In the 12 ½ years since the Twin Towers were destroyed in a ghastly act of international terrorism, the 16 acres known as Ground Zero have stood largely apart from the city. Now, the fences are down on the South and West sides of the site, and the Memorial Plaza is beginning to function as a public space. While Michael Arad’s pools are effective in reminding visitors of the scale and magnitude of the destruction, Peter Walker’s unfolding sequence of trees, benches, lawn, ivy, and pavers softens the plaza and allows visitors to experience it in a variety of ways. Some may not think of 9/11 at all.
The just opened 9/11 Memorial Museum ensures that the horror of that single day will never be scrubbed from the site, even as much of the acreage returns to commercial purposes. Given the subject matter, the architecture of the museum is almost beside the point, which is to say that it effectively frames and backgrounds the artifacts, images, and sounds that viscerally evoke the experience of that day and its wrenching aftermath.
Visitors enter Snøhetta’s iceberg-like visitor’s pavilion, which is light and airy, but marred by a TSA-style security screening station. Large angled windows look out on to the plaza leading to escalators that begin the descent into the below-grade museum designed by Davis Brody Bond.
The descent is a long one. The architects created a deliberate sequence of ramps, stairs, and escalators that take visitors 70 feet below ground, a process that takes between 10 and 20 minutes, creating significant physical and psychological distance from the city above. The effect is purposefully somber. It is hard not to think about death.
A handful of artifacts—like a massive steel beam from the World Trade Center and the so-called “survivors’ stair”—and a few panels of text and discreet video projections are integrated into the 600-foot-long ramp, which the architects call “the ribbon.” The ramps are wide, offering plenty of room for visitors to move at their own paces, either alone or with fellow visitors. “We tried to strike a balance between a contemplative and a communal experience,” said Carl Krebs, the project’s lead architect with Steven Davis, both of Davis Brody Bond.
Wenge hardwood lines the ramp that terminates in a switchback that overlooks a vast space with an expanse of the exposed slurry wall and the steel beam known as the “last column.” As the procession continues, the visitor becomes increasingly acclimated to the experience. Where the ribbon reaches bedrock there is a vast wall covered in a large installation by artist Spencer Finch, comprising nearly 3,000 blue panels in different shades, each representing one of the victims. The panels frame the controversial quote from Virgil, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” A private space for the families is located behind the wall, containing the unidentified remains of victims. Flanking the wall are two galleries, one dedicated to an exhibition about 9/11 (which could change over time) and a permanent exhibition dedicated to memorializing the victims themselves. The bedrock level also includes several other artifacts, such as a half destroyed fire truck and a fragment of an elevator mechanism.
The two galleries sit on the exact footprints of the towers and visitors cross over the line of the original foundations to enter them. The exterior of each gallery, which rises to the ceiling, is clad in foamed aluminum panels. The surfaces are carefully lit (lighting design was by Fisher Marantz Stone), giving them a slightly ethereal, shimmering quality. While following the exact outline of the towers, the design does not attempt to replicate their appearance. The nearly 100,000-square-foot museum is largely devoid of scenographic elements. “Memory, authenticity, scale, and emotion were the guiding principles of the design,” said Davis.
Compared to the expansive spaces outside, the galleries are heavily programmed, filled with thousands of images, videos, and objects. They are overwhelming in both general and highly personal terms. The experience is immersive. The exhibitions largely stick to the facts of that day. Didactic or interpretive narratives are largely absent. There is little to debate or to divide viewers. One possible objection may come in the relatively small amount of space devoted to the Pentagon Attack and the crash of United 93 in Shankesville, Pennsylvania.
As a New Yorker who was in the city on 9/11 and watched the towers fall from the East Village, I can attest that the exhibitions (designed by a team including Thinc, Local Projects, and Layman Design) effectively capture the confusion of that day. The museum is a powerful project of documentation for future generations.
While the museum smartly allows for a variety of responses, many visitors will walk away saddened, disgusted by the senselessness of the attacks, and moved by stories of lives lost. The museum shows humanity at its most depraved and its most noble. Some may be unsure of the purpose of evoking such horror, but few will forget what they have seen.