The blank spot on the map of Lower Manhattan is starting to fill in. So catastrophically wounded nearly 13 years ago, the former site of the World Trade Center has begun, at last, to take on its new form in earnest. The fence is gone from around the 9/11 Memorial, and now, instead of entering with a timed ticket, you can walk right up to the pair of vast pools in the footprints of the vanished towers. The park around the pools is open to the surrounding streets. And this week saw the public unveiling of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Less than 24 hours before the doors to the museum opened, I took a tour of the site with Craig Dykers, founding principal of the architectural firm Snøhetta. Dykers and his colleagues are responsible for the design of the aboveground entrance pavilion for the museum (Davis Brody Bond designed the belowground portion, where the artifacts and exhibits related to that horrific day are on display).
The low-slung, angular glass building was meant to create a spatial and temporal bridge at the emotionally charged location, says Dykers. That’s a real challenge at a site which now accommodates a wide range of purposes and structures, including the somber memorial pools, bounded by the names of the dead; the soaring 1 World Trade Center building, with its triumphal spire that reaches 1,776 feet; several other skyscrapers; and the spiky exoskeleton of Santiago Calatrava’s transit hub.
Dykers is a soft-spoken man who has a sign on his desk that reads, “Abuse of power is no surprise.” Snøhetta came into being in the late 1980s, bidding for and winning its first major commission in a competition to design a new library in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Dykers says he's always enjoyed navigating complicated cultural intersections.
The 9/11 Memorial Pavilion, however, is a particularly raw and complicated assignment, both technically (train tracks under the pavilion limit the use of columns) and psychologically. He explained the thinking behind the pavilion’s design at his firm’s offices on lower Broadway before we walked over to the site together.
“The memorial pools are about the past, death, and loss,” he says. “The skyscrapers are about commerce and the future.” The two-story pavilion, says Dykers, is about the here and now, meant to help people “be aware of the present moment in time.” It is also designed to be on a human scale, fitting comfortably within a person’s range of vision, unlike those skyscrapers. Coming up to it, he tells me, “people begin to see their own reflections.” They see themselves.
We approach the site from the south, walking through the busy maze of Lower Manhattan streets, talking the whole time. Then we get to the place where the vista opens up. The place where the towers were. And I get quiet. Somehow I am shocked that now, you can walk right up to the memorial pools. This area had been blockaded for so many years.
“Have you been here yet?” asks Dykers.
“No,” I said. “No, I just…”
“It’s a challenge for New Yorkers,” he says, kindly.
Like anyone who lived in the New York area on 9/11, I have a story to go with that day. The personal details aren’t important. What is important, for those of us who went through that dark experience, is the indelibility of those minutes, hours, days, weeks. The fear. The unfolding consciousness of loss. The exhaustion of emotion.
This is something that happened in real time and real space. And any trip that takes you near that location, the so-called Ground Zero, touches the place in your brain that carries all the knowledge of that trauma.
Some of us have to go there regularly for work, or as part of our daily commutes – there are transit connections here that carry tens of thousands of passengers every day. Routine becomes a protection. Some of us, including many who lost family members and loved ones, go as part of rituals and ceremonies of mourning. Most of us avoid the place altogether. It is space left intentionally blank on our mental maps.
In the years since 9/11, I’ve spent a lot of time around the periphery of the site. I played with my growing son, with whom I was three months pregnant that day, on the lawns of Hudson River Park. I looked away from the lurid photo books hawked by sidewalk vendors, the ones with the covers screaming “NEVER FORGET.” Many times I stopped at the “Sphere” sculpture that was salvaged from the wreckage and now stands in nearby Battery Park, a flame of remembrance burning in front of it, and tried to fathom the meaning contained in its crushed surface.
From adjacent buildings, I’ve peered down into the enormous pit of demolition and construction that has been churning nonstop at the place where the towers once stood. But this was my first time entering into the site itself since that was possible. It’s still disorienting, a half-finished work in progress. But it is beginning to emerge as a recognizable place. The erased space on the map is being inked in again.
As Dykers explains, this part of Manhattan Island actually has a history of being off-limits. The site where the Twin Towers once stood was originally a swamp that was not inhabited by the area’s native people. Hundreds of years later, it was filled and developed. From 1921 to 1966, the neighborhood was known as Radio Row for the cluster of electronics and radio-related businesses here that thrived in a six-block area. Then the World Trade Center put an abrupt end to all that in the name of urban renewal. Its vertiginous towers and windswept plaza wiped out the street grid.
Now that grid is being restored. The memorial pavilion sits very close to what will, not long from now, be the corner of Fulton and Greenwich streets, two thoroughfares that have not met for a generation. Walking south down West Broadway through Tribeca, you’ll be pointed straight at the wedge-shaped building, which Dykers says will guide pedestrians gently into the heart of the memorial plaza.
As soon as we came close to the building, with its gracefully shaded lines that evoke the Twin Towers’ façades, I see what he means about the way people approach it. They look at themselves, take pictures of themselves. They smile. “I knew if we could bring a smile to one person’s face, we would have done our job,” says Dykers.
Quite often, they go right up to the building and press their faces against it, shading their eyes to see inside. “They leave nose prints on the glass,” he says, laughing happily. “I’ve never seen so much pressed flesh on a building.”
What the people see, as they peer in, are two of the momentous trident-shaped beams that were salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. They are so large that they had to be lowered into place by a helicopter after being transported from JFK Airport, where they were stored after the site was cleared. Snøhetta’s design sets the tridents against a weblike lattice of beams, and the rusted steel columns make a strong vertical statement as you descend past them into the museum. They are frighteningly huge. It’s a crushing reminder of the scale of that day’s loss.
From the pavilion’s interior — designed with muted colors and sounds to soften the apprehensions of those who enter — you see all those people putting their faces to the glass outside, and you can meet their eyes, just as Dykers intended. When that happens, both parties are completely enmeshed in the present, taken out of the miserable history of the spot. “It dramatizes that moment,” he says. “It’s you, and them looking back at you.”
We weren’t allowed access to the museum itself, where preparations were ongoing for opening events. I told Dykers that I was relieved. I had been dreading the prospect of going through the exhibits. Many New Yorkers I’ve talked to have said they understand why the museum has to exist, but that they don’t want to visit it, or see its controversial gift shop and its much-discussed T-shirts. It isn’t meant for us, though. It’s meant for history. And history is messy.
I was glad to get out into the plaza again. I found the tourists taking selfies with the memorial pools in the background less upsetting than I had expected. Time was frozen in this place for many years. Now it is flowing again. People are being people. They have been released into the imperfection of normal life.
There was once an open wound here, and then it was stitched up, awkwardly, and it mostly scabbed over. Now the place is badly scarred. It will always be scarred. But the marks will fade with time. The trees on the plaza will grow taller. People will walk through on their way from one thing to another. They will be thoughtful and sad, but also joyful and silly. The place is no longer blank. Slowly, it is being knit back into the chaotic, awkward, beautiful life of New York.
“The museum is as much about September 12th as September 11th,” Dykers says to me as we start walking away. And September 13th. And all the days to come.