Critical Round-Up: The September 11 Memorial Museum

Critical Round-Up: The September 11 Memorial Museum

Set to open to the public on Wednesday after a highly controversial and contested journey from idea to reality, the September 11 Memorial Museum has inevitably been a talking point among critics this week. The museum by Davis Brody Bond occupies the space between the Memorial Plaza at ground level and the bedrock below, with an angular glass pavilion by Snøhetta providing an entrance from above. A long ramp, designed to recall the access ramp with which tons of twisted metal was excavated from the site, descends to the exhibits which sit within the perimeter boundaries of the twin towers' foundations, underneath the suspended volumes of Michael Arad's memorial fountains.

The content of the museum is obviously fraught with painful memories, and the entrance pavilion occupies a privileged position as the only surface level structure ground zero, in opposition to the great voids of the memorial itself. The discussion at the opening of the museum was therefore always going to center on whether the design of the museum - both its built form and the exhibitions contained - were sensitive and appropriate enough for this challenging brief. Read the critics' takes on the results after the break.

Snøhetta's entrance building, with one of Michael Arad's Memorial Fountains in the foreground. Image © Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Justin Davidson, New York Magazine

Davidson admits a certain amount of apprehension about the museum, revealing that for years he has instead "remained focused on the drama of reconstruction". But when it comes to it he has high praise for the museum as a whole, concluding that he is "relieved that the curators have handled the inherent tensions as deftly as they have".

As for the building's design, he praises "the silvery origami-like pavilion designed by Snøhetta," highlighting its role as a neutral, soothing space to prepare visitors for the challenging experience beyond. Snøhetta "have anticipated some of its visitors’ more primal anxieties. Large windows look onto the memorial plaza, where the atmosphere is a mixture of reverence and casual cheer. Outside, kids take selfies with the names carved in bronze and the big shiny towers beyond. Inside, all is bright light and blond wood and soothing necessities."

This is in stark contrast to the museum proper, a "minimalist Hades designed by Davis Brody Bond," a space which, whilst not exactly pleasant, is revealed as entirely appropriate to the situation: "I am greeted by a murmuring choir of recorded reminiscences from all over the world, reminding me that 9/11 was a global event. The dark floors and austere sarcophagal aura make me wistful for the light above, but the architects have taken care to lead visitors gently into the depths. Underground spaces can be disorienting, but this one comes into partial focus at the first overlook."

A view up the stairs back into the entrance pavilion. Image © Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Oliver Wainwright, Guardian

Wainwright instead views the museum through the lens of its difficult creation, from the significant changes made to the widely popular masterplan by Daniel Libeskind, to the reduction of Snøhetta's contribution from a full museum in its own right to the simple entryway that stands today, after plans for a Museum of Human Rights and a Visual Arts Center fell through. As a result he seems somewhat less impressed: "In the hands of Snøhetta, the museum building has become Libeskind-lite, his trademark aesthetic of trauma and tragedy filtered though a benign Scandinavian is well crafted, but has the neutral, rather placid feeling of an airport lounge."

In the museum itself he finds "a form of fetishised architectural salvage that makes more sense when it is cleverly stitched into the visitors' route... At the bedrock level there are also some powerfully understated moves, such as exposing the column foundations that march in a mute line around the perimeter where the towers once stood."

Ultimately though it seems he considers the museum, and the reconstruction of the site as a whole, as - if not a missed opportunity - significantly less successful than it could have been: "these faceted forms are buffeted not just by the anguish and loss of that day, but by the compromise of competing interests that have waged war across the site ever since."

Snøhetta's entrance building. Image © Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Holland Cotter, New York Times

As an Art Critic, Cotter brings a slightly different perspective to the museum, and focuses primarily on the exhibition, concluding that "within its narrow perspective, maybe because of it, the museum has done something powerful. And, fortunately, it seems to regard itself as a work in progress, involved in investigation, not summation."

Where he does touch on the architecture, he has a very succinct analogy for the emotive design: "Invisibility can make for strong drama. A descent into darkness is the stuff of suspense. It's also the classic route of religious ritual and regeneration, bringing images of the tomb and the seedbed to mind. The museum makes full use of these associations and reveals itself slowly... Its nearest equivalent I can think of is the dynamic of religious pilgrimage sites"

Snøhetta's entrance building. Image © Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Clifford A Pearson, Architectural Record

Pearson echoes the opinion of Cotter, confirming how the ramp by Davis Brody Bond is crucial to preparing you for the experience: "As you descend to the first level below ground, you feel the presence of the plaza slip away as daylight becomes weaker and the wood stairs turn from light ash to dark wenge...Instead of wall labels or blocks of text, the route down to the exhibition level offers raw space and an experiential procession from daylight to bedrock"

Two salvaged columns from the towers, placed inside Snøhetta's entrance building. Image © Jeff Goldberg / ESTO

Cliff Kuang, Wired

Finally, Kuang offers an insight into how the colossal size of the towers and the ground zero site themselves ultimately translates into an understanding of the magnitude of the events which the museum depicts: "There may be no public space more cavernous in New York City, and the vista was designed to preserve the dizzying experience of looking into the gaping pit left when the cleanup was complete in the spring of 2002."

But in contrast to this dizzying cavern, it is the intimacy of the spaces which contain the most sensitive material which makes the museum a success: "the curators ­struggled most with how to present hundreds of more personal audio recordings and visual records. In the end, they decided to put this sensitive material inside alcoves placed off the main pathway through the exhibit. To confront these collections, you have to seek them out."

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "Critical Round-Up: The September 11 Memorial Museum" 16 May 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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