WASHINGTON -- Tragedy cannot be erased, but it can be remembered. Marble and bronze do not enhance valor and victory and sacrifice, but monuments can tell the story, generation after generation.
As the search begins for ways to remember the events of Sept. 11, a new exhibit exploring the language and nature of monuments may provide a starting place. An examination of real and imagined national memorials, it opened at the National Building Museum in downtown Washington days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Howard Decker, the museum's chief curator, said the plans and models submitted by members of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects have acquired an unanticipated significance.
''There has already been an enormous amount of conversation around the country about what ought to be an appropriate monument to the victims of Sept. 11,'' Decker said in a recent interview. ''In their diversity these earlier proposals offer ... a place to begin asking questions.''
The making of monuments is a process that evolves over time. In its two centuries, the capital has become an open-air retrospective of a wide range of frozen memory.
Civil War generals ride into action, Andrew Jackson straddles his horse in front of the White House, the mast of the battleship Maine rises at Arlington National Cemetery and the heavily shrouded figure of ''Grief'' by Augustus Saint Gaudens keeps vigil in a Washington cemetery.
''It is the human soul face to face with the greatest of all mysteries,'' wrote Henry Adams, who commissioned it after the death of his wife, Clover.
Decker noted that Washington memorials range from the classical marble temples erected to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to the story-telling monument that describes Franklin D. Roosevelt's service to the nation in four outdoor rooms.
He pointed to architect Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial as ''the prime example'' of the monument as metaphor. It employs a polished black stone chevron jutting from the earth to honor the 55,000 war dead whose names are carved row on row.
The exhibit room at the Building Museum is filled with the sound of pealing bells, symbolizing those rung to celebrate victory at the end of World War II. The bells are a concept from one of five proposed World War II memorials on view.
One entry, entitled ''Liberty,'' is composed of three tall metal supports which, like a long arm, hold a golden ball on which light would shimmer and bounce.
Another concept, whimsically entitled ''Monument to Things Forgotten,'' includes a sunken cube, which Decker described as ''a metaphor for an enclosure of all of our forgotten history.''
''I think that ... by virtue of their diversity they do offer an opportunity to reflect on what an appropriate monument to Sept. 11 might be,'' he said. ''They show the enormous range of possibility.''
Decker cited three proposals for Sept. 11 monuments, especially at ground zero in New York:
Recreate the dimensions of one of the 110-story World Trade Center towers and dig down as far in the ground as it was tall ''so visitors could go down to look back up and see a square of sky.''
Plant grass to cover the architectural footprint, the ground-level dimensions, of the two fallen towers.
Erect twin towers of laser light aimed into the night sky.
There are hundreds more: Rebuild the towers exactly as they were; build a ring of four 50-story buildings and a memorial park; use part of the skeletal remains of the lower reaches of one tower as a centerpiece.
Architects are also beginning to think of a memorial at the Pentagon and at the field in Pennsylvania where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after being hijacked.
''The questions in all three places are what would be most meaningful, most resonant design,'' Decker said. ''We will all watch this unfold. We will all express our thoughts.''
A temporary but touching memorial to the tragedy in New York already exists just steps away from the red-brick bulk of the Building Museum.
It is a small, laminated, cardboard sign attached to one of the two curving commemorative stone walls of the national Law Enforcement Memorial.
On it are photographs of 37 members of the New York Police Department, killed on Sept. 11.
Their names will join the more than 15,000 permanently carved names of American police officers killed in the line of duty over the last 200 years.
Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for 34 years.
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