Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Still Too Soon: On the 9/11 Memorial Museum

The National 9/11 Memorial Museum, trident on the left, looking up into the entrance pavilion.

I thought I could review the National 9/11 Memorial Museum, which opens Wednesday, May 21. I can’t. It’s too soon. So I am just going to tell you what I saw and how I felt.

I walk in to the auditorium in Snohetta’s entrance pavilion. I signed up for an architecture tour, so I am dutifully taking notes. Very Scandi, I scribble. Neutral without being beige. Nice view of Calatrava’s transportation hub out the northeast corner. It’s a few days before President Obama’s visit, so they are running a test of a documentary about the day on the big screen. President George W. Bush is up there, then former Mayor Rudy Guiliani. They are talking about people jumping out of the windows of the World Trade Center. The hair on my arms stands on end. I have to sit down. They don’t even have to show the pictures. The words alone send me back.

I was at home in Brooklyn. I heard the thud of the first plane. My neighbors and I watched the first tower fall from the roof, though I have no memory of the moment. We all rushed downstairs to shut our windows against the ash. My apartment was burgled and the police actually came. I think they wanted to have something to do. I didn’t know anyone who died. My 9/11 experience may seem like nothing. And yet I would never go to this museum.

The memorial plaza had been fine. I had no name to look for. It was a sunny day, the trees were growing in to make a horizontal canopy, lacy against all that vertical glass, the tourists were in shorts and it hardly felt solemn. Now, a week later, the barricades are down and the plaza is finally open to the street. It’s only going to get less solemn.

Snohetta designed the entrance pavilion, a faceted three-story structure of striped metal and reflective glass dwarfed by 1 and 4 World Trade. It was once supposed to have profane, city-oriented functions too: The Drawing Center, a performance space, but it lost those purposes along the way. Now it is an elegant carapace for a grab-bag of necessities: ticketing (seeing the $24 price tag on the booth shocks again), security, a café and that auditorium. The top floor conceals the mechanical systems for the museum, the PATH station, everything below. It’s all very soothing – Snohetta principal Craig Dykers points to the baffling behind the wood-slat ceiling as an acoustic response to the transition from plaza to museum.

The first artifact from 9/11 you see on the site is a forking steel column from the north tower, its neo-Gothic points immediately recognizable. The trident is embedded in a skylit corner of the pavilion, drawing down the side of the staircase leading to the museum. It seems odd that this essential piece of the real thing is accessible only to paying visitors. Dykers mentions the constant parade of people “pressing the flesh” against the western façade of the building. During the day you have to put your palms to the glass to see the crook. The column is rawer and more direct than anything outside.

Down the stairs, below the lip of the plaza, you enter the museum proper, designed by Davis Brody Bond. There’s a broad desk, dark wood. It looks like a hotel lobby on the Death Star. A total aesthetic jump cut from Snohetta’s pavilion and Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s memorial above. On the left, through a triangular dip in the wall, you can see the hovering form of the south footprint. The whole multistory solid has been clad in spun aluminum, but at this distance it looks like granite, and like a monolith.

This underground lobby is a good place to assess what the process of making the 9/11 memorial has done to the architecture. It has broken it into three parts, which can’t and don’t relate. The above-ground memorial is like a pancake, a surface treatment that follows in the design traditions of the best modern places of remembrance but, because it is in New York City, because it is surrounded by office buildings, was found wanting as a sacred site. The dramatic plunge of water into the memorial pools, which, if revealed underground, could have connected sunlight to shadow, one architecture to another, is hidden from sight behind those aluminum panels. That forking steel column is isolated, far from its brother artifacts that appear, at odd intervals, along the ramp which leads you through the museum and down to bedrock. I wanted their positions to relate to their original location at the Twin Towers, to form a geography of remembrance. Even the slurry wall, the centerpiece of the Foundation Hall, would be more powerful connected to the surface, glimpsed through the memorial plaza, touched by daylight. Underground, carefully framed, artificially lit, it seemed robbed of the toughness that made it an unlikely engineering icon.

As I descended the ramp, past the map of the routes of the planes on 9/11, under the sound cloud of voices telling the story of the planes, overlapping, an international chorus of narrators, past the map made of words projected on panels, all I could think of was Orpheus descending into the underworld. It was dark, one could only go down, and one had the sense of steeling oneself for what was to come. I wondered if that ramp would be a trail of tears: how long could you last without crying or feeling faint? The jumpers? The slurry wall? The faces? I read every one of the New York Times profiles of those who died on 9/11. It felt, in those weeks after the attack, like the least a person could do. But would I want to enter the south footprint and dwell among those faces, those stories, again? Not now.

Turn the corner of the ramp and you see projections of the Missing posters on the wall. One has the sense of shifting gears from the historical to the personal, from place to people, though the line is not exact. Local Projects designed the multimedia exhibitions: the sound cloud, the maps, the algorithmic presentation of news stories about 9/11, with the idea that nothing about the history of the site was set in stone. History is in the making, and so the museum is programmed for change. And yet, the size, tone and materials of the architecture make the museum feel anything but provisional. The architects from Davis Brody Bond said the scale of the footprints, which gave them the outlines of their site, are commensurate with the scale of the event. But are they? We don’t know that yet. The scale of historic events is one of the most changeable factors. The 9/11 Museum feels scaled to the excess of public emotionality in the aftermath of 9/11 (which is different from the emotion, grief and trauma of those who were there or lost loved one). It feels like a tomb as big as the Met.

A final frustration. It would have been moving if the Survivors Staircase, which carried so many to safety, now helped to lead visitors back to the surface, back toward the light of day. Instead the Survivors Staircase goes only down, embedded beside another set of stairs that lead you at long last to bedrock. It is redundant. It is subsumed. It is robbed of its strength as a piece of ordinary architecture transformed by experience into a symbol of something more. At the 9/11 Museum there were so many opportunities to let the remains of the Twin Towers speak, but it felt to me as if more architecture and more design were instead laid on top.

The architects said we were to find optimism at the bottom of the ramp, where you find this quote from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” To me, claustrophobic after 90 minutes underground, this seemed the opposite, like my arm was being twisted to remember better. My 9/11 experience was of New York, as a whole, dusting itself off and moving on. That relentlessness was a balm and, I believe, a strength. The grandiosity and redundancy of these vast spaces (memorial/museum, history/experience, telling/retelling) points in the opposite direction. I’m not going to go back to see the rest and I suspect, if you lived here on 9/11/01, you shouldn’t either.