The tragedy and the triumph of 9/11

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On 21 May, a new museum devoted to the terrible events of 11 September 2001—and to the heroic recovery effort that followed—opens under Ground Zero. We spoke to the two architects of the space

These 70ft-tall steel beams were part of the facade of the World Trade Center’s south tower. Today, they stand in the entry pavilion to the 9/11 museum. The pavilion, designed by the architectural firm Snøhetta, leads down to the museum, which is the work of Davis Brody Bond. No pictures of the interior are being released until the building opens. Photo: Amy Dreher

How do you design a museum to tell the story of the worst atrocity ever committed on US soil? This is the question that Steven Davis and Carl Krebs have been grappling with for the past ten years. In 2004, their firm, Davis Brody Bond, was selected to construct the new National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opens in less than two weeks, 70 feet underneath the place where the two towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

Their brief came with strict guidelines, chief among them the need to preserve and make publicly accessible numerous archaeological remains on the site. This, after all, is not only a museum that remembers a devastating tragedy; it is a museum, like the one at Auschwitz, built on the very site of the horror it is memorialising. Despite this, Davis is keen to stress “the nature of optimism” that runs through the museum. “It is sombre, but not gloomy,” he says.

Symbol of resilience

Perhaps the most uplifting, and the most spectacular, feature of the architects’ space is a colossal chamber called Foundation Hall, which has been built around an exposed section of the slurry wall, a barrier erected in the mid-1960s to keep the Hudson River from flooding the basement levels of the World Trade Center. When the twin towers collapsed on 11 September 2001, engineers feared that the wall might give way under the weight of the debris on top of it, flooding the entire New York subway system. But the slurry wall stood firm, becoming “an important symbol of our resilience and response” to the events of 9/11, Krebs says.

Foundation Hall is at the beginning and the end of the 9/11 museum. When you enter the space, through a ground-level pavilion designed by the architectural firm Snøhetta, you make your way down to bedrock level via a 600ft ramp. The first section of this ramp—or “ribbon”, as Davis and Krebs call it—leads you to an overview that looks down on Foundation Hall and reveals for the first time the vast scale of this underground world. “The idea that the descent would let you look into the site before you actually experienced it was important; that’s why you don’t go down to bedrock in an elevator immediately,” Krebs says.

In front of the slurry wall stands a 36ft column—the last piece of structural steel from the twin towers to be removed from the site at the end of the recovery effort in May 2002. The column, covered in inscriptions by rescue workers, stands alone in this vast chamber and is one of a few key displays in Davis’s and Krebs’s spaces. The architects, who joined the 9/11 museum project several years before a director was hired, used the footprints of the twin towers as “opportunities to do very narrative exhibits”, Krebs says. Large, enclosed display halls containing tributes to the victims, an account of the recovery effort and a history of Al-Qaeda have been built in the exact spaces where the lowest levels of the twin towers once stood (see box). There is also a private chamber, open only to the families of 9/11 victims, which contains unidentified human remains collected from the site.

Contemplative zones

Most of the rest of the museum is an open space in which visitors can circulate freely, and here, displays are sparse. As well as the column in Foundation Hall, there are other pieces of steel pulled from the towers, including one that shows the precise point of impact of one of the two planes, and a staircase that was used by hundreds of people to escape from one of the buildings before it collapsed.

For the most part, though, the architects’ spaces are empty, contemplative zones providing respite from the intensity of the displays in the exhibition halls. The number of visitors will be regulated for security reasons, and also so that “the number of people in those spaces won’t overwhelm them”, Krebs explains.

Despite these efforts to ensure a quiet, tranquil experience, “there will be people for whom the emotional experience of the museum will be overwhelming, so we’ve provided multiple outlets”, Davis says. “If you decide that visiting this place is a mistake, that you’re not ready for it, there are ways to leave the museum along the ribbon and also in the exhibition halls.”

For those who make it through to the end, your route through the museum will end in the soaring, cathedral-like space of Foundation Hall, where enclosed escalators will take you back to the world above.

Inside the new museum

The museum contains two exhibition halls inside the footprints of the twin towers. One will tell the stories of the 2,977 people who died on 9/11 and the six who lost their lives when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. Screens will show videos of the victims’ families and friends remembering their loved ones; visitors can search for people by name or select a video by scrolling through photographs of all those who died.

The second exhibition hall will recount the massive recovery effort that began at Ground Zero on 12 September 2001 and will also tell the history of Al-Qaeda. The decision to devote display space to the terrorist organisation has been controversial, particularly given the museum’s inclusion of photographs of the 19 hijackers responsible for the massacre.

Also contentious was the decision to exhibit an artefact known as the “composite”; this comprises around five floors of one of the towers, which were compressed into a four-foot steel boulder during the collapse of the building and through exposure to extremely high temperatures. Some families of 9/11 victims have criticised the display of the object because they believe that it could contain human remains. Tests have not found any.

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