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On the Horizon WEB EXCLUSIVE: The 9/11 Memorial Museum

Set to open Sept. 11, 2012, the museum is being quietly constructed out of site, underneath the memorial plaza which opened yesterday.

By AnnMarie Martin

Yesterday, the world watched as New York City unveiled two breathtaking dedications to those who gave their lives – and those who had them taken – by the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Today, those two memorial pools officially opened to the public, one on the exact footprint of the collapsed North tower and the other on the South. Each pumps in excess of 30,000 gallons of water per minute, and they have the 2,983 names of the victims of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and Feb. 26, 1993, inscribed into the bronze parapets surrounding them.

Steven M. Davis, FAIA, partner at Aedas, and his firm worked with the design teams of Michael Arad and Peter Walker, as well as fountain consultant Dan Euser Waterarchitecture, in the realization of the design for the memorial plaza and they are the lead architects on the Memorial Museum.

Located 70 feet below the pools and memorial plaza, the museum is set to open exactly one year from yesterday. It is 120,000 square feet of varying exhibits that will allow visitors to have any type of experience they desire -- from a quick tour to something much more indepth.

For Aedas, this LEED Gold project was more than just an emotional assignment. It hit very close to home in more than one way, particularly for Davis who was residing on Duane Street in Sept. 2001, considered one of the “frozen zones.”

“It was so close I had to leave my home for 10 days,” he says. “I had a perspective of that morning from my 33rd floor apartment looking southwest that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

Davis was also the master planner for the reintegration of the World Trade Center in the 1990s. “The World Trade Center was built as an urban renewal project. It was an inwardly focused, late 60s, early 70s planning paradime, but it became endangered when the city grew up around it. And it needed to be integrated into its community. We were the master planners for that reintegration effort.” On top of that, he was also the professional consultant to the Port Authority after the first bombing in ’93.

But the 9/11 memorial museum was a different beast all together as it is not the typical museum project for more than just the obvious reasons.

“In a typical museum, the museum is the icon. The Guggenheim – it’s an iconic presence that houses exhibits,” explains Davis. “This is a series of exhibits which are the icons. So it’s the inverse of a typical museum. We have no façade. Our roof is the memorial plaza. Our floor is bedrock, which is hallowed, or sacred ground. To the west we have the slurry wall which is restraining the Hudson river and to the east we have the Path complex. So this is a very complicated site and one of the reasons people have not perceived the project is because it’s being constructed out of sight. But it is a powerful special experience. People are really affected by it emotionally when they walk through.”

That was achieved in several ways, with the principles of memory, authenticity and scale at the forefront of the firm’s design work.

The cultural memory of the towers – or the connection between the place and the horrific events that occurred there – and the authenticity of the space was something the team had to wrestle with. Unlike similar projects of its kind (like the Holocaust museum in Washington) the 9/11 museum is located in the exact place where the tragedies occurred.

For example, “the memorial pools are located on the original footprints,” Davis explains. “They’re not off by a millimeter. And that’s visible. In 100 years, no one who witnessed 9/11 will be alive. So the preservation of this cultural memory and authenticity is critical for future generations.”

The museum will include a variety of remnants, from a piece of the towers’ antenna, to a fire engine and police cars, to pieces of steel. On the North tower footprint there will be a permanent exhibit telling the story of 9/11, and on the South tower the exhibit focus will be on the lives and memories of those who died, and will also include some “age-appropriate” exhibits.

One particular challenge was how to get visitors 70 feet down from the pavilion to bedrock. The answer was a series of ramps that has been dubbed “the ribbon,” and is a symbolic procession intentionally geometrically different than the hard edge concrete and metal of the context surrounding it.

Aedas worked with lighting consultant Fisher Marantz Stone to create a lighting scheme where, because of the reaction between materials and lighting, creates the effect that the underbellies of the memorial pools above seem to be hovering over the space.

And perhaps the biggest issue of all laid in the slurry wall, up against the Hudson River. Structural engineers Guy Nordenson and Associates worked with Aedas to construct a four-foot concrete liner that protected the wall against the force of the river. And even though each fountain is pumping excess of 30,000 gallons of water per minute, the project achieved a LEED Gold rating from the United States Greening Building Council (USGBC). “We re-circulated and managed very carefully the water and power,” Davis says.

What Davis hopes visitors will walk away with though, is that the WTC is living on. And while people do terrible things to one another, that shouldn’t be a cause for change in the great ideal of the American story. But what the space says more than anything is that this was an attack on an entire society, not on an individual landmark and that it should never be allowed to happen again.

“It doesn’t do anything but tell the truth.”