Architectural Response to The Journey of Healing, Understanding, and Transformations

The September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion is located at Ground Zero in New York City and is the only built structure in the landscaped plaza of oak trees and the two reflection pools or sculptural voids made of black granite, carved deep into the earth, meant to signify the empty space that cannot be filled. The Museum pavilion covers an area of 53000 sq ft in an eight-acre plaza set within the dense fabric of Lower Manhattan, where the former WTC Twin Tower once stood. It commemorates the 2983 victims from the September 11 attacks and the 1993 WTC bombings. The commission on this pavilion started in October 2004 and opened its doors for visitors in May 2014.

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National September 11 Memorial Museum, NY_©Joe Thomas / joethomasphoto.com
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The reflection pools at The National September 11 Memorial Museum fill the footprints of the twin towers_© Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

The stainless steel and glass pavilion is the entrance to the museum’s interior and embodies the powerful history, the memories and dreams of people around the world, and new hope for the future. Before entering the museum, the visitors first walk past the footprints of the Twin Towers and the cascading granite voids. Craig Dykers, the founding partner of Snøhetta, narrates that the main purpose of the pavilion is to provide visitors with a naturally occurring threshold between everyday life in the city and the remarkable spiritual quality of the memorial.

Design Philosophy 

The central idea of the design and user experience of the pavilion is the journey of healing and understanding. As Snøhetta’s founding partner, Craig Dyker describes how his own experience with the events of 9/11 and the positivity of the people around him helped inspire the design process of the 9/11 memorial museum pavilion.

He recalls in one of his interviews with the Louisiana channel that when one confronts a tragedy, it is always a transformative experience, and the person goes through various stages of understanding. Obviously, the first stage shocks, followed by a sense of yearning and desire that things would somehow have been different. But, as time passes and they move through these cycles intellectually, they realize one day that they are alive and have to present that strength of being alive to those around them. So this building is meant to be a part of that cycle. It is not meant to capture the trauma directly but to allow the users to see themselves at the moment in time. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized and interconnected world, these ephemeral moments are being lost. So this pavilion aims to recapture those moments to allow people to see themselves at this moment in time.

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The pavilion acts as a transition space between the museum and the memorial while the plaza embodies the resiliency of public space and its important civic function i.e. a vessel for assembly by people in a democracy_©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO
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The north pool looking south_©Joe Woolhead

The Design Process: Concept, Site, Form, and Planning

The Site: There was no actual site when the building was decided upon to be designed. The site where the WTC towers fell had been cleared of debris and the bedrock that sits 15-20 meters below the ground level, was the only thing that was available. None of the skyscrapers that are around today existed, and neither of their designs had been published. So in a sense, it was essentially a non-existing site without a ground to stand on, it was undeniably shrouded with trauma and was rather psychologically challenging.

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Site Plan of the 16 acre WTC Complex including a The Pavilion, Museum, a Visitor Orientation Center, an underground retail concourse, an underground road network, a new PATH train station, a Subway station, a Performing Arts Center, and five new office towers. _© Handel Architects

The Concept, Form, and Planning: The idea of a very low, horizontal, and uplifting building geometry that complemented the power and simplistic character of the pools and trees was decided in the very beginning and it did not detract from that. The shape, which is quite horizontal and is very different from the verticality of the surrounding towers, helps break the massive scale of the buildings before they hit the ground and enter the character of the memorial. Also, it is rising above the ground so it feels as though the memorial ground itself passes through the building which gives a sense of continuity. The pavilion is unimposing, visually accessible, and blends into the whole site bridging the world between memorial and museum, collective and individual experiences, above and below the ground, between the light and dark. 

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A section through the Pavilion and the underground Museum_©Snøhetta

The large atrium built with light and airy materials floods the museum’s various floors with natural light, signifying the pavilion’s vague relationship with the ground, equal parts weightless and hopeful. It houses two structural columns recovered from the exoskeleton of the original WTC towers designed by Yamasaki. They are preserved reasonably well and were among the 8-10 other rescued columns that represent strength. They are dramatic and beautiful, with intriguing aesthetics, almost like a Richard Serra sculpture. The depth of the rust and the patina, the fingerprints of the people who built them, and of those who helped save them are all clearly visible on the surface. 

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The two magnificent columns that were recovered from the efforts to salvage the site after the World Trade Centre Twin towers collapsed in 2001._©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Beauty and Remembrance

The reflective, transparent, and inclined surfaces of the structure intrigue the people to walk up close, touch, and gaze into the building. It also allows the visitors inside the pavilion to look out through the atrium and see others peer in and look at them. Then in a tiny fraction of a second, they realize that a complete stranger is a part of their existence and this way, the building reflects the present moment in time. It does not reflect the absence of those who lost their lives at the site but the visitors’ existence in the place. Thus beginning a physical and mental transition in the journey from above to below ground.

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People walk up close, touch and gaze into the building _©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

The gentle, broad, and meandering staircases, built with two separate materials – The upper levels with lightwood and the lower ones with cast concrete, give the visitors a clear understanding of what is above the ground, what is on the ground, and what is going below the ground. This invokes a feeling of descending into the earth and ascending back into daily life while leaving the museum.

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The gentle, broad, and meandering staircases in Lightwood and Cast Concrete_©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO
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The gentle, broad, and meandering staircases in Lightwood and Cast Concrete_©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

There are no words to describe how bad this tragedy was. The massive debris field and the smell of death completely overtook the whole world. To work out of that to where the world is now was a slow and hard process. As bad as 9/11 was, it reminds people that they do have the capacity to come together and take care of each other with limitless compassion.

Materials, Construction, and Technology

The Pavilion is mainly built in glass, steel web structure, and an ash interior. The jewel-like, striped façade of the Pavilion allows it to have a strong resonance with the visitors and provides a visual and architectural connection to the surrounding urban environment. The alternating reflective treatment of the façade, mirrors the changing seasons, communicating the Pavilion’s differing qualities throughout the year.

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The World Trade Center Site and the Urban Context _©Joe Woolhead and Jin Lee
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The Pavilion’s jewel-like, striped façade provides a visual connection to the surrounding urban context_©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO
The alternating reflective treatment of the façade mirrors the changing seasons, revealing the Pavilion’s differing qualities throughout the year_©Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

It is on target to receive a LEED rating of Gold and features several sustainable elements including optimized minimal energy performance, water efficiency, wastewater reuse, daylight and views, and locally sourced materials and fabricators wherever possible. 

Construction of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, New York City | Britannica

Time-lapse video of the construction of the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion (2004-2014)

©EarthCam (A Britannica Publishing Partner)

Author

Chandni is an architect by profession, a passionate designer and a self-taught writer with a keen interest in travel, photography and baking. She calls herself an avid learner who likes to research, understand and analyze various design-related fields for the communication of comprehensive ideas and development of sensible policies. She is an ardent believer that when creativity melds together with social and global issues, we can bring the world together. Furthermore, she would like to create an architecture to live by, more than to live in.

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