of residents, stories of terrorism and destruction and chaos, stories that exposed the heart and pain of New York before getting down to the city's bedrock essence: hope and togetherness, perseverance and determination.
How to make sense of them all in a display of rock, foliage and water?
It's never been easy.
Battle over a "sacred space"
Memorials have been a part of the human experience since, well, time immemorial. Graves are a form of memorial; so are markers left along highways, monuments in town squares and the pyramids of Egypt. They are lit by eternal flames, swathed in teddy bears or drizzled with flowers. Recent ones, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are etched with lists of names.
They are a way of saying, "Remember."
Early memorials were almost exclusively built by, and dedicated to, the powerful, historians say. They were "reflective of who was in charge of controlling these national narratives: white, elite, masculine," said Alison Fields, an art history professor at the University of Oklahoma.
In more recent centuries, governments paid for public memorials, particularly to honor their war dead. The American tradition in particular is more democratic.
"Now, there are more voices claiming a spot in that narrative," Fields said, "and as a result, you have more forms of (memorials) and more debate."
September 11 had many groups wishing to mold that narrative.
In the months after the terrorist attacks, nobody could agree how -- or even whether -- to fill the hole at ground zero. Build a memorial? The site was already a memorial. Thousands died September 11, 2001, including 343 members of the fire department, 23 members of the police department and 37 officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Sixty companies lost employees.
Four out of every 10 bodies were never recovered.
Some families wanted the site's 16 acres -- a "sacred space," in the words of many -- left empty, a belief initially shared by Giuliani. Others such as the Port Authority, which owns the land, and developer Larry Silverstein, who leases the land and owned the Twin Towers, were determined to rebuild.
Then-Gov. George Pataki pushed for creating what New York magazine's Joe Hagan called "the Rolls Royce of memorials."
In 2003, an agency created to rebuild the site chose a master plan by architect Daniel Libeskind. The plan called for a new tower as well as a memorial, and the new agency -- the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation -- announced a design competition for the memorial. Of the 5,201 entries received, Arad's was chosen as the winner.
The tumult, however, was only beginning.
The competing interests involved in the site -- Libeskind, the Port Authority, the new agency, the victims' families -- each wanted to tweak Arad's design, Hagan reported in his 2006 story. Arad, a relative unknown, fought back, alienating some parties who believed he was being stubborn.
According to Hagan's story, Arad and others bickered over a variety of technical requirements. Seemingly minor points -- the location and number of ramps, for example -- led to huge blow-ups.
"Was it tiring at times? Yes," Arad says now. "But it was necessary. ... Design is always, essentially, about responding to constraints. You need boundaries to push against to have a creative response."
The budget was another challenge. A 2006 cost estimate of the memorial and museum brushed close to $1 billion. It included a variety of seemingly unconnected extras, such as new train tracks and rail station improvements. The schedule called for the memorial to open in 2009; that date was pushed back amid the disputes.
The clashes seemed intractable. As Hagan wrote at the time, "Arad's memorial teeters on the brink of collapse."
The path leading to "the Wall"
For all this, the 9/11 memorial wasn't unusual. Other memorials, including dedications to September 11, have been through similar clashes over their artistic merits and public value.
Some have been criticized for being ugly or pedestrian. A glass cube September 11 memorial in Boston has been compared to an Apple store. The "Tear of Grief" September 11 memorial in Bayonne, New Jersey -- a bulbous teardrop in the center of a jagged ellipse -- has been called a "giant tea biscuit" (and worse).
The proposed September 11 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 went down, was denounced for a crescent-shaped pathway that reminded some of the symbol for Islam. The design was revised; a portion of what will become a 2,000-acre national park is scheduled to open this September 11.
Other memorials are faulted for their optics. The centerpiece of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington -- which consists of a sculpture of the civil rights leader, arms folded, emerging from rock -- was criticized for King's "confrontational" pose, its huge scale, the type of stone (Chinese granite) and the Chinese nationality of artist Lei Yixin.
But perhaps no recent memorial led to more wrath than one that has since become a model for many others: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
It began in 1979 as unloved as the war itself. Money was initially scarce. Then came a design competition. Among the entries were a 40-foot rocking chair, a giant helmet -- and an angled, sunken wall etched with the names of the war's 58,000 dead.
The wall was the product of a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, Maya Lin.
"I had to ask myself ... what is a memorial's purpose in the 20th century," Lin said in an Oscar-winning documentary about her career, "A Strong Clear Vision." "The cost of war was these individuals, and we have to remember them first."
The competition's jury recognized the design's promise right away, but memorial co-founder Jan Scruggs also saw the pitfalls.
"People are going to criticize this by saying ... this is going to be a black hole in the ground," he said in the film.
Sure enough, some veterans were aghast at the design, comparing it to a "gash" and a "black scar."
Lin, too, was criticized, sometimes with racial slurs. One letter-writer complained, "How can you let a gook design the memorial?" (Lin, of Chinese descent, was born and raised in Ohio.)
"I knew I was in for a struggle," she said.
Other battles were fought over the wall's abstract design, the way the names were listed and even its location.
And yet today the Wall -- as it's come to be known -- is a landmark in what Notre Dame professor Erika Doss calls an age of "memorial mania." Perhaps it's the location on the National Mall; perhaps it's the emotional pull. However you explain its attraction, the Wall drew more than 4.5 million people last year, making it the third-most-visited historic site in the country, according to the National Park Service. That's more than the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty, and not far behind the Lincoln Memorial.
People who approach the Wall have been known to break down in tears. They touch the engraved names delicately, as if the letters are inscribed with an electric charge. Many take imprints; others leave flowers and mementos.
Nancy Switzer, wife of a Vietnam veteran and president of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, explains its power.
"The minute you walk down that path, you find the magnitude of what war does," she said. "You remember the good times, the laughs, the tears, as well as the sadness and the tragedy of life."
"You are washed. You are cleansed"
The Wall, which made Lin a household name and a go-to designer, has influenced countless structures since. Lin herself served on the September 11 memorial jury that selected Arad's design.
Though abstract memorials cataloguing the dead were far from unknown before the Wall -- obelisks inscribed with the names of local war dead dot innumerable town squares -- Lin's use of black stone, shorn of classical filigree, and the list of victims have become a norm for designers.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial takes some leads from the Wall in its use of names and symbols.
Two tall bronze gates stand at the ends of a reflecting pool. Engraved on one is the time 9:01; on the other, 9:03 -- marking the minutes before and after a bomb destroyed the city's federal building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
The pool sits where an explosives-laden Ryder truck was parked. Where the building stood, a field is filled with 168 empty bronze chairs, 19 of them smaller than the rest to represent the children killed. Five chairs to one side represent those killed outside the building. The glass base of each chair bears a victim's name.
A wall inscribed with survivors' names stands near a blown-out corner of the original building -- the only section left and a reminder of the damage done.
Dell Upton, a UCLA art history professor who has studied the history of memorials, finds parts of the memorial overdone.
"I thought all those chairs were very effective. The problem ... is that there's too much other stuff stuck on to it," he said. "You can't have one simple thing; you have to get everything in."
Bill Belshaw, a Dallas architect visiting the memorial recently, said he worried there'd be too much happening to take it all in.
But as he looked out over the reflecting pool and scanned his surroundings, he said, "There's a calm and emotional feel here that surprises me."
Robert Henry, a former U.S. appeals judge whose office was across the street from the federal building, says the memorial tells the story of a community that pulls together -- and a country that does not forget its people.
"You come away seeing the greatness of a federal republic at its best," said Henry, now president of Oklahoma City University.
"At the bombing, we came together.
"And you come from ... the memorial with a catharsis. You are washed. You are cleansed. And you are inspired when you see what people can do when they come together as a community."
"An enormously complex project"
Eventually, such was the case in New York. Various construction elements were streamlined, and a controversial aspect of Arad's original design -- an underground approach -- will be incorporated into the museum.
An aggressive fund-raising campaign raised almost $400 million, more than half the final cost of the memorial and museum. Construction finally began in the summer of 2008 with a goal of having the memorial finished by the 10th anniversary of September 11.
That three-year sprint faced its own challenges, said Joe Daniels, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
"Although people sometimes say, 'What's taking so long?' the reality is that 10 years after the event, the emotions are still so raw from lots of important stakeholders, most importantly the families but also the people who live and work down here," he said.
"This was an enormously complex project from the get-go," said Anthoula Katsimatides, who lost her brother John in the attacks and who now serves on the board of the memorial and museum. "You can't really blame each party for having their motives at heart. This is a memorial unlike any other in that all our loved ones lost their lives at that site."
The compromises are most literally apparent in the listing of the names. Originally, they were to be placed randomly to reflect the capriciousness of the day, but the various parties -- including family members, businesses, first responders and airline employees -- wanted their people grouped together.
The solution was to use an idea of Arad's: a system of "meaningful adjacencies" so that, for example, names sharing a connection could appear next to one another even while being linked to different groups.
Some adjacencies are both surprising and heartbreaking: One woman, Abigail Goodman, lost both her best friend and her father on September 11. The friend was on the 96th floor of the North Tower, and Goodman's father was on Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower. The friend and father are listed near each other but also in their groups: the friend with others from his business, the father with others on the flight. Arad says planners received more than 1,200 requests for such connections.
Not everybody got everything they wanted. Early on, there was talk of a memorial specifically for rescue workers. Some family members want a fountain sculpture from the old World Trade Center -- its only surviving artwork, now located in Battery Park -- moved to the memorial plaza. Police, firefighters and other first responders are listed without their ranks; some officials aren't happy about that.
The hard feelings won't go away. "I think they're trying to sanitize the whole place," one former deputy fire chief, who lost his son on September 11, told the Los Angeles Times.
But a number of people involved said the compromises generally improved the project. Katsimatides was concerned that Arad's design was too full of blacks and grays and lacked greenery. The jury also believed the design was too stark and asked Arad to improve the landscaping. Katsimatides was grateful when landscape designer Peter Walker added more trees.
"My brother was all about color. ... It brought a different kind of sense of hope to the site."
The same kind of satisfaction is expressed by the construction workers -- more than 3,500 of them -- who have made the project a kind of trust.
"This is a nice place for people to come see," says Robert Bertuzzi, a cement finisher who's been on the site for several years and plans to stay until the last building is done. "I think it's an appropriate memorial."
Construction and security
Bertuzzi has plenty of work ahead: Though the museum exterior appears near completion and 1 World Trade Center is rising at the rate of about a floor a week, buildings 2, 3 and 4 are barely out of the ground -- and there's still the transportation center and shopping mall. Until the museum opens next year, visitors will have to approach the memorial through a single entrance, expected to be at the site's southwest corner, and cranes and scaffolding will be part of the view.
Daniels is unfazed.
"I think it adds to the specialness of the experience," he said. "This is New York City. There's massive skyscraper construction right above you, whether you're walking down Sixth Avenue or 42nd Street, and life continues here.
"At the World Trade Center site, having basically 50% of the site open and available to the public is something that will feel like a separate space. ... You'll know that there's construction around you, but you'll know that you're in an accessible and open and, most important, a sacred space."
Another issue is security. With the World Trade Center having been struck twice by terrorists, the city is taking no chances: Two hundred twenty NYPD officers were recently assigned to the site, and the force is expected to eventually reach 670. The site will also feature closed-circuit cameras and airport-style visitor screening.
Daniels says such precautions are necessary in this day and age and believes the public "will appreciate the level of security."
"The level of security that all of us experience is because of what happened on 9/11," he said. "In some sense it's the one place it will be accepted more than any other place."
At first, only about 1,500 people will be able to gather on the plaza at any one time because of the ongoing construction, Daniels said. That number will increase as areas are finished. The first day, September 11, will be open to family members only; from September 12 on, free visitor passes will be required. They are available through the memorial's website on a first-come, first-served basis; visitors must select a specific date and time for their passes.
"The spirit of the place"
On a sunny August weekday, dozens of tourists walk by the walls protecting the construction site. They crane their heads at the rapidly rising 1 World Trade Center -- now the tallest building in Lower Manhattan -- and, where viewing is possible, watch the bustling construction workers descend to bedrock and plant shoots of steel. They mill around a sign bedecked with photo renderings of the finished site that optimistically declares, "TOMORROW: Building for the Future."
Colin Hawdon, visiting from Newcastle, England, said it's hard to mesh the current activity with the old images of emptiness and ruin. Like many, he came here out of a sense of curiosity and tribute, and he's a little surprised to find a noisy, lively building site.
"At the moment, it's hard to see anything apart from the construction," he said.
For Marcus Robinson, that's the point.
Each day, the Irish-born artist journeys down to the site and shoots photos and videos for his 5-year-old project, "Rebuilding." From there, he makes regular trips to the new 7 World Trade Center building across the street. On the mostly empty 48th floor -- an undeveloped expanse of concrete columns and floor-to-ceiling windows -- he and a handful of other artists maintain makeshift studios chronicling their work.
His paintings -- some of them huge, wall-sized canvases -- feature orange-vested men and heavy blue-gray renderings of steel. In Robinson's world, construction workers are heroic figures, building the world anew out of iron and fire.
His work, he says, is "more like an allegorical tale, like a parable about something amazing about the human spirit, and allowing the site to become this beautiful and extraordinary metaphor for everything great about the human spirit."
Indeed, from his 48th-floor aerie, you can see the history of that spirit made solid.
Through one set of windows, the mighty bridges, the engineering wonders of their time -- the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg -- span the East River to connect the island of Manhattan with Brooklyn. In the foreground, the "Cathedral of Commerce," the 1913 Woolworth Building, once the world's tallest, rises proudly over the 1914 Municipal Building, a 40-story Beaux-Arts landmark.
To the north in the distance: the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, which battled for the top spot in the early '30s and still loom over the clot of towers of Midtown.
And to the south, the glass-embraced slab of 1 World Trade Center, expected to top out with antenna at 1,776 feet, rises out of the site of a former champion: the Twin Towers.
Robinson sees beyond it all. He sees the city from the beginning, long before the native tribes were here, or the Dutch or the British or the immigrants, longshoremen, shopkeepers or financiers.
"What I've been very moved by was the exposure of the bare bedrock," he said. "It's as if this ancient billion-year-old soul of this city, the spirit of the place, has somehow dictated (its) shape."
Memorials, art historian Upton notes, aren't always forever. It's not unusual for them to become part of the landscape, ignored by passers-by, a platform for pigeons.
"The question I always ask," he said, "is, will people be interested in this monument in, say, 50 or 75 years, when nobody is living who knows any of the people on the wall?"
Arad maintains that the September 11 memorial is woven into the fabric of New York. The names are important, but also the promise of a reflective gathering place.
"What we've built here is the architectural equivalent of a moment of silence," he said. "We've created this opening, this eight-acre clearing in the middle of the city. ... It's about separating yourself from day-to-day life when you stand up there, at the edge of the void."
That may prove to be the true bedrock of the September 11 memorial's story.
CNN.com's Jessica Ravitz contributed to this story.