A multitude of challenges were associated with the construction of the National September 11 Memorial Museum—perhaps the greatest of which was the need to build a museum nearly entirely underground on the very site it is memorializing. But the constraints that New York architecture firm Davis Brody Bond had to work within became the ultimate framework for design during a tumultuous 10-year process.
Reacting to the raw site as well as a number of required elements, the design team has turned what was once Ground Zero into a stirring memorial museum dedicated to the victims of both the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York as well as the attack on the Pentagon and Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Among the myriad issues that the architects and designers had to deal with: The project began without a clear client. It started as a project of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and then the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, which ultimately became the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
Opened to the public on May 21 following a six-day dedication period, the $700 million, 121,000-square-foot museum sits nearly 70 feet below grade in and around the foundations of the former Twin Towers. Between the north and south pools on the Memorial Plaza, the museum’s glass-and-steel entry pavilion designed by Snøhetta includes an auditorium, cafe, and private room for family members of victims.
The rest of the museum—the vast majority of it—is underground within the core of the site and was designed by Davis Brody Bond. Visitors descend an entry ramp clad in dark wenge wood that switchbacks as it goes down, allowing visitors time to distance themselves from the world above. “By the time people reach bedrock, we have given them a chance to react to their own memories,” says Carl Krebs, AIA, a partner at Davis Brody Bond. A fellow partner, Steven M. Davis, FAIA, led the design with Krebs and Mark Wagner, AIA, an associate partner (see profile
Progressing down the ramp, visitors are oriented with views of the inverted Twin Tower volumes, clad in mottled aluminum to reference the facade of the original towers. The original towers’ footprints, the slurry wall that survived the buildings’ destruction, and a staircase that many people used to escape—known as the Survivors’ Stair—were elements that Davis Brody Bond was mandated to include in its design. “Architects love constraints,” Krebs says. “The slurry wall gave us height, and the need to provide public access to both towers gave us breadth.”
The architects worked to keep the aluminum-clad volumes uncluttered by any mechanical equipment from the memorial pools above, retaining their scale and impact. The volumes are designed to appear as though they hover over the footprints of the original towers, which are visible with original bases of the box columns still in the ground.
Within the tower footprints are the two significant exhibition areas—one remembering the victims of the attacks, and the other a thorough narrative documenting the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, with artifacts from the site. The overall open design of the museum allows visitors areas of respite before or after viewing the exhibition spaces that were designed by Thinc Design, Local Projects, and Layman Design.
Now that the museum has been opened to the public, Wagner says the response to the work of the architects and designers has been positive. “I think we’ve created a more comforting space than expected,” Wagner says. “Visitors and family members are connecting with it in the way we connected with it. Some of the key things that we were trying to achieve with the architecture seem to be understood.”