Progress is Made at Ground Zero

Event: A Space Within: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum Panel Discussion
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.01.09
Speakers: Michael Arad, AIA — Partner, Handel Architects; Craig Dykers, AIA — Project Director, Snøhetta; Steven Davis, FAIA — Partner, Davis Brody Bond Aedas; Matthew Donham — Partner, Peter Walker Partners Landscape Architecture
Moderator: Thomas Mellins — Exhibition Curator, A Space Within: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Introduction: Joseph C. Daniels — President & CEO, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation

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A rendering of the 9/11 Memorial waterfalls.

Courtesy AIANY

“Nearly eight years have passed since 9/11, and the public wants to know what is going on,” stated Thomas Mellins, curator of A Space Within: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, now on view at the Center for Architecture. Moderating a panel of designers working at Ground Zero, Mellins raised questions about the timing of design and construction, and factors leading to design decisions. With literally hundreds of designers and engineers working at the site, collaboration has been trying at times, to say the least. But despite the strong-willed individuals running design teams, at the end of the day, decisions are being made, steel is being topped out, and nothing is being left on the table, said Steven Davis, FAIA, partner at Davis Brody Bond Aedas, the firm designing the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “It’s finally physical and we’re all excited,” remarked Matthew Donham, partner at Peter Walker Partners Landscape Architecture.

A voice of optimism, Davis discussed how rewarding it is to see progress made daily. “Forms are emerging, buildings are being topped out; it’s all going all right,” he said. Michael Arad, AIA, partner at Handel Architects and designer of the National 9/11 Memorial, admitted that, although the first year seemed very slow, recently time has moved faster. Given the opportunity, though, he would not opt for more time to develop the memorial. Those involved needed to be pushed to make decisions and to come to a consensus, he claimed. Craig Dykers, AIA, project director at Snøhetta and architect of the 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, agreed with Arad, but felt that perhaps more time was needed before the design process began. Although this is not possible in a city like NYC (“things aren’t always done logically,” he said), Dykers believes that the disjuncture between the political process and necessary healing time will yield interesting results.

Despite the pressured schedule, there were many other factors that influenced the design and addressed the challenge of how to create a space apart from, yet a part of, the city. When considering the plaza, Arad realized he had to facilitate among different types of visitors — those who will come once in a lifetime, every day, and anywhere in between. He wanted to construct a place accessible from all sides of the site. The planting strategy of the grove of trees responds to the perimeter conditions while providing a quiet, cool refuge from the city, explained Donham. The trees align in rows to direct visitors through an east/west axis, but the grid shifts for those entering from the north or south, allowing visitors to meander through at a slower pace, Davis elaborated.

For Arad, the political decision to require 10 million square feet of office space dramatically influenced the site’s overall development. Although Fulton and Greenwich Streets are being restored to the site, Fulton Street has shifted from its historic location to allow more space for One World Trade Center (formerly called Freedom Tower). The site, therefore, is divided into four unequal quadrants. In addition, for Donham, negotiating the complex infrastructure on the site was one of the biggest challenges. Each vent and pipe was placed to prevent problems in construction.

Below grade, Davis discussed his “inverted” design process. The museum’s form is defined by the memorial pools above; the slurry wall, PATH station, chiller plant, and 1WTC along the sides; and bedrock below. “Small buildings are a luxury in New York,” Dykers stated when describing the pavilion as a small, intimate space that contrasts the ever-growing city. While the program has been redefined several times, his goal has always been to provide an oasis in the city, a space where people can go to calm down. Part of the genius of the original Studio Daniel Libeskind-designed master plan, according to Dykers, was the provision for a cultural institution on site. Instead of segregating programs, autonomy was encouraged, which reflects the overlapping layers and complexity of the community.

Emotions about the design of the site still run high, as was revealed during the Q&A. Criticism ranged from siting the museum under ground to there not being enough information about the stories of the individuals who perished. Although the museum is planning a number of interactive displays, podcasts, and videos, some family members questioned how accessible the stories will be to “average” people who are not as “tech-savvy and intellectual” as the designers. Perhaps Arad addressed the questions most succinctly when asked to define sacred space. He used Jerusalem’s Western Wall as an example of a place that is unquantifyingly spiritual: “A place such as that is not something you can promise to deliver, but it is what we hope to create.”