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Memories in Ruins: 9/11 Memorial Museum by Snøhetta and Davis Brody Bond

[Archive] In such a highly charged context, how can architecture sift the powerful currents of memory, myth and meaning to make sense of events?

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp remarked that the several storeys of twisted metal facade then still standing after the cataclysm recalled Frank Gehry and Issey Miyake’s work.

Muschamp’s aesthetic perspective and the arguments of others who suggested that the retention of the ruins of the Twin Towers was an appropriate memorial to the dead did not prove popular elsewhere in the city. Retaining the Twin Towers’ ruins was likened to the ‘aestheticisation of murder’.

Finding an alternative approach has proved difficult and has been delayed by endless changes to the size of the site, the masterplan, the client and the nature and purpose of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Even Hurricane Sandy played a role in the museum’s late opening by flooding the workings. The memorial itself, by Michael Arad, opened in 2011. It is made up of a tree-filled plaza with a pair of waterfall-filled pools that empty into voids at their centre and which are contained within the square footprints of the Twin Towers.

The museum element opened in May and is reached via Snøhetta’s glass and steel entrance pavilion set between the pools. From here you are led deep underground to the cavernous museum proper carved out of the earth by US practice Davis Brody Bond. The result is, in some senses, an artificial ruin, a curated aftermath beneath the two faux voids of the pool. This is in no way accidental; 9/11 Memorial Museum director Alice Greenwald said she wanted ‘an emotionally safe encounter with a difficult history’.


Site plan

After several major design changes and reductions in size, Snøhetta’s pavilion has embraced ‘emotional safety’ to such a point that it has been reduced to a forgettable blandness. Decon-lite (like SOM’s recent New School building and Thomas Mayne’s somewhat livelier Cooper Union block − both elsewhere in the city), it is a vaguely crystalline form in glass and metal with a steel web structure and an ash interior. As well as forming the museum entrance and ticket booths, it includes a quiet room for 9/11 families and an auditorium offering an introductory film for visitors on its mezzanine level. Above this is M & E plant for surrounding elements of the plaza such as the underground PATH train that passes nearby. The steel structure of the pavilion also acts as a truss spanning the gap below.

Snøhetta’s Craig Dykers has described the pavilion as a threshold between the everyday life of the city and the spiritual life of the memorial museum and as a ‘bridge between the memory of past events embraced by the Memorial design and the trust in the future, signified by the neighbouring office towers’.


Floor plans - click to expand

Dykers also suggests that the tourists peering through the glass and taking selfies of their reflections are ‘part of the narrative of the building reflecting the present moment in time’. Others may conclude that it simply lacks the solemnity due a portal to a chthonic world and that the selfie-takers are reacting accordingly. There are office lobbies aplenty with significantly more dignity.

A second threshold is the move from above to below ground. Beside the staircase leading from Snøhetta’s pavilion down to Davis Brody Bond subterranean spaces are two 60-70 ton rusted steel ‘tridents’. These fork-shaped structures once formed the Gothic arch base of Yamasaki’s old towers. The pavilion had to be built around them and they indicate something of the weight of what is to come.

The staircase gives on to the broad, empty and dimly lit concourse level, where further preambles take place such as cloakrooms. The concrete platform is trimmed with a dark Brazilian hardwood veneer that turns upwards 90 degrees to form the perimeter walls at its edge. A broad ‘V’ shape is cut out of these walls to allow glimpses to the floor of the museum far below at what has been called the bedrock but isn’t quite. This is also one of the points on the ramped route down where you can orientate yourself between the site of the two towers whose square format has been extruded down below the memorial fountains to their foundation level in shimmering volumes clad in foamed aluminium panels.

The ramp, in the same Brazilian timber, follows the hairpin bend path of the ramp built to truck out the rubble from Ground Zero in the months following 9/11. It leads first to a balcony hovering above the West Chamber, a 21m-high space that sits to one side of the North Tower’s foundations in a position where the seven-level basement car park below the World Trade Center plaza once stood. The chamber is a similarly empty, contemplative space except for the slurry wall retaining the Hudson River that had to be swiftly pinned in place after the attack and the spot-lit ‘Last Column’ − the final piece of steel that was marked by fire and police crews, covered with shrine-like memorabilia and ceremoniously removed from site.


Ruins of the towers’ structure dominate the atrium spaces - click to expand

This excavated space around the former towers and between the towers and the slurry wall, forms the visible volume of the underground museum. Its dimensions were determined following what DBB architect Mark Wagner calls ‘a Wild West land grab’ between those with an interest in the Ground Zero site. Following this property battle, the size of the entrance pavilion (which was once to have housed a museum of human rights and a drawing centre) was radically reduced and the single underground chamber that encloses the Twin Towers’ footprints was created then sealed with a lid in the form of the new memorial plaza.

The vast cathedral scale of this concrete enclosure (its 11,000sqm floor space doesn’t begin to describe the volume) is suitably sombre architecture. It may not have the raw power of the original unadorned demolition site but the choreographed Wagnerian staging does draw an emotional response. Indeed, scale, emotion, memory and authenticity were, says DBB, the watchwords with which they measure their work. In scale terms, the practice has certainly succeeded. But it is then that the project starts to become particularly troubling: it feels real but it isn’t. The ramp is an artifice, as are the aluminium-clad tower volumes, as are the arbitrary dimensions of the whole. The project evokes emotion skilfully but synthetically. Perhaps memorial architecture is supposed to manipulate but this teeters on the edge of falsity. It feels like a gargantuan found object, except it is not authentic fabric apart from the giant artefacts incorporated into it. These latter include a section of plane-battered facade mounted and lit like a sacred relic, a crushed fire engine, and a length of concrete staircase (the ‘Survivors Stair’) down which many people escaped). A special team was sent in on 12 September to rescue such potential memorabilia. Is this less ‘aestheticisation of murder’ than retaining a ruin?

In an essay on 9/11 the photographer Francesco Torres acknowledges that in the wake of Serra, Johns, Kiefer and Tàpies the distinction between aesthetic qualities and documentary has blurred but he defends the use of such artefacts: ‘The visual potency and technical skill of a 17th-century Baroque painter didn’t betray or diminish the tragedy of martyrdom depicted in his canvas.’ Despite this argument, the feeling of mawkishness hovers. However, the complex intellectual and emotional responses this induces increase as you journey further down the ramp and the final staircase to the lowest level of the bunker. Here, facing you, is a massive concrete wall onto which are words from Virgil cast in Twin Towers steel: No day shall erase you from the memory of time. Behind the wall is a repository for several thousand body parts belonging to the almost 40 per cent of victims not identified by their remains. This has infuriated some victims’ families who do not wish their loved ones to be entombed without identification. The museum’s argument is that this is not a mausoleum but a storage facility pending advances in science that could lead to further identifications.


Section aa

But the confusion between cenotaph and museum, sacral and secular remains. The quote from Virgil’s Aeneid certainly sounds sepulchral but has itself been ripped from its original context where it celebrated the pair of lover-warriors Nisus and Euryalus and their privilege of dying together rather than the mass victims of indiscriminate terror. For the moment, Virgil’s words have been surrounded by hundreds of sheets of blue paper in an art installation invoking the clear skies of 9/11. As persuasion that the body parts have not been interred it is paper thin.

To one side of this shrine is an exhibition following the events leading up to and following 9/11, to the other a room within a room entitled In Memoriam. Both are contained within the re-created volumes of the former towers. You can question the detail and content of the historical exhibition’s content, and its failure to look death directly in the face (it instead dwells at length on its aftermath), but it is effective and moving. Likewise In Memoriam in the South Tower volume where the inner room contains projections of the names and images of those who died in a continuous loop. The outer walls of this room display the prosaic personal possessions of the dead − handbags, lipstick tubes, wallets, keys − turned poignant relics by circumstances. There is clearly an attitude that a tomb to the unknown is not sufficient and a way must be found to give all involved their identity. It is the most intense part of the museum, the least ‘emotionally safe’.


The pools of Michael Arad’s 9/11 memorial fill the footprints of the towers - click to expand

However, the other half of the South Tower volume is simply partitioned up into offices and education rooms somewhat undermining the symbolic gesture in the process. With the Virgil quotation, In Memoriam, and the pools at street level, there are three attempts at memorialisation and all interlocked with an educational exhibition ($24 entry fee, sponsorship by Citibank and Cisco). No wonder this elision of purpose is upsetting some. Visitors exit the museum complex the way they have come instead of, as originally mooted, via ramps behind the waterfalls of the memorial pools. Souvenirs can be picked up at the nearby official gift shop − tribute fridge magnets with drawings of the ‘dogs of 9/11’, leafy necklaces featuring the ‘survivor tree’ that came through the blasts.

The white swamp oaks in the plaza are now maturing while the new World Trade Center takes shape around it. There’s the $4 billion chicken carcass that is Santiago Calatrava’s new subway station, the rebuilt 7 WTC, a rectilinear glass block by SOM made memorable only by its five to six storeys of blank wire mesh concealing an electricity substation and, of course, One World Trade Center itself. Also by SOM, and no longer the Freedom Tower, it is still 1,776 feet high in honour of the Declaration of Independence (reaching that peak by substituting an antenna for a mesh spire) but the proposed curves and pinnacles have been lost to a stolid lump that maximises floor rentable space and allows the first 14 floors to remain windowless to foil potential truck bombers. Otherwise, little of the heavy-handed symbolism of Daniel Libeskind’s original competition-winning masterplan has survived the machinations of rebuilding.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani promised to ‘preserve as much as possible’, of the original ruin and build around it. But memories can be selective and for the US, a ruin, an unintentional if authentic monument, would represent impotence not victory.

9/11 Memorial Museum

Architects: Snøhetta and Davis Brody Bond

Photographs: Jeff Goldberg (Esto) and Tim Clary-Pool (Corbis)

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