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Museum Design for 'Memory, Authenticity, Scale, and Emotion'

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The steel tridents now located in the museum's entrance pavilion were part of the structural support of the World Trade Center's North Tower. Photo by Jin Lee.

Setting aside debates over whether a museum ever should have been built at the World Trade Center site, the National September 11 Memorial Museum, opening to the public today, is a project of serious ambition. What could easily have become one costly compromise—over $700 million already spent and an additional $63 million yearly operating budget—instead employed sophisticated design to respectfully recount the stories surrounding the events of that day. It is at once calculated and heartfelt, navigating the emotional content of an intimate yet very public space.

The museum is located beneath the National September 11 Memorial plaza, which was designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker and opened on September 11, 2011, on eight shared acres of land at the southern tip of lower Manhattan—exactly half the total space of the full 16-acre World Trade Center site. Inscribed onto the memorial's twin waterfall basins formed in the original towers' footprints are the names of victims from both the September 11 and 1993 attacks, and a street level plaza lined with 400 white oak trees and skinny lawns. Multiple projects at the site remain under construction, including the new three-million-square-foot 1 World Trade Center tower (designed by David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), Towers 2, 3, and 4, and Santiago Calatrava's transportation hub. (Full disclosure: this writer worked for the 9/11 Memorial from July 2010 to September 2011.)


[A view of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum via Amy Dreher. The museum's entrance pavilion, at the far side of the north tower's reflecting pool, was designed by Snøhetta.]

The museum, its entrance situated between the two memorial pools at ground level, is one more piece in this spatial puzzle to contribute to healing that part of the city. It has taken dozens of stakeholders and a design team that includes five separate firms: Snøhetta designed the external entrance pavilion, Davis Brody Bond are the architects of the underground museum space, and exhibitions (both physical and digital) were completed by Thinc Design, Local Projects, and Layman Design. Officials and museum staff, directed by Alice Greenwald, who was formerly with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., have had to contend with the huge questions of what this museum should be: a historical institution? A commemorative tribute? An educational space for future generations? And how would it handle wildly differing interpretations of the event and its ramifications, interpretations that will only continue to evolve? "There isn't one story of 9/11, there are thousands," says Tom Hennes, principal at Thinc Design, the firm that oversaw the general exhibition design.


[Owner David Cohen kept a piece of his Chelsea Jeans store looking the way it did after 9/11. Photo by Jin Lee.]

The architecture of most museums must deal with values relating to space, structure, and light. Here, the additional challenge was to reckon with a complicated set of variables, not the least of which is the overwhelming emotional attachment visitors have to an event that happened directly on the site where the museum has found a home. The notion of museum as memorial is not a new typology—Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin (opened in 1933; the architect's extension opened in 2001), the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. (1993), and Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial (1982) immediately come to mind. But much of what is on view here has its history wedded to minutes and hours, rather than years or decades. The site-specific setting itself affects the exhibitions and perception of works on display with its underground structure evoking an excavation theme. Content and container blur.

Viewed from the neighboring pools that now fill the voids of the Twin Towers' original footprints, the glassy museum entrance pavilion resembles a tipping tower but reflects the newly erected buildings and the memorial plaza that surround it. "As a reflection of the present, the Museum pavilion serves as a bridge between the memory of past events embraced by the Memorial design and the trust in the future, signified by the neighboring office towers," said Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta, the Norwegian architectural company that designed the gateway from the aboveground memorial into the largely subterranean museum. "That relationship between the location of the Memorial pools and the authentic location of the towers is a visceral and immediate element of the design," adds Steve Davis, a partner with Davis Brody Bond, the lead interior architects.


[A New Mexico blacksmith, Tom Joyce, used steel from the site to forge this quotation from Virgil's Aeneid. Photo by Jin Lee.]

Inside, the general check-in area and a café evoke a sober, even subdued atmosphere. The designers selected neutral materials and colors to create a "sense of calm," notes Dykers, before the emotionally challenging descent to bedrock where the exhibits are located. A soaring pair of (now rusted) steel tridents are the exception here. Rising seven stories high and visible even through the transparent pavilion, they once formed the iconic forked façade at the base of the towers. These pieces survived the collapse of the North Tower and were salvaged during the recovery effort and installed at their new home in 2010.  

This same sense of scale is repeated throughout the space. Grand artifacts stand close to personal remnants recovered from lives lost. An overlook exposes the immense underground area and a 60-foot-wide portion of the slurry wall. Made of thick poured concrete, the pronged barrier was designed to hold back the Hudson River during the site's construction in the late 1960s and, to the surprise of many, remained intact before and after the attacks. It quickly became a symbol of resilience, rehabilitation, and strength.

A wide and winding ramp gently slopes down to 70 feet below street level, leading visitors into the museum's 110,000 feet of cavernous exhibition spaces. "Just given that the towers are so far away and they're so large dictated that museum had to be bigger than I think anybody imagined in the early planning phases," said Mark Wagner, associate partner at Davis Brody Bond. Stepping off the ramp, which was inspired by the "access road" used during the nine-month recovery phase, places visitors between the sunken tower voids where the two main exhibitions reside. The commemorative memorial exhibition located in the South Tower footprint displays portraits of the 2,983 people who died on September 11, 2001, and in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Touch screens allow visitors to pull up pictures and biographical information about the individuals and project them onto the walls of the gallery. Tucked inside the North Tower is the larger, historical exhibition, which chronologically takes visitors through each minute of the day.


[The slurry wall. Photo by Jin Lee.]

The installation is culled from the museum's 10,000-object collection and includes surveillance video clips of the hijackers slipping through security, phone call recordings to loved ones from people on the planes and those trapped in the buildings, a steel column papered with notes and missing posters, photographs of the FDNY rushing into flames. Museum staff and architects have set the most disturbing material into alcoves that come with graphic warning notices at the entrance. Perhaps most difficult is the section dedicated to the dozens of men and women who, so overwhelmed with smoke and intense heat, either jumped or fell from the buildings.


[Grappler claws were used to lift steel and debris from Ground Zero. Photo by Jin Lee.]

Architecture and once seemingly mundane objects—a shoe, an ID card, a red bandana—are now connected by the circumstances of the event, which was one of the most observed in history with nearly 2 billion people watching live on television, the internet, or re-broadcasts. These recorded digital bits have become central to the museum's planning. "Museums have a broad array of the way they use media, and this museum in particular, because of when the event happened," said Jake Barton of Local Projects, the firm tasked with creating meaningful digital components to the installations. "So that quantity became a part of telling the story," he added.

The team also included a space for visitors to recount their own stories and remembrances. "The magnitude of the historic importance of the site and its symbolism made it essential for us to find a balance between the collective and the individual experience," said Steven Davis of Davis Brody Bond. "We relied on four principles to guide our work: memory, authenticity, scale and emotion."
· National September 11 Memorial and Museum coverage [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]