National September 11 Memorial & Museum

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Interview with Steven Davis, FAIA

Davis Brody Bond, Architect, National September 11 Museum 

October 14, 2014


Judith Dupré: You began working on the 9/11 Museum in 2004, long before steel rose above grade.  How did you approach the design?


Steven M. Davis: We’d been thinking hard about it and had some pretty good ideas. We realized a couple of things: 1) In a hundred years there wasn’t going to be anybody left alive who experienced 9/11, so there had to be a narrative built into the architecture so that the story would tell itself. We didn’t know about the curatorial direction.


We do know that things change over time.  There will be new exhibition strategies.  There will be new ways of presenting information, more information will be available, so we were designing an armature that had to stand on its own. We developed a kind of an internal armature of reference to make decisions.  We think about memory.  We think particularly about cultural memory.  Cultural memory is the human trait of associating, of not being  able to remove physical objects from space.

If you remembered the view of the Trade Center from the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, every time you looked at that space again, if you remember the towers being there, you will recall them in the mind’s eye.  We think about authenticity.


JD: The authenticity of being on the site.


SD: Yes, not very many interpretive museums are located where the event happened. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin is intentionally placed where it didn’t happen.  The Holocaust Museum in Washington is in a place where it didn’t happen. There are only very few.


JD: Hiroshima. Also, the WWI memorials in northeast France are profound.  And Gettysburg, a kind of weird Victorian ensemble, a memorial wunderkammer.


SD: Yes, incredibly powerful for the same reasons that the World Trade Center Site is incredible. You can go to the places in Cambodia where the murders took place. You can go to see where the Armenians were slaughtered. If you know what happened there, there’s no way that you can disassociate that event from being at the place.  This is part of the cultural memory and part of the authenticity.


Now, if you were at the plaza level and the pools were not exactly aligned where with they had actually been, would you know?  I don’t think so, but the second you go downstairs, you know because of the alignment between the pools, the volumes, and the column bases.  There was quite a long fight over whether or not they would correctly align.


JD: How did you solve that?


SD: When the memorial had all of the ramps circling it, it didn’t fit onto the site because they were going to run Vesey Street through.  They pushed everything to south, if you were going to accommodate the ramps.  Michael said it doesn’t matter, nobody will know.  We said everybody will know, and so that’s a nonstarter.


JD: Those column bases are so eloquent, beautiful and archaeological.


SD: We have memory.  We have authenticity and scale. Nothing is varnished in terms of the scale; it’s presented at the size that it was.


JD: People instinctively know that.


SD: People instinctively know, so the scale of the event, the scale of the Trade Center, the scale of the emotional impact—the scale of it all—is preserved.  It’s very important, so scale became the third piece of the reference armature.  Then the fourth was emotion, and the definition of emotion that we used for this effort is the consequence of events on one’s state of mind.


JD: On one’s state of mind?


SD: That’s a definition of emotion.  If you talk to a psychiatrist, they’ll tell you that’s exactly what emotion is.  Stuff happens, it changes your state of mind—makes you happy, makes you sad, but if nothing happens, you don’t have an emotional response.  Those four things became our reference points.


JD: You had to design within a tightly prescribed space.


SD: Yes, well, we inherited essentially the plaza as our top, as a lid.  Bedrock is our base.  On the west we have the slurry wall, on the east we have PATH.  On the south we have a couple of things, PATH and the chiller plant.  We have the memorial pools.


JD: You had to fit your design into what was available?


SD: Well, we couldn’t move the memorial pools.  We didn’t want to move the memorial pools, but we preserved their alignment with the column bases. There was very early an agreement between the consulting parties under the aegis of the U.S. Parks Department, called the Section 106 Agreement. It’s an historic preservation agreement and it requires that certain historic elements and artifacts of the site be made available to the greatest extent possible. It covered the slurry wall, the column bases, parts of the bedrock. It’s probably the reason that the museum survived in any form.


JD: Because these items had to be protected?


SD: Yes. There was some discussion of moving the museum into the Freedom Tower, but it had to maintain, had to preserve the time reference of what Section 106 established as the “period of significance.”  The period of significance began on Sept. 12 and ran out in some nine months until the site was fully remediated. 


JD: You’re referring to the completion of the recovery efforts in May 2002?


SD: Yes.


JD: Okay.


SD: Now, the slurry wall didn’t exist in the original World Trade Center.  There was a slurry wall, but it didn’t look anything like the one that’s there now.  The slurry wall was buttressed by the garage floors.  When the garage floors collapsed under the weight of the towers, the weight of the debris kept the wall in place.  During the recovery, as stuff was removed, they observed cracks forming in the slurry wall, so that’s when they installed the tiebacks and parged the wall. The section of the slurry wall in the center, that’s the piece of the project covered by the 106 Agreement.


JD: Yes, only a section.


SD: Only a section.  It was going to be much grander and even a skylight at the top, a very slender skylight, a foot wide.  It would have identified the location of the slurry wall on the plaza—


JD: Oh, interesting.


SD: —which was value engineered out by the governor.


JD: And the survivors’ stairs?


SD: That is not covered by the 106 Agreement, but it was decided to preserve it.


JD: I thought it was covered.


SD: I don’t think it has any designation.  It’s a significant artifact of the Trade Center, but I do not believe it was covered by the Section 106 Agreement. It was moved several times and Foster declined to have it in the lobby [of 2 WTC], which is where it stood. I think we found a very good place for it.


JD: The placement is genius. One thing that’s been hard to wrap my mind around is that these giant artifacts were in place before the museum.  You had to design around them.


SD: The artifacts that were going to be included needed to be brought in, but there’s an enormous hatch.


JD: Where’s that hatch?


SD: It’s on the west side of the north pool.


JD: That’s where the preserved elements were brought in?


SD: Yes. Then it was closed and then reopened after Hurricane Sandy.


JD: Was it a help or a hindrance that these limitations were in place?


SD: They were problems to be solved.  That’s what designers do.  They solve problems.  If you create problems, you’re not a designer.


JD: I think I’ll put that on a plaque.


SD: There were lots of people creating problems.  What I thought was really interesting was taking all the existing contextual stuff -- the fact that the pools were there, that the slurry wall was there, that we had all of this stuff --  


JD: Yes.


SD: We really only added one element to the entire space, which is the ribbon, the ramp.


JD: The ribbon recalls the recovery ramp that led down into Ground Zero.

SD: There were ramps employed both in the construction and the recovery, so the symbolism is obvious.  We have millions of visitors to move down into the museum, so a ramp was an apparatus that would function well in that way.  We knew that we didn’t want it to compete with the power of the context -- the pools, the slurry wall, the column bases -- so we designed a kind of organic thing.  It was made intentionally of materials that were differentiated. The materiality is intentionally different than the majority of material in the rest of the project.  We had a lot of concrete.  We had the aluminum.


JD: Right, I love that corner where you reach out and touch the aluminum underside of the memorial pool.

SD: That’s my corner.


JD: That’s your corner?  I thought it was mine.


SD: Because I think that’s where all of the elements of the reference armature come together.  That’s where you sense the scale.  It’s where you feel the memory.  It’s where you realize how you can look down and see that the pools are authentically aligned with the footprints, and it’s just emotional. 


JD: It’s an incredible moment. 

SD: But nobody has said—you’re one of the few people that actually resonate with that moment.


JD: I have about a million pictures of that corner. For me, that is a key moment of discovery.   


SD: It’s called progressive disclosure.


JD: Exactly. Why that material?


SD: It’s called foamed aluminum.  Recycled aluminum that is put into high pressure forms and injected simultaneously with super heated gas, so you get a kind of pebbled solid finish on the outside, but the inside looks like a sponge or a foam. It’s a material that comes from the aviation industry. It’s very strong, but weighs nothing.  It’s a material that resonates, at least for me, with memories of the Trade Center, which was largely aluminum and glass.  And it’s a material that can be lit in a really intriguing way by a skillful lighting designer.  Paul Marantz is a really skillful lighting designer. 


JD: Marantz also lit the museum?

SD: Yes. When he did the Tribute in Light, I just called the rest off. You don’t need any more memorial than this.  Turn this on for a week a year and we’re done.


JD: It was the memorial. 


JD: Let’s talk about the overlook into Foundation Hall.

SD: We set up a series of progressive disclosures of the space.  There’s some arithmetic in the rhythm because the majority of it is five percent slope or less, which makes it ADA compliant.  There’s a little bit just before and just after the overlook, which is a little steeper and there we have handrails.  We needed to get down to bedrock.  We didn’t want to drop people down in a precipitous way.  We thought of it as a journey through the spaces, descending gradually as if by gravity.


JD: Yes.

SD: All these things are going on.  The tower volumes are lit in a way that they appear to be buoyant.  They’re sort of floating because the inset metal under the aluminum is dark and there’s a cove light, so creates that buoyancy.  It’s slowly coming down as if pulled by gravity, so we have these chambers, so we wanted to create moments where you could have the time to contemplate in personal ways.  Satisfy the emotional needs that people were experiencing. The overlook is the place where we knew we had to reverse direction and we’d create a moment of engagement with the space.


JD: Right, you literally stop people.

SD: It’s where you get the first glimpse of the slurry wall. Then we double back.  The reason we double back is because we decided quite early on that we were going to bring people to bedrock in between the towers, favoring neither.  Very important.  If you remember, the families were very involved and were very vocal in the early days, so we needed to have an unbiased . . .  we kept it egalitarian between the north and south towers.  We have four moments in the experience of the museum when you are placed between the towers. You’re between the towers on the plaza. You can be in between the towers at the concourse level.  You can be between the towers again at the level underneath it before you descend to bedrock, and then you can do it again at bedrock. It’s an intentional connection to the cultural memory of the site to provide that, and they’re no insignificant places.


JD: Let’s talk about human versus monumental scale, compression versus expansion.

SD: Well, there’s a duality in the museum, which is on one hand monumental.  This is the scale.  The Trade Center Towers were big, super sized. As an architect, I have always been comfortable with the issues of scale.  I look at large scale drawings.  I understand immediately.  I look at a program, which is in a spreadsheet form and I can imagine the scale that’s going to inevitably result, but this is a project that has as much to do with the individual experience as with the archaeology. There are collective experiences and then there are individual experiences.  I think we provided amply for both.


JD: The feeling on the plaza is much different than it is in the museum.

SD: That’s something we were always aware of. We understood that a visit to the memorial and the museum was going to require visitors to make several threshold decisions.  You decide in the first place that you’re going to visit the memorial and you cross either Greenwich Street or West Street or Vesey or Liberty—you leave the city and you enter the memorial.


There’s an emotional threshold that’s crossed.  You experience the memorial, do what you do, everybody does something different.  You go to the memorial and then you have to make another threshold decision, are you going to visit the museum. Many people just leave. A certain proportion decide they’re going to visit the museum, so you step into the pavilion and you go through another threshold.  I think it’s jolting to go through magnetometers, but —


JD: It’s the world we inhabit.

SD: The world we inhabit had a very tangible effect on the final design of the memorial and museum.  It’s a very safe place.  Take my word for it.


JD: A series of thresholds—

SD: You’re in the pavilion.  You’re going to make another decision, am I going to descend?  You go from the light into a much more subdued visual environment.  It’s much quieter, it’s darker, your emotions transition.  You gather yourself, you adjust to the light, you adjust to the sound, all in this concourse, and there are continuous thresholds that you go through.


You have to decide whether you’re going to go from the ribbon down to bedrock.  Once you’re down at bedrock, you have to decide if you’re going to go into the memorial exhibit.  For many people, it’s extremely heavy. When you come out and you come out into the west chamber, into Foundation Hall, there’s an unburdening.   


JD: The space opens up, immensely so.

SD: Think about the exiting sequence.  You go into this tube and the tube is an intentional device because what we don’t want is people who are beginning their journey into the museum to be contaminated by the emotional state of the people who are leaving. 


JD: The exiting escalator?


SD: An escalator instead of an elevator, for instance, instead of a lot of different things. It’s a decompression zone.


JD: Yet you’re still contained.

SD: You’re still contained, but you’re rising. Then you’re released and transition back into the normal world that you came from. But you’re a different person because you’ve had an experience that can’t be replicated.


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