The National September 11 Museum designed by Davis Brody Bond and the pavilion entryway by Snohetta have become the cover story for Ground Zero, and as such, the design and execution has come under fire multiple times. Arguments about the financing of the structure, its location, and its contents have splashed the headlines for years but now the opening, scheduled for May 21, is only weeks away. To discuss the challenges of finishing this space, three representatives from Davis Brody Bond—partners Steven Davis and Carl Krebs, and associate partner Mark Wagner—joined professors Jonathan Bach of the New School , Marita Sturken of New York University , and Brigitte Sion of Columbia University at the New School Auditorium this week for a packed discussion.
Davis began the conversation, saying, “About one third of the world’s population witnessed 9/11, but it was our job to build a structure that tells the story for people to reference later in history.” Ground Zero is a powerful site, tied to cultural memory as well as profoundly charged emotions. The preservation of the site and the simultaneous rejuvenation of the area has been a primary concern as Lower Manhattan continues to recover from the attacks on September 11. Throughout the almost 13-year process, each component of new construction has been debated and contested, from the memorial by Michael Arad and Peter Walker to One World Trade Center by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill , which is expected to open in November 2014. But, above all, one of the most difficult issues has been how to tell the story of September 11.
The space, Davis went on to explain, had to be multi-functional in order to serve educational, memorial, and preservative purposes. It also had to maintain a balance between the tragedy of the past and hope for the future. A multiplicity of voices weighed in on how to properly accomplish this, including families of the victims, preservationists, donors, and museum staff. On an even larger scale, this was a site that belonged to New York and, what's more, to a nation.
Unlike most museums commemorating a historical event, the architects explained, the museum would be integrated into the site of the tragedy. The entryway would be within eyesight of the memorial outside, conjuring images of the missing towers. Wagner noted the distinction from the voids outside, as he said, “The memorial is an unprecedented site, very physically showing what has been lost, but we hoped the museum site would come to be about the stories and the people.” To aid in this distinction and transition, two tridents from the old World Trade Towers by Minoru Yamasaki mark the beginning of a “ribbon” ramp winding down 70 feet to the building foundations.
In talking about the museum design, Krebs remarked on the importance of specificity while maintaining ambiguity: “Each viewer should be allowed to connect with his or her individual memories and relative views although people are walking through the same space.” Just as people experienced that day in various ways, so their perception and experience of the museum will differ.
Professor Sturken pointed out to the audience that “buildings can often stand in for larger ideas.” With the museum’s twisted form, reminiscent of a building fragment, we can hope the National September 11 Museum will come to stand for rebirth and resiliency in place of despair, a site to affect healing.