Twenty years ago, the terrorist attack on September 11 made New York’s landmark Twin Towers come tumbling down like a house of cards, killing nearly 3,000 people. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the iconic Towers once loomed large on the Manhattan skyline. They could be photographed best from a cruise boat on Hudson river — which is precisely what I did when visited the ‘Big Apple’ for the first time.
The collapse of those edifices left gaping wounds, not only on Ground Zero but also in the heart of the entire free world.
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The Memorial, Museum and Oak Forest that have now come up at Ground Zero constitute a beacon of hope, making up an inspirational ensemble.
One of the most challenging tasks an architect can take up is to design a memorial. Only an inspired imagination can make concrete, steel and glass express the pain, anguish and courage of a people. An international competition was held to find the best architect to conceptualise the memorial at Ground Zero.
Built in phases, the entire ensemble of a Memorial, Museum and Memory Park was completed only a few years ago. On the 10th
anniversary of the attacks, the Memorial pools and plaza were dedicated to the victims’ families by the then U.S. President Barack Obama. Designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the Memorial called Reflecting Absence comprises two enormous pools at the exact location where the Twin Towers once stood. Each pool, about an acre in size, is marked by a 30-feet waterfall cascading down in a mighty roar and vanishing into a deep void, invoking both awe and the transience of human life.
The rim of each pool has the names of the victims embossed on bronze sheets. One any given day, throngs of people — some perhaps the victims’ families and friends, others perhaps survivors, yet others just visitors — can be seen peering down at the bronze rim, trying to locate the names of their loved ones.
The 9/11 Museum, designed by architects Davis Brody Bond and Snøhetta, located between the two pools, was completed much later, in 2014. It is conceptualised as a 110,000 sq. ft space completely beneath the ground, with only the structure of the entrance pavilion and plaza visible aboveground. The pavilion is a geometrical play of translucent glass and steel, a ‘skin and bone’ structure, which creates a play of light and shade with the changing light of the day, mirroring trees, clouds or the maze of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
Le Corbusier famously described New York as “Stone and glass Canyons” when he first visited it in 1935. In response to a query by a New York Times correspondent about what he thought of the skyscrapers, Corbusier answered tongue-in-cheek, “much too small”. Any new architectural edifice in New York has to contextualise itself to the Manhattan grid layout and respond to the verticality of the skyscrapers.
The journey to the Museum galleries begins from a dimly lit hall, where only the heart-wrenching recordings of victims and survivors from that fateful day are audible. A staircase leads down below to the display galleries: The History Gallery, In Memoriam, and the Foundation Hall. In Memoriam is a comprehensive list of the victims with details.
The Foundation Hall displays the original slurry wall from the basements of the Twin Towers that was built to check moisture from the Hudson river. There is also the nearly 36-foot Last Column with mementos, memorial inscriptions, and ‘missing person’ posters. Stepping out from the museum into the plaza, one sees hundreds of white oak trees creating an 8-acre green park on the rooftop of the seven-stories deep basement. To complete the circuit is like journeying from the dark pits of grief to the liberation of the wide, white sky.
For this September 11, the Museum’s plans included a special commemorative event at Ground Zero, with the names of victims read out by family members, and six moments of silence, acknowledging when each of the World Trade Centre towers was struck, the attack on the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93, followed by houses of worship tolling their bells. As the sound resonated across the world, one imagined it echoing the words of Virgil’s Aeneid inscribed in the Museum: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time”.
The author, a former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture, is a critic and modern architecture historian.