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The original Twin Towers and WTC complex occupied a 16-acre expanse in the commercial business district of Lower Manhattan in New York City. As part of the reconstruction and memorialising of the events of 2011 and past attacks on the World Trade Centre, a plan was conceived for the redevelopment of the entire 16 acres including a memorial, a museum, and a new set of WTC buildings. In 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation organised an international competition requesting designs for turning this idea into reality. The competition was won by architect Daniel Libeskind. His master plan for the redevelopment of the site was eventually highly modified. The memorial, museum, and new tower blocks were all eventually designed by different architects and designers. While some important structures have been completed, much of the work is still underway.

For the urban designer, important events such as the 2011 attack on the World Trade Centre open up possibilities for explorations of space and experiential design in such a way as to meaningfully pay homage to the event while ensuring that the memory and the values that it stands for are preserved and proclaimed for the world to see and learn from.

Any memorial to this event must respectfully capture the horrific experiences of its victims while also refusing to shy away from making a bold statement against terrorism, violence, and religious fundamentalism. Hence, such projects represent a highly complex and multi-layered challenge that not only calls for a masterful handling of material and engineering but also the delicate task of engaging with ethical concerns, controversial themes, and traumatic memories.

In this essay, we will explore how designers engaged in creating the 9/11 memorial and museum and the new World Trade Centre building approached these challenges. We will look at how they were inspired by these events to manipulate spaces, processes, materials, and technologies in order to encapsulate experiences, memories, and messages.

Image 1: The National September 11 Memorial. (Handel Architects, 2011)

Image 2: Memorial Plaza and Entrance Pavilion to the Museum. (Rosenfield, 2011)


In 2003 an open competition was announced by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, inviting designers and architects from across the world to submit concepts for the design of a 9/11 memorial. The winning entry was the one proposed by Israeli architect Michael Arad (of the New York and San Francisco-based firm Handel Architects) in collaboration with landscape architect Peter Walker (founder of PWP Landscape Architecture). The completed memorial, built at the cost of an estimated USD 700 million, was opened to the public on September 12, 2011.(Rybczynski, 2011)

The memorial plaza occupies an 8-acre expanse of ‘Ground Zero’ including the actual site of the destroyed Twin Towers. This largely flat, open clearing stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding urban expanse and the skyscrapers that tower over it. In the center of the clearing are two vast and dark granite-lined pits that mark the exact footprints of the former Twin Towers. The idea behind this was to create a stark reminder of loss. As the architects state on their website, “the voids are absence made present and visible”.(Handel Architects, 2011)

All around the perimeter of each 30-foot deep pit, a reservoir of water feeds a continuous cascade that gushes over a serrated edge, splitting into thousands of individual streams as it descends into the pit. These are illuminated from the base of each pit, creating the impression of uncountable rays of light symbolically escaping the dark void as an expression of hope and freedom. This water is eventually drawn into what appears to be a ‘bottomless’ void placed at the centre of each pit, as a visual metaphor for the irrevocable loss of life. The sound of the flowing water is intended to tune out the bustle of the surrounding areas and encourage a contemplative atmosphere at the memorial site. Some critics, however, have noted that the sound of the waterfall is actually too jarring to achieve that meditative peace.

Around the rim of each rectangular pit is a dark, patinated bronze memorial plaque bearing the names of the approximately 3000 victims including the first responders who lost their lives attempting rescue. The design of the plaque, composed of 76 panels, is far more complex than appears at first glance. The process involved in its design is a reflection of the desire of the architects to invite collaboration and participation from the loved ones of the victims as a way of honouring their loss. The arrangement of names engraved on the plaque may appear random. In actual fact, much care has been taken to accommodate over 1200 individual requests that were registered for specific and unique combinations of names to be placed together as a reflection of professional and personal relationships between the victims. (Ibid.) The plaques are full of such ‘meaningful adjacencies’, clusters of names that hold special meaning for those who knew and remember them. (The Week, 2011) In fact, a specially written algorithm was developed in order to arrive at the final arrangement. (Matson, 2011)

A further layer of complexity is embedded in the very materiality of the plaque. Using a special and concealed mechanism, the designers have ensured that the plaques remain warm and frost-free in the winter, cool in the summer, and the text illuminated in the dark. In this way, technology has been harnessed to defy the elements and to ensure that the memory is, quite literally, never out of sight and never forgotten. It acknowledges the possibility of tactile engagement on the part of visitors as a means of connection and catharsis and actively encourages this practice.

The starkly geometrical and cold emptiness of the pits is counterbalanced by an informal arrangement of more than 2000 sweet gum and swamp white oak trees spread out throughout the plaza. As out of place as this green space appears amidst the concrete and glass of the busy commercial district, it serves as a symbolic representation of the resurgence of life and a welcome space for repose. Having trees, grass, walkways, and benches simultaneously address the practical concern of ensuring that visitors are provided with sheltered spaces in which to rest while they explore the memorial and attached museum. Another special feature is a Callery pear tree that survived the attack in the form of a stump which was then nursed back into full growth and finally returned to its original site. This tree has been dubbed the ‘survivor tree’ and stands as a symbol of the resilience of life.

The entire space has been designed to facilitate different levels of engagement with visitors. One is free to walk around the plaza and explore it at random. Other options include exhibitions, talks, guided tours, and walks. Overall, the concept creates an open oasis in the midst of a bustling commercial district in order to encourage reflection and mourning. It does so by embracing the scars of the terrorist attack instead of covering them up. Hence, it is aptly titled ‘Reflecting Absence’.

Image 3:
The Entrance Pavilion to the Museum. (Rosenfield, 2011)

Image 4:
The design of the Museum showing “the ribbon”.  (Rosenfield, 2014)


The 9/11 museum was designed by the American architecture firm Davis Brody Bond. It was opened to visitors on May 21, 2014.  The main museum is located about 70 feet below ground, accessed through a two-storeyed entrance pavilion. Among its exhibits are thousands of artefacts salvaged from the buildings as well as images, videos, and oral history recordings honouring the victims and provided by their families and friends.

It houses important artefacts from the original buildings and complex, such as the ‘Survivor’s Staircase’. This staircase was the last portion of the original superstructure to survive. It allowed several of the building’s occupants to be evacuated to safety. Hence, it is a powerful symbol of the events of that day and is now one of the main features of the museum.

The two-storeyed entrance pavilion was designed by the internationally renowned architecture firm Snohetta. A majority of the structure is constructed of glass, in an effort to offer an airy and panoramic view of the rest of the memorial site as well as the ‘Freedom Tower’ next door. The glass also allows natural light to be funnelled into the subterranean museum below. The entrance pavilion is designed in a deconstructivist style, in such a way as to call to mind a collapsed building. This is an architectural reference to the events of 9/11 that brought about the destruction of an iconic symbol of the New York skyline. Its reflective surface is split into long angular panels, almost like radiating rays, fracturing the images of the buildings and the memorial nearby.

Visitors descend from the light-filled airy atrium of the pavilion into the darker underground spaces of the museum. They then follow a meandering path called “the ribbon” that is gently sloped in order to lead them deeper and deeper. The two main exhibition spaces are located directly beneath the memorial’s large pools above. These are the deepest portions of the site and offer an awe-inspiring exploration of the scale of the destroyed structures. The museum’s architects have used this scale very deliberately to evoke strong emotion and to convey the gravity of the events of 9/11. By using these deep voids to invoke the “inverted volumes” of the Twin Towers, they make a powerful statement referencing absence. Materials like concrete, wood, and aluminium have been used in such a way as to highlight a sense of rawness. (Rosenfield, 2012) An escalator is provided from the bedrock level back to the upper level for the exit.

The museum has been described as cavernous on account of the scale of the spaces within as well as some of the artefacts it showcases. Artefacts such as the ‘Survivor Staircase’ were so large that the museum was actually built around them since they couldn’t be brought in after it was completed. In order to maintain a sombre and dignified tone, the lighting within has been kept very subtle. Critics have likened the museum interiors to mazes and catacombs. While some feel that the museum has a cathedral-like quality, others have described it as “an oversized pit of self-pity”.(Kennicott, 2014) Certainly, the prospect of descending deep underground and viewing emotionally loaded exhibits is discomfiting even though the great scale of the space may alleviate any sense of claustrophobia.

Yet, it was a practical requirement that the museum is built underground. Soon after the attack occurred, the location of the destroyed towers began to be referred to as ‘sacred’ and ‘hallowed ground’ in patriotic rhetoric. This idea was so powerful and pervasive that to suggest building any kind of superstructure on the site was completely out of question. Since the memorial was built around the premise of exhibiting the raw wounds of the destroyed buildings, the museum had nowhere to go but underground. In order to retain their affective power, the exhibits needed to be shown in situ. Hence, the museum, too, needed to occupy the original site of the Twin Towers. Since it could not be built above ground, the logical solution was to carve out a subterranean space for it.

The designers of the structure as well as the exhibits also needed to take into account the fact the exhibits were likely to cause great emotional distress. In fact, warning labels have been placed outside galleries that contain particularly disturbing material and alcoves bearing tissues have been scattered all through the museum. Exits have also been provided throughout, in case a visitor should begin to feel uncomfortable, anxious, or disturbed. (Fraser-Chanpong, 2014) The structure has also been designed to be sustainable in terms of energy efficiency, pollution, and water usage. (Rosenfield, 2012).

Image 5:
The final plan for the rebuilt WTC complex showing the completed One WTC on the left. (Cotter, 2011)

Image 6:
Daniel Libeskind’s original plan for the rebuilding of the site. (Cotter, 2011)


A new skyscraper has been built on the WTC complex. The 1,776-foot tall building, called ‘One World Trade Centre’ (the name of the former North Tower) has been dubbed ‘Freedom Tower’. It stands at the site of the original 6 World Trade Centre and is currently the sixth tallest structure in the world with 95 stories. The name ‘Freedom Tower’ was initially bestowed upon Daniel Libeskind’s original design for the tower which was an asymmetric, twisting structure that symbolically mirrored the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty. The height of the building had been fixed at 1,776 feet to reference the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Hence, the original design was full of powerfully visual and symbolic meanings. (Cotter, 2011) The current building opened in 2014. Its design was conceived by American architect David Childs.

Its windowless base is fortified against attacks and blasts. This rectangular base then gives way to a chamfered glass-clad structure that rises to a tall spire. As a result, the central floors are octagonal in plan. Viewed from the ground level, the structure appears to taper to an apex like a pyramid or an Egyptian obelisk. Its prismatic facade produces a kaleidoscopic visual effect as the day goes by. It has been praised by some for its clarity of form, the use of recycled materials in its construction, and the fact that it has been designed to cut down unnecessary wastage of water. (Sullivan, 2012) Other critics have dismissed it as unimaginative and “a missed opportunity”.(Kimmelman, 2014) The overly fortified base has been interpreted as an expression of a deep sense of paranoia.

Three other towers and a transportation hub are expected to be constructed on the same complex. The second tallest of these will be Tower 2, a 79-storey building that is under construction and has been designed by Foster and Partners. This structure will form the link with the below-ground transportation hub. The latter is to be designed by the architectural firm of Santiago Calatrava.

The building named 3 World Trade Center is to be constructed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and will boast 80 stories. This is also currently under construction. Located on the very site of the original 4 World Trade Center is the new building that shares its name. This was designed by architect Fumihiko Maki and was completed and opened in 2013.

According to Libeskind’s original plan, these other buildings were to be arranged in a descending spiral around the memorial plaza and museum. The original master plan also included the design for a plaza called the Wedge of Light which was intended to align with the sun on the anniversary of the terrorist attack every year. (Cotter, 2011)


Spaces are rooted in place and experiences are rooted in memories. Thus, there is a physical as well as temporal dimension to consider and the urban designer strives to fuse both in ways that can be meaningfully linked to people, memories, and events. This is achieved not only through the design of material scapes but also through the conscious design of experiences. Any such project must be sensitive simultaneously to the physical, historical, and cultural contexts of the event that it references. It must pay attention to the aural, the olfactory, the haptic, the visual, and the affective. It must be mindful of the past while ensuring that it also carries a powerful message for the future. It must be inclusive in access and in its communication.

All of the above considerations must reflect in the choice of materials, techniques, layouts, and transitions. The entire complex must be visualised as an interlinked whole although it was eventually to be executed in parts and by different designers. It must bear integrity in form and concept.

Designing an open-air memorial was central to the fundamental premise of the concept, but in practical terms, it poses certain challenges which the designers must take care to address. For instance, the technology built into the seemingly simple bronze parapet bearing the names of victims ensures that the names remain legible clearly in the dark (using lighting) as well as through the changing seasons. The care and attention are given to the ways in which names are clustered together honours relationships between the victims and humanises them, rescuing them from the paradoxical anonymity of being reduced to mere names. In doing so, the designers of the memorial have respectfully taken into consideration the wishes of family members of the victims, a task that must have been highly complex both in terms of logistics and in terms of achieving a resolution and consensus that was satisfactory to all parties involved.

Any kind of design calls for a series and a hierarchy of deliberate choices that are not at the discretion of the designer alone. Often, these are difficult choices but they may also conceal a hidden agenda. Controversies have been raised about the failure to include the name of a police cadet and first responder of Muslim origin along with other policemen and first responders. Questions have also been raised about the failure to acknowledge ties between the original WTC site and the Arab-American community. This has been seen as a deliberate attempt to efface the contributions of Arab Americans and the Muslim community to American life, economy, and culture on account of generalised cultural misperceptions, particularly in the wake of 9/11. There have also been misgivings about having a museum at the very site of the resting place of several unidentified victims.


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Balters, Sofia (2017) 9/11 Memorial and Museum,

Cotter, Molly (2011) ‘What Ever Happened to Daniel Libeskind’s Original WTC Freedom Tower Design? Read more: What Ever Happened to Daniel Libeskind’s Original WTC Freedom Tower Design? | Inhabitat New York City ‘, Inhabitat New York City, 7th September.

Fraser-Chanpong, Hannah (2017) 9/11 museum designed to evoke memories without causing fresh pain,

Gopnik, Adam (2014) ‘Stones And Bones: Visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum’, The New Yorker, 7th July.

Handel Architects (2017) National September 11 Memorial,

Hawthorne, Christopher (2014) ‘Architecture review: At 9/11 Memorial Museum, a relentless literalism’, The Los Angeles Times, 26th May.

Kimmelman, Michael (2014) ‘A Soaring Emblem of New York, and Its Upside-Down Priorities’, The New York Times, 29th November.

Matson, John (2011) ‘Commemorative Calculus: How an Algorithm Helped Arrange the Names on the 9/11 Memorial’, Scientific American, 7th September.

Molotch, Harvey (2017) How The 9/11 Museum Gets Us,
Philip Kennicott (2014) ‘The 9/11 Memorial Museum doesn’t just display artifacts, it ritualizes grief on a loop’, The Washington Post, 7th June.

Rosenfield, Karissa. Davis Brody Bond Releases New Details of the 9/11 Memorial Museum,

Rybczynski, Witold (2011) ‘Black Holes: There is nothing comforting about the 9/11 memorial.’, Slate, 7th September.

Snohetta, National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion,

Sullivan, Robert (2012) ‘ Look at the New One World Trade Center’, Architectural Digest, 31st August.

The Week Staff (2011) ”Meaningful adjacencies’: How the names on the 9/11 Memorial were arranged’, The Week, 8th September.

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