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NY | 9/11 Museum, a contemporary pantheon

Place: New York, Country: United States
Client: National 9/11 Memorial
Davis Brody Bond (lead architect)
Snohetta (Entrance Pavilion)
Michael Arad (memorial)
Landscape design: Peter Walker and Partners
Text by Riccardo Bianchini, Inexhibit
All photos courtesy of 9/11 Memorial Museum
and Snøhetta

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The 9/11 Memorial with the Museum’s entrance pavilion in background, photo by Jin Lee, courtesy of 9/11 MM

New York | 9/11 Memorial Museum – A contemporary pantheon
by Riccardo Bianchini, Inexhibit

Introduction: a different museum
The September 11 Memorial Museum in New York is, in many ways, a museum different from any other in the world.

By first, it is a museum of history that does not depict, say, remote conflicts; it presents instead events that almost all its visitors, although in different ways, have experienced and have been somehow touched by.

A second peculiarity is that it is at the same time a memorial, a museum, and a remembrance site, all interconnected to form a coherent ensemble, where different parts and architectures should collaborate with one another.

A third element that makes the 9/11 Memorial Museum different is its being a “contemporary archaeology” museum, one of the very few in the world, as far as I know. Many memorials and remembrance sites are dedicated to near-past events – those related to the Holocaust immediately come to mind – but it is absolutely unorthodox to find one with a so strong relationship with on-site excavations of buildings that many of us have seen in all their splendour only few years ago.

I will not enter the emotional and somehow traumatic dimension of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, especially for those who have been directly involved in the September 11 events; I deem this a very personal and private point, not to be over-generalized in what is, at least, an article on architecture and design.

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The Entrance Pavilion designed by Snøhetta, photo © jeff goldberg/esto

The architectural complex
As anticipated, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is composed of three parts, each further articulated. Although I will mostly focus on the museum, it is impossible, as stated earlier, to “disconnect” it from the plaza and the memorial, with which it forms an inter-connected logical system, therefore I will cover also them, although in a more condensed way.


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Cross-section of the 9/11 Memorial Museum complex

Memorial and Plaza
The 9/11 Memorial is located in the exact site where the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers once were. After been selected in 2004 as the winner of an international design competition, the project of the Memorial has been developed by NY-based architects Michael Arad with landscape design firm Peter Walker and Partners.

The Memorial consists of two large pools, with side waterfalls, which retrace the footprint of the North and South Towers, encircled by the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks, inscribed on bronze plates.

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The Memorial’s Plaza, photos by Amy Dreher (up) and Jin Lee (down)

The Memorial’s plaza is a large public space, where a grove of over 400 swamp white oaks has been planted, among them it still lies the “Survivor Tree”, a pear tree which miraculously withstood the 9/11 events at Ground Zero.
The Plaza adopts cutting-edge sustainable solutions, such as floating concrete pavement conceived to help a correct tree growth, and an advanced rainwater collecting system that provides irrigation water for the plants.

Museum and Entrance Pavilion
Opened on May 21, 2014, the 9/11 Museum is composed of two main parts: the Entrance Pavilion and the underground galleries.
Designed by the Norwegian architecture firm SNØHETTA, the Entrance Pavilion is the only building of the complex above the ground.
The pavilion, a transparent and visually lightweight two-story construction, by its appearance fully expresses the function of “threshold” between the urban space and the museum sunken levels. Such functional symbolic role is further enhanced by the presence of two large columns, recovered from the original WTC, that dominate the pavilion’s atrium and, like silent guardians, indicate to the visitor the access route to the museum’s subterranean realm. The pavilion also includes an auditorium where concerts, film screenings, live performances and talks are frequently staged.

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Exterior view of the Entrance Pavilion, photo © jeff goldberg/esto

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The pavilion’s atrium, with the WTC’s facade columns on the right; photo © jeff goldberg/esto

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Another view of the facade columns, photo by Jin Lee

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The stairwell leading to the museum’s underground galleries, photo © jeff goldberg/esto

In direct relationship with the Memorial, the underground Museum is a 110,000-square-foot ensemble of various exhibition spaces, located 70 feet under the plaza’s level and designed by the 9/11 Memorial Museum lead architects, Davis Brody Bond.

The underground galleries features three main permanent exhibitions: the Memorial exhibition, the Historical exhibition and the Foundation Hall, as well as temporary and thematic exhibitions.

The Memorial exhibition, entitled In Memoriam, runs in the space between the Towers’ footprints. The exhibition is composed of a long wall, truly impressive, which supports the portraits of those who perished in the events, and of a series of touch-screens providing details about each victim’s story, with texts, photos and audio recordings.

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The Memorial exhibition, photo by Jin Lee

The Historical exhibition, is composed of three chronological sections entitled Events of the day, Before 9/11 and After 9/11. By presenting a massive set of artifacts, models, personal objects, documents and audiovisuals, the exhibitions depict the historical and tragic events that occurred here, as well as their background, immediate aftermath and long-term consequences.

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A piece of the facade of the North Tower, deformed by the impact of American Airlines Flight 11; photo by Jin Lee

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NYFD Ladder 3’s fire truck, badly damaged by the collapse of the towers, is a symbol of the sacrifice of all firefighters who perished during the rescuing effort on 9/11; photo by Jin Lee

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A wreckage from the fuselage of American Airline Flight 11, photo by Jin Lee

The Foundation Hall is truly breathtaking; it is a huge, cavernous room dominated by the presence of an original steel-column of the WTC and by that of an imposing reinforced-concrete foundation wall, both survived parts of the Twin Towers.

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View of the Foundation Hall from above, with the “Slurry Wall” on the left and the 36-feet steel column in the center; photo by Jin Lee

It’s here that the museum fully expresses its essence of “contemporary archeology”. While such a definition may seem an oxymoron, to define the 9/11 Museum simply an historical museum would be not enough. Although related to events which consequences are still in action, these two tragic, yet monumental, remains are, from an historical point of view, as significant as those of Pompeii or the Acropolis.

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Top: President Barack Obama speaks in the Foundation Hall at the museum’s Dedication Ceremony on May 15, 2014; bottom: Alison Crowther, mother of a 9/11 victim, in front of the “Slurry Wall”; photos by Jin Lee

Indeed, to both underline and respect the WTC remains, the Foundation Hall is a quite uncluttered exhibition space, provided only with some, very discreet, information panels, touch-screens, and video-projections, that help to contextualize the artifacts.

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Photo by Jin Lee

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