Memorials in Public Space

The last week has been filled with discussions of the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Today for the first time since 2001, the site was opened to the public, and New Yorkers got their first up-close look at the memorial plaza that occupies the site of the World Trade Center.  With two large water features outlining the footprints of the two World Trade Center towers, the site is defined by the void that the destruction of that day left in the lives of so many.

Designer Steven Davis, FAIA, explains the design concepts for the memorial and below-grade museum still under construction:

People will engage the site from different perspectives, both emotionally and physically. Some will come for a pilgrimage; others will come for a brief lunch break from work. The sloping procession begins at the plaza, and visitors arrive in Memorial Hall, which is essentially an information and orientation space. At this point, you haven’t yet engaged with the enormous scale of the Museum, which is then revealed at the West Overlook and the first siting of the slurry wall. You see the slurry wall from a distance, and you’re not really sure what it is, and then it strikes you that this is where it all took place. [Also located in this space is the “Last Column” from the twin towers, which was covered in tributes from workers, rescuers, and family members of victims.]

Next, you proceed along from the West Chamber down the ramp to the East Overlook, at which point you are suspended 25 feet in the air between where the two towers stood. Then you descend by stair or escalator down to bedrock. The major exhibits will be located within the towers’ footprints. Experiencing this w hole sequence could take 15 minutes or less, but more likely, an in-depth visit could take a couple of hours. When it’s time to leave, you ascend to Memorial Hall on an escalator. We’ve consciously separated visitors who have experienced the Museum from those who have not yet experienced it.

The concept for the spatial consequence of the Museum is based on the fact that we have not intervened in terms of the scale or the authenticity of the spaces. We inherited a series of program elements for this project: bedrock serves as the floor, the slurry wall defines the west enclosure, the Memorial Plaza is the roof, and the PATH station forms the east enclosure. We’ve done nothing to reduce the impact of the rawness of these spaces; in fact, we’ve tried to optimize the impression of scale. We don’t want to bias any of the events, and we don’t want to be overly influential in terms of emotion and context — we’re allowing it to reveal itself.

A traditional museum is an icon which houses exhibits, but this museum is the inverse — it is, in fact, an exhibit, which the icon. We learned a new way of thinking about museums and how to communicate and provide information. Interestingly, we are at the site of the atrocity, which is, of course, the most significant thing about the Memorial Museum; it is unlike the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which are removed.

A less formal, temporary memorial sprang up over the weekend in Bryant Park, a simply designed memorial, but with great emotional impact. The great lawn of Bryant Park was filled with 2, 753 empty chairs to commemorate each victim, and to help visitors to the memorial grasp the magnitude of the loss of life.  Volunteers were also on hand to record stories from visitors to the memorial with the simple question:  “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?”