PHILADELPHIA - The Pentagon 9/11 memorial designers, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, the married team behind Philadelphia-based KBAS Architects, met on their first day of graduate school at New York's Columbia University and were in Manhattan on September 11, 2001.
In 2002, just 29 and 30 years old at the time, Beckman and Kaseman submitted an idea for the planned Pentagon memorial competition as a way to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
"We didn't submit an idea to win. We submitted an idea to come to terms with our own grief and our own understanding of what happened that day," Beckman says. "If we could just submit an idea that was either talked about for ten seconds or ten minutes, we felt that was an appropriate means of contributing."
"We didn't tell anybody we were entering except our mothers," says Kaseman. "We felt great just contributing some idea to the mix."
A few months later, the couple discovered a message on their home answering machine from the Army Corps of Engineers.
"I immediately thought, 'Oh God, we filled out the form wrong,'" says Beckman. "When they called back, they said we were one of six finalists."
A 11-member jury including two victims' family members, two former defense secretaries, two artists, two architects, a dean of architecture, and the wife of a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff picked the finalists from 1,126 proposals.
"We never thought it would ever go this far, but the fact that it did, we were really quite honored," says Beckman.
Like the other finalists, Beckman and Kaseman were granted a stipend and six months to refine their design.
"The completion brief basically asked for a place that would make you think but not tell you what to think or what to feel," says Kaseman.
They won the competition in March 2003. It would take five years to see their vision come together.
Their proposal featured benches individually honoring each of the 184 people who died in the Pentagon attack, the 59 passengers and crew members on American Airlines Flight 77 and the 125 enlisted military personnel and civilian contractors inside the nation's military headquarters.
The granite-covered benches are inscribed with each victim's name. They are arranged along the doomed plane's flight path into the west side of the building and are aligned by the victim's ages, with the youngest, five children from 4 to 11.
"It was about respect, dignity and place like no other," Kaseman says. "All we tried to do was embed enough hints and clues about who these people who lost their lives were."
Groves of trees are spread out through the three acre park. Each bench has a glowing light pool to make the memorial units visible at night.
"We felt a place that simply sparks thought and reflection and contemplation is the right atmosphere and the right environment," Beckman says. "We put the onus of interpretation on the visitor."
"We wanted overall something quiet, something reflective," says Thomas Heidenberger, whose wife, Michelle, was a flight attendant on Flight 77. He rode his bicycle cross country to raise money for the privately-funded memorial.
"When you walk in amongst the benches, you don't really hear the traffic, you don't really hear the airplanes. You hear the quiet and the rushing of the water," Heidenberger says.
The designers say 9/11 family members were a priority in creating a place for them to come to whenever they feel the need, but the Pentagon memorial is meant for everyone.
"The memorial itself is simply about how unimaginable that day was, and it's not about what's happened ever since," Kaseman says. It's really about that moment as a touch point for contemplation."
Heidenberger says, "We'll never get over it, but as Michele would always say, 'Get over it. Move on.' That's what we're doing, but ten years later, it doesn't seem like ten years later. Not at all; it seems like yesterday."
The Pentagon memorial opened in 2008. Beckman and Kaseman, who recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, both teach at the University of Pennsylvania and continue their architectural partnership. They design projects ranging from private homes to public art commission, and were tapped to design the not-yet-built Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Texas.
Beckman says, "We seek opportunities where architecture can serve a community of some sort."
Kaseman adds, "We're really interested in anything that has some positive impact."