written by:
May 14, 2014
The architects and exhibition designers behind the National September 11 Memorial Museum offer a behind-the-scenes look before it opens next week.
9/11 Museum

Column No. 1,001B, the last section of World Trade Center steel to be removed from Ground Zero, stands 37 feet tall next to the slurry wall inside the National September 11 Memorial Museum, designed by Davis Brody Bond. The museum opened in May.

Courtesy of 
Jin Lee
1 / 14
9/11 Museum
Visitors will enter the museum through this pavilion off Greenwich Street, designed by Snøhetta. Image courtesy of Snøhetta.
2 / 14
9/11 Museum
The pavilion is outfitted with materials, including ash slats on the ceiling, that Craig Dykers, founding partner at Snøhetta, says were chosen to "provide a sense of comfort as this is a site filled with a great deal of anxiety." At left are a pair of "trident" columns that survived the collapse of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Photo courtesy of Snøhetta.
3 / 14
9/11 Museum
Visitors will pass this photograph of the World Trade Center, taken at 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001, as they begin to follow the "ribbon" from the concourse level down to the exhibits at bedrock level. Photo by Jin Lee.
4 / 14
9/11 Museum

The Survivors' Stairs inside the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

Courtesy of 
Jin Lee
5 / 14
9/11 Museum
About 14,000 unidentified human remains are held in this repository in the museum's Memorial Hall. Photo by Jin Lee.
6 / 14
9/11 Museum

A section of "impact steel" from the World Trade Center is on display outside the footprint of the South Tower inside the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

Courtesy of 
Jin Lee
7 / 14
9/11 Museum
One of the box columns from the original Trade Center that the architects were required to preserve and integrate into the museum's design. Photo by Jin Lee.
8 / 14
9/11 Museum
Artifacts, including a grapple claw and a sign from the World Trade Center PATH station, on display at the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Photo by Jin Lee.
9 / 14
9/11 Museum
A display from the Chelsea Jeans store near the World Trade Center. Photo by Jin Lee.
10 / 14
9/11 Museum
Airplaine wreckage on display in the historical exhibit. Photo by Jin Lee.
11 / 14
9/11 Museum
A bicycles tethered to a rack are among the artifacts on display. Photo by Jin Lee.
12 / 14
9/11 Museum
This Ladder Co. 3 truck carried 11 firefighters from a fire house in the East Village to the Trade Center on 9/11. All of them perished in the North Tower. Photo by Jin Lee.
13 / 14
9/11 Museum
At street level, the museum pavilion sits between the memorial pools that occupy the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers, near the new One World Trade Center skyscraper. Photo courtesy of Snøhetta.
14 / 14
9/11 Museum

Column No. 1,001B, the last section of World Trade Center steel to be removed from Ground Zero, stands 37 feet tall next to the slurry wall inside the National September 11 Memorial Museum, designed by Davis Brody Bond. The museum opened in May.

Very little about the conception and design of the National September 11 Memorial Museum has followed the traditional narrative associated with the development of signature exhibition spaces.

The museum, which will be dedicated on Thursday and opens to the public on May 21, is the product of years of public outreach and often wrenching debate. Its exhibition spaces reflect a carefully considered effort to tell the story of 9/11 to an unusually broad audience, one that includes everyone from survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 victims to foreign tourists and children with no firsthand recollection of the attacks.

And then there is the space itself, a cavernous, nearly 124,000-square-foot subterranean expanse with imposing physical constraints—most prominently the undersides of the memorial pools that occupy the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers, and tracks carrying tens of thousands of daily commuters to and from the adjacent PATH rail station.

The challenge of transforming this unorthodox space into a setting for education, reflection, and solemn contemplation fell to a team of architects from the firm Davis Brody Bond and exhibition designers from Thinc Design and Local Projects, all of which are based in Manhattan. (A separate team of architects from Snøhetta, which also has an office in the city, designed the aboveground steel-and-glass pavilion where visitors will enter the museum from the memorial plaza. A second floor houses an auditorium, a small café, and a pair of private rooms reserved for victims’ relatives.)

9/11 Museum
At street level, the museum pavilion sits between the memorial pools that occupy the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers, near the new One World Trade Center skyscraper. Photo courtesy of Snøhetta.

“If you think about what we had as a site, and that a traditional museum is an icon containing exhibits, this is the inverse. The exhibit is the icon,” Steven M. Davis, a partner at Davis Brody Bond, told writers and editors who gathered at the museum for a media tour on Monday. “So we have the memorial and pools as as if impressed on the site, we have the slurry wall to the east, we have the PATH mezzanine. Our roof is the memorial plaza. So the only thing that we really imposed as architects on the resources that were to become our site is this thing that we call the ribbon.”

The ribbon is a gently sloping walkway that begins after visitors descend a staircase from street level—passing a pair of 80-foot-tall steel columns from the North Tower—and gradually guides them from a concourse level down to bedrock, some 70 feet below the plaza. It is surfaced in dark-brown walnut, a material that Carl F. Krebs, a partner at Davis Brody Bond, said was chosen to signal that “you’re beginning to make a transition into something that’s a bit quieter and more contemplative” than either the memorial plaza or the light-filled pavilion above.

“We felt we needed to give visitors a lot of time and space to pace themselves,” Krebs said. “If you think of other museums, you go into a lobby, you get your ticket and go into an exhibit immediately. What you’re going to see now is a long procession before you ever reach something like a curated exhibit. So the idea of these large spaces, these attenuated spaces, was really a conscious decision to pace the visitor and bring them into this world that’s going to have some very challenging emotional content.”

The ribbon gradually narrows as it reaches a large-scale photograph of the Twin Towers taken at 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001, 16 minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. Here, ordinary people from around the world share their 9/11 experiences in short audio clips, their words flashing across a series of screens that, when viewed from a distance, form a map of the word. Projected images of the handmade posters that distraught relatives made for their missing loved ones are projected on a wall.

9/11 Museum
One of the box columns from the original Trade Center that the architects were required to preserve and integrate into the museum's design. Photo by Jin Lee.

Immediately beyond this is an overlook where visitors can gaze out at Foundation Hall, getting their first glimpse of a 60-foot section of the slurry wall—part of the original Trade Center foundation that held back the Hudson River after the attacks—and the shells of the memorial pools. These volumes, which stand in for the absent towers, are sheathed in aluminum panels that have been injected with gas, giving them a textured, reflective surface. They appear to float above the rusted outlines, embedded in the floors, of the box columns from the original towers. “Those were identified as historic resources and we were required to preserve them,” said Mark Wagner, an associate partner at Davis Brody Bond. “By preserving those columns, which basically created these two one-acre footprints, and the slurry wall, it established the scale of this museum.”

From here, the ribbon carries visitors down a staircase, past a preserved section of the so-called Survivors’ Stairway, and deposits them at bedrock, facing a repository where some 14,000 unidentified human remains from the attacks have been entombed, over the objections of some relatives. The repository’s concrete wall bears a quote from Virgil’s “Aeneid” (“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”), forged from Trade Center steel, that itself proved controversial when scholars suggested it had been taken out of context.

Some larger artifacts—a section of the Trade Center’s radio and television antenna; a fire truck, its cab a tangle of steel—are on display in the large “interstitial” spaces, as the Davis Brody Bond team calls them, at bedrock level. But visitors must cross a threshold, or “bridge,” into the tower footprints themselves to access the museum’s historical collection and its tribute to the victims.

9/11 Museum
This Ladder Co. 3 truck carried 11 firefighters from a fire house in the East Village to the Trade Center on 9/11. All of them perished in the North Tower. Photo by Jin Lee.

The North Tower footprint houses a permanent exhibit that tells the story of 9/11 in photographs, video, and audio recordings, and through artifacts recovered from the rubble. Some of the more difficult material—images of people falling from the doomed buildings, for instance—is tucked into alcoves beyond signs warning of its sensitive nature, giving visitors the choice of whether to engage with it.

“You can experience this place as you choose,” said Tom Hennes, principal at Thinc Design, the lead exhibition designer for the museum. “For those for whom it would be overwhelming to see the most difficult things, you can stay well away from that because they’re well signed, they’re well signaled. The day is quite distant, so using time as a separator helps move people through and helps them choose how to engage. We can’t please everybody, but that doesn’t mean that we choose a slippery medium that doesn’t accomplish anything. What we’ve tried to do is understand that people have different goals and people have different needs, and we address those in different ways in different places. We don’t try to do everything at the same time.”

The South Tower footprint contains portraits of the 2,983 people who were killed on 9/11 and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and touch screens where visitors can access snapshots, information, and recorded reminiscences for each of them. “It’s husbands telling stories about wives, or best friends who were at each other’s weddings,” said Jake Barton, principal at Local Projects, which designed the interactive exhibits for the museum. “I think in some way it’s some of the most emotional material just because it’s so personal. You have these huge pieces of steel and you see a fire truck and it seems so unreal, and then you hear stories about how someone was an amazing Little League coach and it crushes you because it’s just so familiar.”

9/11 Museum
Artifacts, including a grapple claw and a sign from the World Trade Center PATH station, on display at the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Photo by Jin Lee.

Both exhibition spaces were off limits to the media on Monday’s tour; relatives and other “stakeholders” (survivors and first-responders among them) will have a chance to view them first over a six-day period starting Thursday when the museum will be open around the clock exclusively to them.

Part of the challenge for the exhibition designers was to document an event that has yet to fully recede into history. “There is no established 9/11 history,” Hennes said. “We’re still living the outcome of this event, so there’s no settled narrative. So the best way we felt to present it was through a variety of perspectives, to let people go through and to trust them to position themselves within that narrative.”

Barton noted that “Timescape,” a series of 9/11-related timelines that will be projected on one wall of Foundation Hall, will draw from an archive of news articles dating to September 11, 2001—an archive that will continue to grow as time moves on. And visitors will have the opportunity to record their own 9/11 experiences, he said, or add to the collection of testimonials about someone they knew who died. “Anybody can come in and tell a story or add a story,” Barton said. “It really makes this place a museum that’s ever collecting and ever changing, and transforming as more visitors go through.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

practical magic brooklyn renocation kitchen caesarstone countertop stainless steel ikea cabinetes green vola faucet
A creative couple flips the script on their family home, a former workman’s cottage on the northern edge of Brooklyn.
May 02, 2016
history lesson kansas city outdoor backyard facade porch saarinen round table emeco navy chairs
An architect pushes the vernacular architecture of Missouri into the modern realm.
May 02, 2016
mission possible san francisco renovation facade exterior french doors cedar
A dilapidated lot in San Francisco gets a second chance.
May 02, 2016
Eames Demetrios of Kcymaerxthaere
The Eames scion and "geographer-at-large" traverses the globe on behalf of Kcymaerxthaere, a network of markers and monuments that tells fictional tales about real-life communities.
May 02, 2016
marcel breuer architect letter office kansas city snower house
See a glimpse into the office of a master architect.
May 01, 2016
Santa Monica living room with an Yves Klein coffee table
Dwell editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron talks us through Dwell's May 2016 issue.
May 01, 2016
house that sottsass built maui hawaii memphis group home renovation ettore facade colored volumes
In Maui, of all places.
May 01, 2016
two of a kind padua italy matching family homes facade green roof doors color
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to dream homes , we visited homes from Haiti to Italy. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
April 30, 2016
houseofweek
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 30, 2016
W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
gramercy 1 ar53319
A family doesn’t have to travel far for a private oasis away from the busy city.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016