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Architects want credit

Rich Cholodofsky
| Saturday, July 8, 2006

Two Pennsylvania architects claim the revised design for the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville in Somerset County borrowed from their proposal and contend they should be acknowledged and paid for their work.

The architects, Lisa Austin, a professor at Edinboro University, and Madis Pihlak, who teaches landscape design at Penn State, have hired a lawyer and are lobbying elected officials to intervene on their behalf.

"Just look at the two schemes side by side. The similarities go beyond happenstance," Madis said during an interview Friday.

The National Park Service denies the claim, and the families of Flight 93 victims say the controversy detracts from their fundraising efforts.

Madis and Austin last year submitted a proposal for the memorial they called "Sacrifice." That designed included a circle of trees bisected by a mowed grass path symbolizing the route taken by the highjacked United Airlines Flight 93 as passengers fought to retake control of the airplane.

The plane plunged into the Somerset County farm on Sept. 11, 2001, and killed all 40 passengers. Authorities believe the highjackers intended to crash the plane into a target in Washington.

The Austin and Pihlak proposal was not among the five designs chosen as finalists by a panel that included architects, community members and family members of Flight 93 passengers.

The winning design, called "Crescent of Embrace," was created by Los Angeles-based architect Paul Murdoch. Almost immediately after the unveiling last summer, Murdoch's design came under fire.

National commentators and politicians criticized the design's crescent shape because it is an Islamic symbol. Although he initially defended the original design, Murdoch in December released a revised design for the memorial called "Entry Portal."

That design removed the controversial crescent and replaced it with a tree-lined walkway that encircles the crash site.

"It seemed the scheme took a lot of our ideas," Pihlak said.

Not so, according to the National Park Service, which is overseeing the memorial project.

Jeff Reinbold, project manager for the Flight 93 National Memorial, said that many of the more than 1,000 entries proposing designs for the site included a circular boundary around the crash site.

"They just don't have merit, plain and simple," Reinbold said of the Austin and Pihlak claim.

But Austin and Pihlak said there are many more similarities, about 10 in all. They contend their proposal and Murdoch's revised design both contain elements such as a curving path of wetlands, a 93-foot pillar to create sound, and transformation of the temporary memorial into a viewing plaza.

Murdoch, through a spokesman, said he had not seen Austin and Pihlak's proposal before revising his design.

Still, Pihlak and Austin said they will continue with their claims. They have not yet threatened litigation, according to Pihlak. He and Austin also have asked some state and federal lawmakers to intervene on their behalf.

Pihlak said they want both an acknowledgement that they contributed to the memorial design and a slice of the pay Murdoch is due for his work on the project.

"There's a lot of prestige, but I am a little concerned about reputation by questioning this," Pihlak said.

How much financial compensation is involved has yet to be determined. Murdoch's pay for designing the memorial is still being negotiated, Reinbold said.

The memorial is expected to cost about $58 million. Nearly $29 million of that cost is expected to come from federal and state government sources. The remaining $30 million will be raised through private sources.

So far, about $7 million in private financing has been raised, including a cut from ticket sales from "United 93," a movie released this spring about the doomed flight.

The disgruntled architects have diverted attention from fundraising efforts, according to Naples, Fla., resident Patrick White, vice president of Families of Flight 93. White's cousin, Louis Nacke II, was a passenger on the flight.

"It's a distraction to have something that has been adequately investigated and addressed. We want to see it built as soon as possible. It is inappropriate to use the public media to air these concerns," White said.

"Having reviewed all 1,000 designs, I can say many had a lot of the same elements and themes. We believe the current design is the best. We're very pleased with how the current design will affect the land while having a powerful statement."

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