Construction of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum

[New York], [United States]
Alec Bliss-Pryor and Piotr Jankowski

The construction of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum initiates a discussion of the intended purpose of memorials versus the controversial issues they may create. Memorials are seen primarily as pedagogical devices to learn from the past, but issues arise when the design becomes misinterpreted or alienating from the tragic events they symbolize. How to treat the remembrance of such events is still an ongoing question in a society that is building more and more memorials within the past two decades.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Photo of one of the twin towers’ footprint, represented in the memorial as a square void with water falling in all four sides.  Image taken by Zoe Schlanger.

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographers Mate Eric J. Tilford of WTC 9 11 01 911 Pictures: World Trade Center   9 Years Later

Debris pile following the collapse. Photo by Eric J. Tilford.

An aerial view of the recovery operation underway in lower Manhattan at the site of the collapsed WTC. 911 Pictures: World Trade Center   9 Years Later

Aerial photo of the Ground Zero site, emphasizing the void of the lower Manhattan skyline.

World Trade Center Museum unveiled

The “Survivors Stair” that led hundreds to safety on 9/11. Photo by Associated Press.

“Ground Zero” is a term scientists use to describe the point of a bomb’s detonation, a place in which nothing remains except barren earth.  September 11, 2001 marked the day when the media designated the site of the World Trade Center’s destruction as Ground Zero.  From the instant the twin towers collapsed, the site’s footprint has become an ongoing contested space within the district of lower Manhattan.  Ground Zero transformed the significance of the site from business and trade to a site of great tragedy, remembrance and redemption.  Architecture was presented with the new opportunity, or challenge, to rebuild from the devastation.  Several years following September 11th, design competitions for a new World Trade Center were held by magazines, news corporations and eventually the official competition from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.  Public outcry from the victim’s families as well as pressure from politicians and commercial development called for Ground Zero to again find a functional place within the city.  Ground Zero presents architecture with unique limitations in terms of how the design must compromise with moral and empathetic connections with the site.

Architecture finds itself in the center stage with Ground Zero; the public demanded memorialization of the tragic events of September 11th and the memorial design had to rebuild not intrude, mourn not offend and appease the minds of millions around the world.  The evolution of the protested site, or sacred in the case of Ground Zero, reveals how architecture becomes involved.  In the massive cleanup effort following the twin tower’s collapse, the 150 foot wall of debris simply called “the pile” became the first contention of dealing with the sacred ground.  Many of the initial memorial ideas incorporated the structural remnants of the twin towers.  “It is worth noting that throughout history ruins have often been incorporated into memorial sites to evoke the destructive power of hatred” (Sturken 316).  Many items from the recovered wreckage, now deemed historical artifacts, have been used in various memorials to September 11th across the U.S.  The dust that coated the streets found significance because it did not just contain rubble, but also remains of those who died during the collapse.  Ground Zero is sacred because it is the burial ground to more than 3,000 people.  Every part of Ground Zero found a sense of importance due to the tragic loss of human life and the symbolic loss of two enormous buildings of the New York skyline.

The sacred status of Ground Zero, supported by the countless blessings performed by priests and even President Obama, complicate the architectural aspects of the memorial.  Currently, design ideas still being implemented into the almost completed memorial cause tension among the September 11th victim’s families.  “Architects of memorials face enormous disagreements between victims’ families, city planners, other designers, investors, and scholars of the subject at hand, all of whom have different ideas of what they think is best” (Wu).  The 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighter and WTC Victims recently filed a lawsuit against the decision to store the remains of victims in a repository 70 feet beneath the September 11th  Museum.  The group supports bringing the remains back to Ground Zero, but strongly opposes the notion of displaying them in a museum.  Instead, the group demands that the remains be separate from the museum and stored above ground in a similar fashion to how Washington dealt with the remains from the Pentagon.  In the case of Ground Zero, architecture plays the mediator between morality and urban space.   What may seem like a good design decision can become a catalyst for public outburst, the antithesis of this memorial’s principles.

The architectural designs submitted for the Ground Zero site have varied from the public outcry to rebuild bigger and better, some advocate the reconstruction and others are content with leaving the more symbolic emptiness of the lower Manhattan skyline.  However, the designs submitted all followed one rule of thumb.  In a promise to the victim’s families, New York Governor George Pataki forbid construction on top of the existing footprints of the twin towers.  Daniel Libeskind, Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the three architects behind the reconstruction of the World Trade Center, emphasized the two footprints in a hierarchy of space.  The footprints themselves serving as solemn voids within the public plaza.  The symbolic meaning of the two voids where the towers stood exemplifies that architecture can be equally powerful in the absence rather than the production of space.  Architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio firmly believe in preserving the void suggesting ‘‘let’s not build something that would mend the skyline, it is more powerful to leave it void. We believe it would be tragic to erase the erasure’’ (Diller and Scofidio 81).  The footprints of the two towers resonate most when looking at the site, the architecture develops around these special zones to create centrality and importance.

This is an age of commemoration, where society is rapidly documenting in a fear of losing a hold of remembrance.  The past two decades have seen a rise in the amount of memorials constructed in the U.S.  Although memorials are viewed as pedagogical devices to learn from the past, how to represent a tragic event will always cause contention.  The case of Ground Zero is one of many examples of controversial memorials.  How the footprints of the twin towers were treated in the construction of the new memorial raises questions of whether this tacit respect of structure has been followed elsewhere.  How is sacred ground negotiated with in order to create public space; to implement tourism and commercialism into a site of great tragedy without offending the victims is the role architecture must fulfill.  The success of the architecture is achieved by creating a discussion of the lasting impact of the tragedies they embody, by instilling lessons in the generations to come and respecting the victims of the event being memorialized.




“To Rebuild or Not: Architects Respond.” New York Times Magazine. 23 Sep 2001: n. page. Web. 14 Sep. 2013. <>.

Article of various views from architects shortly following September 11th.  Architects range from offering modest proposals to suggesting the reinvention of the skyscraper.  Diller and Scofidio offer a unique perspective on the matter.


Wu, Sharon. “Families Of 9/11 Victims Protest Decision To Bury Remains Beneath Memorial.” NYU Local 8 Mar 2012, n. pag. Web. 14 Sep. 2013.

Wu further details the efforts of 9/11 victim’s families to protest the New York City’s decision to bury the remains beneath the museum.  The protesters have created the 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims, a group of 17 families petitioning to overturn the decision.


Sturken, Marita. “The aesthetics of absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero.” American Ethnologist. 31.3 (2004): 311-325. Web. 8 Sep. 2013.

“The Aesthetics of Absence,” by Marita Sturken examines the growing development of memorials in the past two decades.  The article analyzes the various design phases and criticisms of the ground zero memorial.  The initial minimalist modern designs created public controversy due to their disconnection from the human being as well as any pre-existing artifacts of the twin towers.


Ng, David. “9/11 museum in New York faces more controversy.” Los Angeles Times. (2012): n. page. Web. 8 Sep. 2013.


This article highlights a recent controversy surrounding the burial of remains deep within the walls of the museum.  A recent survey found that storing the remains below the museum is seen as disrespectful.


Encyclopedia Entries


Wikipedia contributors. “National September 11 Memorial & Museum.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. <>.

This wikipedia page provides background information of the memorial site’s construction and facilities.  The fundraising for the memorial as well as the overall design process are also detailed.


Scholarly Articles


Haskins, Ekaterina, and Justin DeRose. “Memory, Visibility, and Public Space Reflections on Commemoration(s) of 9/11.” Space and Culture. 6.4 (2003): 377-393. Print. <>.

“(Re) Covering the Past, Remembering Trauma,” by Lisa Moore explores the relationships between memorials and the tragic events they commemorate.  Moore details how in many instances there is a separation of the victims from the memorials’ intended purpose and overall audience.  Memorials are constructed as pedagogical views to the past, but the problems that erupt from their inception affect both the present and future.


Gallagher, Edward. “The Vietnam Wall Controversy.”History on Trial. Lehigh University Digital Library. Web. 8 Sep 2013. <>.

The controversial construction of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. exemplifies how politics and conflicting ideologies spark conflict in an otherwise peaceful attempt to memorialize veterans.  The designer, Maya Lin, was forced to compromise with multiple parties on various additions to the memorial.  This article supports the claim that architecture is easily manipulated and changed by politics.


Orthographic Documentation



National September 11 Museum – floor plans. Analyzing the plans helps understanding the final outcome of the design.

National September 11 Museum – section. Explains the areas of the museum.


Video and Audio

This Video explains how families of the lost ones react to the delay of opening of the museum. The museum is so important because it provides a context the thousands of names surrounding the two pools where the towers stood. The video also mentions the financial and political issues related to the construction.

The Video mentions the controversy of burying the unidentified human remains in the 9/11 museum.  The dispute finds families of those who died in 9/11 requesting a tomb above ground and separate from the museum.  Families did request the remains be returned to Ground Zero, but were unaware of the museum’s plans.

A broadcast from NPR discussing the controversial decision to bury remains beneath the museum. Statistics discussed reveal widespread public disapproval over the designer’s decision.  Alternatives to how the remains could be placed at Ground Zero are also mentioned.

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