Place of remembrance
Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta designs 9/11 Memorial Museum pavilion
By Bill Osmundsen
Norwegian American Weekly
On Sept. 11, 2001, the sunny, clear autumn morning in New York City started out as any busy commuter weekday. At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines flight #11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, almost initially perceived as an airline accident, it was closely followed by United Airlines flight #175 which slammed into the South Tower. They were not coincidental accidents – the U.S. was under attack, the planes had been used as devastating bombs.
Within two hours both buildings would collapse. The North Tower, where the plane had severed stairway escape routes, lost the most: 1,366 people. The South Tower lost 600. An estimated 200 people simply leapt out of windows rather than be burned alive.
Two hundred FDNY (Fire Departments of New York City) would respond. They would also suffer a devastating loss of 343 lives. NYPD, the New York Police Department, lost 60.
People I know, who lived close by in the NOHO/SOHO area and all the way up to lower Midtown, witnessed this plume of acrid air and smoke. The heavy air was a mix of concrete, steel, fuel and burning bodies. The devastation spread to nearby buildings but miraculously each twin tower simply collapsed into its own footprint.
People from all over the country came to help in the aftermath. It was an American tragedy, but even more so, it was a New York tragedy – burdened and absorbed by hardy New Yorkers.
The wound left in lower Manhattan has taken years to heal. Everyone felt the importance of somehow memorializing the site. There have been many designs considered, many starts and stops to finally arrive at the elegant and living memorial which will open to the public Sept. 12, 2011.
I was aware of some of the memorial activities through 9/11 Memorial and Museum (www.911memorial.org). I have also been involved with the Alliance for the Arts in New York City, I was delighted to receive an invitation to a presentation that the Alliance held for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Presented June 29 at the New York Times Center, the event featured Joseph C. Daniels, president and CEO of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Daniels discussed what has been done in the nearly 10 years to commemorate the Sept. 11 disaster.
On Sept. 12, which is the 10th anniversary, much of the work will be completed and eight acres of the original 16-acre field will be dedicated and will feature two enormous water pools, covering one acre each.
The waterfalls and reflecting pools are set in the original footprint of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Inscribed in bronze around the reflecting pools are the names of every person who died in the terrorist attacks of Feb. 26, 1993, (when a truck bomb was detonated in one of the WTC garages) and the Sept. 11 attack.
More than 400 swamp white oak trees were planted to give sense of rebirth in and around the pools and welcome center. The entrance to the underground museum is designed by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architectural firm based in Oslo and New York City.
The Museum Pavilion is the primary structure above ground at the memorial site, serving to guide foot traffic and to provide a visual point of reference within a large area surrounded by several high towers. Its low, horizontal form can be seen easily from all directions and provides a sense of intimacy in an otherwise capacious urban space.
The fact that a Norwegian firm won this prestigious honor, when there were certainly many New York- and U.S.-based firms, caught my attention. The next day I called them and arranged for a meeting, at their downtown offices on Broadway in New York. I met with one of the senior architects named Elaine Molinar, who is the Director of Practice Management.
When I arrived at the second floor offices, the elevator opened to a lobby area and was an open doorway which I entered and found an expansive work area with absolutely no one in it. No receptionist, just an open room with large long tables and a sitting area. There were two other glass enclosed rooms, one being a self-service coffee room and the other presumed for small meetings. Eventually someone wandered through this unusual setting and asked if they could help me.
Meeting with Molinar in this large work space I soon became acquainted with another noticeable difference employed at Snøhetta: A very democratic approach to all their design work. The long tables in the room where we met would often be filled with architects, some junior and some senior, but each of them would have an equal say or contribution to the building design. The result of this community type of creativity, not practiced by most architectural firms, has resulted in some really innovative buildings.
Notable projects that put Snøhetta on the world stage were two worldwide competitions. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina library in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina was an attempt to recreate the famous library that existed during Alexander the Great’s time – 332 B.C. Snøhetta created a space befitting the great library of the past, which can seat 3,000 people in the great reading room.
An equally majestic space was created for the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, with a “roofscape” that allows visitors to stroll from the interior over and above the exterior of the building. The main hall accommodates 1,350 people.
For the 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, Snøhetta entered a worldwide competition with 35 other contestants and won.
They began with a large building of nearly 30,000 square meters to house two cultural institutions, the International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center. This led to a long series of modifications.
Through a process of deliberation this concept was modified and scaled down. A substantial portion of the building plan was eliminated in reverence for the grounds. This was to be a sacred, but living, site. Finally the work became one building, the portal and welcoming center to the 9/11 Museum.
Looking at the building itself I was fascinated with how they lifted up one side of the box-like structure, which sets it off-kilter. By doing so, they reveal a welcoming glass-enclosed entrance. I asked Molinar how they arrived at such an innovative design. Her response was that no one was completely responsible. It was really a group creation; something that was met at these long tables that you see when you enter Snøhetta.
Then we strolled through the large work room, where we met, into a hallway. Looking down from the second floor, through brass marine windows, you could see the great Cunard lobby which is the building they were housed in. Such liners were as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were booked there long ago. You have to have a sense of reverence for that.
The passageway opened up to a another large room occupied by a team of architects at work at their computers. I mentioned to Molinar that the world has changed since I was a Navy draftsmen.
“I guess all of the design work is done on a computer now. I still rather work on a drawing board,” she agreed.
Snøhetta is named for a snow-topped mountain in Norway. The name is a compound of snø (snow) and hette (hood) – or mountain with a hood of snow. If you would like to read more about Snøhetta, the architects, and view their work online you can visit their website: www.snoarc.com.
The 9/11 Memorial will be open to the public on Sept. 12, 2011. It is necessary to make reservations online to visit the 9/11 Museum, and visitors must reserve a specific date and time. Tickets are free through the memorial’s online reservation system, so visit www.911memorial.org.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.