Patience is not a quality generally attributed to Americans, particularly New Yorkers. As the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack passed last September, even the dignified opening ceremony for the Memorial Plaza couldn’t dispel a sense of frustration at the time it has taken to realise the final version of Daniel Libeskind’s Ground Zero Master Plan.

Four towers will eventually occupy the 16-acre site. Two are currently making significant progress: the revised 1 WTC by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (no longer known as the Freedom Tower, and now New York’s tallest structure, having surpassed the Empire State Building on 30 April) and 4 WTC by Fumihiko Maki. On 2 WTC by Foster + Partners and 3 WTC by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, structural work proceeds for severely shortened designs, with construction schedules and full-height redesigns contingent on fundraising by developer Larry Silverstein.

Attention to the towers can overshadow the site’s lower-level components: the WTC Transportation Hub by Santiago Calatrava (slated for completion in 2015), the Memorial Plaza, the National September 11 Museum by Davis Brody Bond (DBB), and the Museum Entry Pavilion by Norwegian/American firm Snøhetta. Amid all the security fencing, construction noise, and incessant presence of the local and global media, elements of a complex public space are all emerging, but not quickly or steadily.

Difficulties, delays and deadlines

After a drastic revamp of the construction schedule and an expensive effort to complete the plaza in time to honour a former governor’s pledge to victims’ families that it would open within a decade, a financial dispute between the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the site’s landowner) and the 9/11 Memorial Foundation led to a delay in payment for subcontractors working on the museum. Work ground to a halt in the third quarter of 2011. A partial payment brought the subs some relief in April this year, and local business-press reports have suggested a mid-2013 completion date (revised from the optimistic previous estimate of 11 September 2012). Architects from the firms working on the museum and pavilion say it’s impossible to give a definitive date.

Some New Yorkers and national pundits find it embarrassing that the US has not marshalled the financial, political or organisational resources to rebuild Ground Zero on a timetable rivaling those seen recently in China. The likelihood that it won’t appear in our lifetimes has become a common lament, in a city where kvetching comes as naturally as breathing.

What strikes some observers as a symptom of cumbersome public processes and private obstructionism appears to others, particularly those closer to the site, as not a flaw but an inevitable, even admirable feature. These 16 acres are hallowed ground (particularly, but not exclusively, to the loved ones of the 2,983 victims whose names appear on the fountain parapets); for those lost in the twin towers, Ground Zero is their gravesite. It is also high-value land in a dense city with an acute need for open space.
Construction within this tight site, shared by multiple projects and intersected below grade by active train lines, poses multidimensional, multivariate problems. The difficulties are chronological as well as spatial; along with solving problems of structure, circulation, security, lighting, materials and programme, the architects must remain aware of immediate and long-range imperatives that are often in tension.

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Reconciling these disparate impulses would be difficult regardless of distractions like political grandstanding and financial disputes. Most of what the public sees of Ground Zero is a massive construction site with airport-style controlled access – a hole filled with promises and money. What those working there observe is a series of transformations, the most radical of which remains invisible: a vast space that served as the original towers’ underground garages is becoming a shrine that preserves artefacts, memories and values. Rarely is architecture’s entanglement with hot-button philosophical and social questions as explicit as it is here.

There is a strong case for not rushing the job. Carl Krebs, partner at DBB and a chief spokesman for the firm, suggests that the successful opening of the memorial has "in some degree given the foundation the ability to take some time [on the museum]. In a sense they’ve delivered a very important project to the public, and that has enabled them to be much more measured in these next steps."

Above and below

The mission for both the memorial and museum is to do justice to the past, Snøhetta principal Craig Dykers notes, as the commercial towers look toward the future. His firm’s pavilion links these elements, emphasising immediate present experience through its scale (three humble storeys seen from outside near the taller towers, then a deep and dramatic descent into its atrium), its forms (largely non-orthogonal, contrasting sharply with the symmetries of the square fountains), and its materials (especially its semi-reflective matte-finish stainless steel, which scatters light while hinting at legible images, acting as both lampshade and mirror to ‘grow light’).

"Our framework of developing the geometry was based on how we could connect it to daily life and your normal range of vision, so the building is very horizontal in nature," Dykers says. "It fits into your eye as you move through the street; it rises up from the ground plane and right where it touches the ground, you’re able to interact with the building directly through reflections in the façade. So there’s a sense that because of its diminutive size, its horizontal frame and its reflectivity, it is interacting with the daily life of those that pass by."

One of Snøhetta’s earlier projects, Cairo’s Alexandria Library, puts contemporary frustrations in perspective.

"That was an undertaking that already had 2,000 years of history behind it, and it took us over a decade to complete," explains Dykers. "But as long as that might sound, it’s a third the length of time it took to complete the British National Library."

If anything, the negotiations and decisions at the WTC strike him as moving too quickly.

"Some aspects of the planning work could have been slower, to allow different factions to coalesce into more fluid attitudes and be managed easier during the design process. When things happen too quickly, it can polarise people quickly."

Recognising that the site will mature, he likens current reactions to "looking at a sonogram of a baby".

Snøhetta’s project manager Anne Lewison, having worked for 11 years on another building of great historic gravity, Pei Cobb Freed’s Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC, notes that 50 years passed between the horrors being commemorated and that building’s design and construction.

"The rush to finish that one was because the survivors were dying," she explains. "[The 9/11 Museum is] much more a memorial for people who have no cemetery, no gravestone, no marker and the existence of the marker is tremendously important in this generation of its life. This memorial, I think, will have a different tone in 20 years. It was designed and built very freshly after the event, with what I would consider emotions still profoundly felt and close to the surface."

Time and relationships

Memory of the 9/11 trauma is steadily exchanging immediacy for longer perspective; the trees will grow, and the surfaces acquire patinas. At the same time, the popular relation to the site is likely to mature as well. War memorials as a typology of large-scale public space, Lewison observes, are rarer in the US than in Europe. Aside from relatively scarce battlegrounds or monuments from the American Revolution, the Civil War and conflicts between Native Americans and settlers, history has largely spared US land the burdens and scars of military attack.

"Arlington Cemetery is one of the only ones of this magnitude and solemnity," says Lewison. "Our cultural experiences tend to be more entertainment-based."

Lewison finds that the site often generates reactions of patriotism and resilience among Americans, while international visitors tend to respond with solemnity and a sense of solidarity rather than ‘ownership’. Children visiting the memorial, too, run and throw gravel as they would do in any park; appropriate use of such a space is a learned behaviour. This cultural context affects design decisions: in a setting where the programme’s inherent gravitas is anomalous, the pavilion and museum need to reconcile the imperatives of education, security, community, fidelity and dignity.

The experience of visiting the museum, DBB’s architects agree, best honours its subject by rejecting excessive programming or packaging. Circulation is one way, but didactic texts are de-emphasised, especially at critical points like the column base of the original towers, so as to avoid narrowing visitors’ interpretation of the events and their background. Aware that "everybody who comes to this museum has had a 9/11 experience", as Krebs notes, and that some factions want the museum to tell their 9/11 story and their story alone, DBB and the curators lean toward letting the site’s features and contents speak for themselves.

Form and control

Ground Zero’s heightened security concerns present further questions of control.

"The museum is a very emotionally challenging experience to begin with and it doesn’t need to be made any more painful," says Krebs.

Security must be tight, with screening at the pavilion and cameras ubiquitous (if discreet).

"The entire site is under incredible scrutiny," Krebs says. "One of the things the Port Authority did was to implement a series of site-wide standards, so each of the projects meets certain requirements… beyond typical code requirements for security, egress, and life safety."

Snøhetta’s Lewison puts it succinctly: "We really had to design a bunker without it looking like a bunker at all."

One enters the museum from the plaza, "taking you from the world of the city into the precinct of the 9/11 dead," as Krebs says, passing first through the pavilion and descending via escalator or stairs past an enormous icon of the original towers: a pair of trident columns salvaged from the attack site. This is one of many artefacts that emphasise the scale of the destroyed buildings and the immensity of the loss; the space itself is another.

Curator Alice Greenwald notes that the museum is "a site where the foundations still exist in situ. So, in many respects, where other museums are buildings that house artefacts, we’re a museum sitting within one".

Gradually acclimating the visitor to the space’s strangeness and power, a ‘ribbon ramp’ of gently descending planes with a prominent switchback at an observation point above the main floor makes the approach a logical procession through dramatic moments and positions. The main museum space is cathedral-sized, with 60ft-high ceilings, large enough to contain either the Guggenheim Museum or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The final descent to this floor passes the Survivor Stairway, the last above-ground remnant of the ruined complex and a route to safety for hundreds of evacuees during the attack, preserved and moved across the site to join the other exhibition features, including individual profiles of each victim, steel fragments (some mutilated by the attack and some during lifesaving efforts), a crushed taxicab, part of the north tower’s broadcast antenna, and the final salvaged and graffiti-inscribed box column.

Meaningful access

The master plan mandates that the museum provide "meaningful access" to various features: the bedrock of Manhattan schist that originally supported the towers, the sheared-off box-column bases, the tower footprints and the concrete slurry wall that held back water pressure from the Hudson (preventing an even greater disaster). Libeskind views the slurry wall as a strong metaphor for democratic values and institutions that held fast under attack, and it has consequently been designated a historic asset; marking a centrepiece of the museum, its massive tiebacks protrude as mute sentinels overseeing the space and resisting static pressure.
"What you see is not actually original concrete," says Krebs. "It’s this remedial concrete that was put on it after the period of recovery, a testament to the recovery of the site."

It also contrasts strongly with the crisp, polished concrete of the new flooring, which almost resembles terrazzo, and the excavated sections that expose large chunks of the foundations. Associate partner Joseph Grant finds that these materials, some from the 1970s and some post-attack, encode the building’s history.

"You’re seeing a combination of what the original building was and what the restoration process required the site to become," he says.

The juxtaposition of refined and industrial elements is a recurring motif throughout.

"We didn’t want this to look like the perfect beautiful concrete building," Krebs adds. "Having some roughness or inconsistency in the concrete is part of the atmosphere of being in this deep hole."

The tower footprints are now embodied as the plaza’s north and south fountains. Correcting early plans in which street-grid restoration prevented the north pool from precisely matching the north tower site, Krebs reports, both are now exactly where the towers stood.

"From the perspective of the museum," he says, "it was actually critical, we felt, to get them to align, because when you got down to the column bases, there was going to be no ability to fake it."

Above the column stumps, the undersides of these pools hang some 30ft from the plaza surface into the exhibition space, underlit and clad in an eyecatching recycled aluminium foam (Cymat Alusion, a lightweight aerospace material) that, Krebs says, "accepts the light in an incredibly liquid way [and] has this ethereal, ghostly quality. It almost becomes a cloud of light." It is also an abstract reference to the aluminium cladding of the original towers, transformed into something irregularly textured, nearly organic.

These volumes are a central organising feature of the space, imparting a sense of vast scale matching that of the fountains above. Instead of subdivision into smaller sequential galleries, and a screening room added beneath the south tower, this museum uses an open plan.

"We knew we had to accommodate a lot of flexible space for that kind of interpretive exhibit, almost black-box space," Krebs explains. "So, trying to do that, whether it was consciously or not, we slowly evolved into a process where the public spaces are really about the in-situ artifacts, the envelope, the big pieces of relics, but the footprints themselves were carved out as really distinct environments that could handle media, graphics and smaller-scale objects."

Towards the light

Returning to the plaza, the visitor will have completed a process of descent and ascent that mirrors and inverts the path taken by survivors who escaped their burning workplaces through corridors and fire stairs. If it is conventional to associate an increase in altitude with a positive movement toward light, contrasting with the ‘descent through the underworld’ motif undertaken by countless mythological heroes, the experience of passing through this museum, contemplating the atrocity itself and the instances of rescue and sacrifice recorded on that day, then finally re-emerging into open space will offer ample opportunities to comprehend the event’s personal and cultural meanings.

"We also see the plaza as really the last experience in the visit to the museum, because you’ve seen the story, you’ve heard the stories of people who went through the events, and you come back up to the memorial, and maybe potentially you see the memorial again in a different light," Krebs explains.

No constructed space can completely dictate its possible uses, but through exhibits, educational presentations and respectful design decisions alike, the National September 11 Museum and Memorial will strive to emphasise the gravity of the event and of the most forward-thinking responses to it.

Greenwald speaks of the sense of awe produced by the west chamber, which includes the majestic slurry wall, as representative of the intended overall effect.

"In a sense it becomes the foundation not of the buildings that aren’t there any more; it’s the foundation of the world we’re going to build going out of this museum, and committing ourselves to, a world in which you don’t have to fly planes into buildings to make a point," he says.

Destruction, after all, is the ultimate act of inarticulacy and immaturity. A community’s efforts to rise above that level take time – and deserve it.

The LEAF Review

This article was first published in our sister publication The LEAF Review.