Designing the Museum and Plaza
Political, financial, and logistical imperatives guided the design of the 9/11 memorial museum. Aedas, the firm tasked with designing the museum, had to figure out how to incorporate historical artifacts within an exhibition space for a museum that had not yet figured out what its exhibitions would be. “Museums are typically icons which contain exhibits,” says Steven Davis, FAIA, a partner at Aedas. “In this case, the icon is the exhibit.”
To obtain federal funding for the project, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation—a private nonprofit responsible for building the museum and its exhibits—was required to preserve historical artifacts from the attacks and make them accessible to the public. Some artifacts, such as the slurry wall from the original World Trade Center, could not be moved. The building therefore had to be built underground, and it had to be located underneath the original Twin Towers—not at the bottom of 1 World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower), as some had originally suggested.
But the PATH commuter train to New Jersey runs below the point where the South Tower of the World Trade Center stood. Navigating the site’s pre-existing train, electric, and water lines represents a challenge above and beyond incorporating site-specific artifacts such as the slurry wall.
Aedas designed the museum to decline gradually to an overlook offering a dramatic view of the slurry wall, providing exhibition space along the ramp. Another overlook provides a view of the tower pools, and descending visitors will pass scarred box-beam columns rescued from the wreckage of the towers.
From the dramatic vantage point of the slurry wall, a staircase descends to the base level. Alongside that staircase runs the “Survivor Staircase,” which workers in the Twin Towers used to escape to the subway on 9/11. It was originally located on what would become a commercial part of the project, 2 World Trade.
The memorial pools and museum are intended for commemoration; the plaza is for the public at large. Arad says he was inspired by the role played by parks like Washington Square Park and Union Square as gathering places for New Yorkers who wanted to feel the community’s embrace in the wake of the attacks. Despite its trees, the plaza is not actually parkland. It’s not sod that they sit on, but a stone platform with an undergirding of irrigation pipes.
One chunk of the plaza is being built over PATH tracks to the west of the station designed by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA. Per Calatrava’s suggestion, the station will contain skylights so that visitors to the plaza can look down at commuters on the platforms. Arad describes the plaza as a “green roof” for the various structures underneath it.
The proposal to build so much of the World Trade Center’s public features underground did not arise in a vacuum. George Pataki, governor of New York until 2007, exercised major influence over the site’s redevelopment via the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land. He decreed that nothing should be built where the towers stood.
A political gesture meant to comfort the families of the victims, it would become the guiding design principle for the site. Starting from the notion that the footprints would be preserved as a memorial, and accepting the proposal by master planner Daniel Libeskind, AIA, to connect streets once covered by the former World Trade Center, the logic of splitting the 16-acre site into two pieces—the plaza and the commercial blocks—emerged.
The planned Visitors Orientation and Education Center represents the biggest loss to the public portion of the World Trade Center redesign as a whole. Originally, this group of buildings in the plaza would have contained four cultural organizations: the Signature Theater and the Joyce dance company, which would occupy a single performing arts building, and the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center, which would each have a building of their own. Politics intervened when some victims’ families warned that they could not countenance any politically objectionable material in exhibitions at the World Trade Center. Unwilling to accept preemptive censorship, the Drawing Center pulled out; the Freedom Center’s supporters scrapped the idea altogether, leaving the entrance pavilion alone at the proposed space.
A performing arts space to be designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, remains a possibility—but space and funding may yet prevent it from coming to fruition. The space set aside for it is currently where the temporary PATH station sits. Until the new station is opened (possibly by 2016), building for the project cannot commence. The platform it would rest on has been built, but the estimated $700 million needed to build it may never materialize. In scale models of the ultimate site development at architects’ offices and landowner Silverstein Properties, the site for the performing arts center sits empty. The city wants to build the center for $500 million, with funding from public and private sources; uncertainty notwithstanding, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation recently allocated $100 million for the project.
Originally, political pressure had threatened to make the eight-acre plot where the Twin Towers platform had stood an even deeper void. At his farewell address in January 2002, outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for the entire World Trade Center site to serve as a memorial with no redevelopment, which many family members supported. Libeskind’s original master plan also called for preserving the excavated pit at Ground Zero.
Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation. His writing on urban planning has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and Next American City.
Given the financial realities of the real estate, it was never a very viable option. Nor was it what lower Manhattan residents wanted. “The community felt strongly that it could not function or be a vital place if it was viewed as having a 16-acre cemetery,” says Madelyn Wils, who was on the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation until 2007. “That was upsetting to pretty much everyone who lived down here,” Wils says.
Another building destroyed in the attacks but removed from Ground Zero, 7 World Trade Center, may have served all along as a hint as to what the site might eventually become. In the aftermath of the attacks, community leaders such as Wils successfully prevailed to have the building pushed back to allow for a small park, which is already actively used today. There, professionals in suits eat lunch on benches and residents walk their dogs. If the massive construction site across the street is a success, a new World Trade Center will emerge as a permanent reminder of the attacks that befell the site—but also, as just another part of Manhattan.