The memorial park at Ground Zero in New York City has opened to the public, but Snøhetta’s pavilion, the underground museum and several of the surrounding projects still have a way to go before completion.

Seen from the fence around the building site, the shimmering pavilion raises a number of questions – the building is not the only thing which is not yet concluded. Arkitektur N spoke with Craig Dykers.

Ten years have passed since the Twin Towers fell, and eight years have passed since the architectural competition for the memorial park, which drew over 5000 entries from all over the world. New York architect Michael Arad, with landscape architects Peter Walker, won the competition with their project “Reflecting Absence” and have designed the park, while Snøhetta in 2004 were commissioned to design the pavilion leading down to the underground Memorial Museum. The pavilion will house an auditorium, a quiet place for reflection and a room set aside for the victims’ families. The museum, designed by the New York firm Aedas, stretches down to the foundations of the towers, and will tell the story and the events that happened on the site. Encircling the park will be a fringe of projects designed by some of the biggest names in architecture, following Daniel Libeskind’s master plan. The pavilion is the only building above ground on the Ground Zero site itself, and it will open, with the museum, in September 2012.

Craig Dykers, partner in Snøhetta. Photo: Are Carlsen.

In addition to international attention, the commission gave Snøhetta the opportunity to establish an office in New York. After almost seven years, and as many changes to the pavilion design, the portfolio of the New York office has expanded. Snøhetta currently has buildings under construction both in Ohio and in North Carolina, and several others on the drawing board. But following the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the focus inevitable returns to Manhattan. The pavilion is more than a building: it is part of the public healing of a national trauma; the discussions are loaded and opinions abound. What has this project meant for Snøhetta?

Ingerid Helsing Almaas: You were firmly established in Norway at the time this project came up. What was your interest in the former World Trade Centre site?

Craig Dykers: We had no interest in it. I had a sense that New Yorkers needed to solve this problem themselves, and coming in to this situation from the outside, one almost felt like an ambulance chaser. But then it kept coming up, and I started to think that, as an American, maybe I need to do something. The idea of building a cultural centre or museum on that site does represent a degree of courage. So at the last minute, we registered.

The competition process included two rounds of interview presentations, and though the first submission was done pretty much on the spur of the moment, the second round was well prepared, and after the interview we had a very good feeling. We walked out of the room and it felt like a home run, it was so perfect. We went down to have coffee and said to each other: We kicked some ass, we will win this. It was the perfect presentation. And we got it.

When they called us up, the committee chairman’s words to me on the phone were: “We love your work, it’s very sensitive, but in this place this building must be invisible”. So that was our task, an invisible building. After many meetings we began to understand what he really meant, which was that they didn’t really want a building that overwhelmed or overshadowed the memorial, they wanted something that was complimentary, that was comfortable, that didn’t immediately push into the foreground of your thinking. And that ’s partly why we won, because a lot of our work is about buildings that create direct connections to situations or landscape features, not only on the site itself but also in a larger context. That’s what he meant by invisible.

Pavilion, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. Architects: Snøhetta. Photo: Are Carlsen

The sky above Manhattan

As the building, and the museum it leads down to, have yet to open to the public, the facade tends to dominate people’s reactions. The facade of the pavilion is an irregular composition of stainless steel panels, with a varied surface treatment of striped patterns.

IHA: At first glance, the pavilion seems to have a kind of puzzling neutrality to it, which is somehow uncharacteristic of your work?

CD: I think the building changes continuously. That‘s one of the things I like about it – it has a kind of camouflage quality, but at the same time when you look at it closely, it is very much there. When you see it in photographs taken from above it seems very large. But seen from ground level sometimes you don’t notice it at all. The closer you get to it, the more apparent it becomes – so as you move right up to it suddenly the shapes and the reflections have a tremendous impact, and people suddenly turn their bodies and their heads up, to see the sky. The threshold between the building and the sky brings the sky to you, literally, brings it right to you. Which is a rare occurrence in New York. Most buildings here are tall, and the sky is very far away, New York has a very distant sky, but here, there is a very near sky.

IHA: This is obviously because of the detailing of the steel panel facade?

CD: The building has five different panel types. It can be hard to see, but they are very subtly designed with different expressions, some are solid, without any pattern at all.

The striping clearly carries a reminiscence of the striped facades of the original towers. But this had to be subtle: Many people want that memory, and many people don’t, so the only choice we had was to make something that implied the connection, but would only be intermittently visible, or at least questionable from various perspectives. On the site, many people ask if the intention is there, to re-create the original facade, but they are always questioning themselves whether it is or isn’t there. They cannot see it clearly, but sense the connection. So the creation of doubt in the experience is an attribute that is engaging in the design.

"The creation of doubt in the experience is an attribute that is engaging in the design."

IHA: This is obviously an important aspect of the project, and the detailing of the facade was changed many times, from a quite sophisticated solution with glass prisms to today’s steel panels. Do you feel you’ve compromised along the way?

CD: No. We wanted to create a kinetic surface, that reacted directly to the atmosphere surrounding it, to the sun conditions throughout the year – to the greyer, less sunny days that you have here in New York, to the green leaves of the trees in the spring, to the browner tones in the winter – so that as you move around the building you are constantly seeing the light shift. And that’s still there. The final design still uses prisms to achieve that, it’s just that they are microscopic; the light refraction is in the sandblasting and scratches on the surface of the stainless steel.

IHA: The shape of the building adds to this effect...

CD: Yes. Actually, most people find it hard to describe the shape. But the reason the building’s form is so complex has to do with the intensity of the coordination going on between us and all during the planning, and the inherent complications below grade. We stopped trying to idealize the design and instead allowed the complex conditions to become a partner in the process. And this is controversial, because it sounds like a position of weakness – but we actually found it to be a position of strength to be able to slowly mould the building to all the things going on in the ground. We weren’t going to let it go wherever it wanted, we formed it, but we didn’t want to fight against the complexity anymore. So the shape is a direct response to all those unusual conditions below the ground. And I think that’s an interesting story, because the building is a physical representation of the actual process, and not a perfect or fictitious “thing”.

Pavilion, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. Architects: Snøhetta. Photo: Are Carlsen

A changing symbolism

Memorials are loaded places. New York is a heterogeneous place, and part of the on-going construction of an American self-image is an active debate around the public symbolism of places such as this. Many new monuments have little more to offer than an one-dimensional symbolism, but miraculously, such obvious gestures have been avoided at Ground Zero.

IHA: I am sure there were people who were expecting some very readable symbolic gestures.

CD: Yes. So we had to find a route that would allow various people to see the building in different ways. Many of the critics so far have been very negative about the fact that the building has set up a relationship to the past, however subtle, as well as it being “in the way” of the needs of the memorial. New Yorkers were so deeply affected by the events of 9/11, that they are going to be very sensitive, and most of the critics thus far are New Yorkers, who were here on that day. So I don’t think the building will ever live down that challenge with them. It will always be kind of fluctuating between things, just like it was also meant to fluctuate between the past and the future. That was the idea. Our building is about the present. It is not about memorialising the event, nor is it about “crystalballing” the future, trying to suggest that “commerce will rise again”. It is just about being here, at this moment in time, today, reflecting the present. And of course the present is the most ephemeral time we have. The past and future are a block, one long span, but the present lasts for some infinitesimally small moment, and then it’s gone.

And all these considerations and qualities mean that the project will always be wavering between different groups of people, with different interests. And the reception of something like that needs time. So after all these anniversary events have passed, let’s not talk about it for a while. Let‘s let some time pass, especially New Yorkers, who need to digest this place. The construction isn’t finished yet, the site still hasn’t matured. It’s going to be very dense, a lot of trees have been planted, oak trees that take a long time to grow, within an exceptionally open space in Lower Manhattan. We need time to really see what was made. This was the mistake when the project began; everyone wanted to do and see everything fast. That’s a kind of New York thing. But this is not the kind of thing you can do fast. Things need time. And people will likely react differently in the years to come.

"This was the mistake when the project began; everyone wanted to do and see everything fast."

The development of the programme

When Snøhetta first got the commission in 2004, the project was a lot bigger than what it is today. The budget was 320 million dollars, and the programme included the Drawing Center, an art institution focussing on the artistic reactions to the tragedy, and the International Freedom Center, a new museum which would focus on international issues of liberty and human rights. Both institutions were quickly drawn into the political discussions of what the memorial should be. The main objections were that a general focus on human rights might seem disrespectful to the individuals who lost their lives on September 11th and their families, as would public debates or film festivals – this was hallowed ground. In 2005 local politicians finally closed the doors to the Drawing Center and the IFC. Suddenly, there was no project, and more importantly, no budget. Snøhetta had manned their New York office with people both from Norway and the US, poised to design. New ideas came up, and the underground Memorial Museum was still going ahead, even if at that point it was to have a separate entrance on the west side of the site.

CD: The idea of making our building the entrance to the underground museum was the basis for a presentation I finally gave to the governor of New York, as a result of which he gave 80 million dollars to the project out of his discretionary fund. Making that happen was one of the high points in my career. And it saved the project.

IHA: New York is a big place, and its processes and politics seem overwhelmingly complex, at least viewed from Norway. Did you bring something with you from Norway to that situation, so to speak?

CD: Well, in general we were more confident as a practice. We had gone through the process of the Alexandria Library, and we were completing the Oslo Opera, two very substantial projects. We were less frazzled by crazy things happening around us. And we were more patient.

But is there some specifically Norwegian experience that we brought with us? Certainly, Norway has generally a calmer lifestyle, and our office in New York is established with a similar atmosphere to the atmosphere we have established in Oslo. I guess you can say that what we tried to bring with us is a sense of balance to everything, that we can also find in Norway.

We have a general sense of equality in the office, a gender consciousness, and we try to balance personal and work time... But there are places in Norway that don’t have any of that, so whether or not it’s a pure Norwegian thing I couldn’t say. Interestingly, Elaine and I are the most Norwegian people in the New York office, in the sense that we are the ones who lived the longest in Oslo, but we are both American. Simon is “Norwegian” in that sense as well, except of course he’s British. We have a token Dane, and for a while we had Zenul here from the Oslo office, alongside other Norwegians, but he is from Malawi...

Pavilion, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. Architects: Snøhetta. Photo: Are Carlsen

From Oslo to New York – and from September 11th to July 22nd

Snøhetta is generally associated with Norway as it brands itself as a modern, forward-looking nation. But what does that association actually mean?

IHA: I have the impression that there is still a strong connection, between Snøhetta in Oslo and Snøhetta in New York, a connection that you seem to emphasise when you present your work?

CD: It’s a big question for us now. And as our offices change we have to hold on to that connection, or it will just naturally slip away. We need to protect our diversity and our connections. This can be difficult, especially when considering international media pressures alongside some domestic pressures in Norway where Snøhetta’s diversity is sometimes misunderstood or its identity is overtly nationalized.

IHA: Do you think that connection, real or not, gives you an advantage in an American context? That people in the US associate certain qualities with you, or something that they aspire to, which they wouldn’t otherwise get?

CD: Although our work is often challenging, people feel less threatened by us, probably because Norway has a sort of non-threatening quality associated with it. People still look at Norway the way Norwegians look at themselves, as calm and consensus driven, and we are able to benefit from that stereotype. Also Norway often works with peace and consolidation challenges and social issues that are on the liberal side, that others find valuable to look at, even if they don’t agree. And we are able to bring that with us, yes. I can also say that it is these value trademarks that made the events that occurred in Oslo this last July so much more shocking to people around the world.

"People still look at Norway the way Norwegians look at themselves, as calm and consensus driven."

Broadly speaking, I appreciate all that Norway has to offer, and what it has offered us, but at the same time I am increasingly uncomfortable with what I sense is a growing xenophobia, all over the world, including in Norway. Nobody directly addresses this compromise of diversity, even after the events in Norway this summer, even after a commitment toward openness. It is easier to focus on the perpetrator or the victims than on the issue. There is no doubt the perpetrator is evil and the victims should be respected.

It was exactly the same in the US after 9/11: it was difficult inside the US to confront the fact that there were issues out there that were creating confrontation in the world that the US was responsible for or that Americans themselves might be creating. And, as with the Oklahoma bombing some years before 9/11, it can be even more alarming that the source of confrontation often comes from within the recognized cultural framework rather than outside it. These are the same challenges Norway has faced since the July terrorist acts. President Bush tried to address this after 9/11, urging people not to vent their feelings on innocent people who happened to be Muslim, but he was not clear enough and his actions did not clearly follow his words, so that voice drowned in general cries for vengeance. In Norway the prime minister was very clear. And the Norwegian government gets points for that. But still, the same fear of “the other” exists, even in Norway, although perhaps more subtle in appearance. This is an uncomfortable subject for anyone to consider.

Bigger than America

IHA: At this point, after 10 years, in what way is 9/11 bigger than America?

CD: 9/11 certainly was, and should have remained, bigger than America. But sadly it became smaller over time. There were so many interests in the US trying to push it into a purely sectarian discussion, “us against them”. But as the world has changed in these 10 years, and as events have occurred elsewhere, for example in Norway this past July, people are recognising that this wasn’t limited to the personalities involved in that one event at Ground Zero. At the time, everybody started to blame hegemony on the Americans. But we’re seeing now that this can happen in other parts of the world, it’s not limited to the US. That’s not to dispute the issues that exist here in the US, or to suggest that Americans are not facing huge challenges – while it remains to be the wealthiest financial market in the world – but still, people are now seeing that these things are not tied to certain groups of people.

IHA: Can sectarian issues or the challenges of a multi-cultural society be more easily confronted in New York, because it is such an ethnically varied place?

CD: Actually, that could be the case, but – and there’s a big but – there are aspects to New York City that people don’t recognise, and that are very controversial to bring up.

For example, many of the first responders at the September 11th site, the largest majority of them, were Irish descendants, and Irish Catholics. Historically, firemen and policemen have been from this group of people. Having just come back from Ireland a few days ago I have been reminded that there is a notion to Catholicism that is quite unique there, but also in general Catholicism as a religion is very oriented toward the sacred. It has a hierarchy of sacred issues that dominate the religion. I’m not saying anything negative about that, but what it does mean is that it forms people’s connection to a place like Ground Zero. Very quickly this became a “sacred place”. That’s terminology that comes straight from Catholicism. Very quickly it became “sacred ground”, in a way perhaps even close to the Native American sense of sacred ground. The place certainly has tremendous value, but the sacral nature is more aligned with a religious context.

So then it became this thing that you couldn’t touch, that was hard to talk about, that you couldn’t infringe upon. And that, I think, has made it more difficult in New York. And that’s a very rarely discussed aspect, but it is a part of life here, regardless of your religious persuasion.

It’s very easy to talk about openness and diversity, so long as everybody around you is the same as yourself. We had that challenge here in New York, with the “Ground Zero Mosque”, which was actually never a mosque; it was a cultural centre with a prayer room in it.

"It’s very easy to talk about openness and diversity, so long as everybody around you is the same as yourself."

They were clearly on a different route than the minority fundamentalist Muslims who were creating blatantly anti-diversity cultural centres; they were all about bringing people together. With this Islamic cultural centre, we suddenly had the situation where there was a lot of talk about openness, but when the one institution that came out with a very direct commitment – it was knocked dead in the water, by the public at large. So it’s harder to act than it is to speak. And that’s a lesson that anybody can learn from. And that’s a challenge that Norway in particular faces at this point in time.

Pavilion, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. Architects: Snøhetta. Photo: Are Carlsen

Stasis or change

IHA: This is connected with the architectural discussion: do you want to preserve, or will you accept or even embrace change? Architecture is in a way static, it gets its flexibility or its dynamic from how people think about it and how move through it and use it over time. But the Ground Zero memorial park, and certainly in contrast to your pavilion, presents a very static image.

CD: The Memorial is meant to be frozen at some level, the Pavilion is less so.

IHA: So there seems to be these two opposite instincts, between stasis, and commemoration as a freezing point, and a dynamic healing process. How the architecture enables that is interesting. It seems clear, even in the early renderings, that the memorial park and your building pull in two opposite directions.

CD: I agree with that. And our project really was meant to change your perception of time, whereas the memorial is meant to capture your perception of time.

IHA: So even the waterfall in the memorial is used in a very one-dimensional way. It is there as one moving thing…

CD: Water is material.

IHA: Yes, it’s a materialisation of the passing of time, but it doesn’t do anything, doesn’t change anything on the site. You could say that the most healing aspect of that site are the trees that grow. That will actually change it a lot in, a 10-15 year perspective.

CD: We could have been more interactive with time in our building – our choice of stainless steel, for example, is generally moving in the opposite direction. Stainless steel is one of those things that wants to ignore time. So I think your point is a good one.

The reason we chose stainless steel was, as I mentioned earlier, that by treating the surface of it in a particular way, you capture light in a very ephemeral manner. Light, even just small amounts of light, even ambient light, with a cloudy sky, creates change in the facade. Sometimes some of the folds of the facade just ignite. At other times there are softer moving expressions. But every time you see the building you see something new. So that’s where the dynamic notion comes in. We always wanted it to be – our word was kinetic. It’s the same thing as dynamic. Almost. But there needs to be stability too, we need both worlds. We need all those things in between, that connect chaos and order.

IHA: And particularly in the city. And particularly in a city like New York.

CD: Yes.

The landscape of the city

The mountain in Snøhetta’s logo, and even the letter ‘ø’ in the company’s name, the focus on landscape which is always stressed in the journalists’ choice of metaphors as they describe Snøhetta’s projects – from the “glacier” of the Oslo Opera to the “sun disc” of the Alexandria Library – are all associations that encourage a perception of the work of the practice as a kind of force of nature, something that, at least in a Norwegian context, often gives architecture and design instant legitimacy. But are these landscape metaphors as generously heaped on Snøhetta’s urban projects?

IHA: You talked about the landscape, about the sky, in lower Manhattan, which to many people would be the epitome of man-made, urban density. But would you say there is a kind of landscape condition to that site?

CD: Definitely. This is actually one place in the city where you feel very strongly the horizontality of the ground. That was part of the original design for the memorial park, and the one thing that we could work with. Actually it’s an artificial horizontality, that’s been created as the result of the catastrophic events that occurred there. In fact, in other areas you can still sense the original hills of lower Manhattan.

People often think our work is about being gentle or kind to the landscape, that we always want to merge form and the feral landscape, but that’s not really what it’s about at all. We’re simply about having a dialogue with the landscape, any landscape, even an artificial context in the middle of the city.

"People often think our work is about being gentle or kind to the landscape, that we always want to merge form and the feral landscape, but that’s not really what it’s about at all."

This dialogue is lacking in design discourse. So we’re not solely seeking to be landscape friendly; the dialogue can be mean or tough at times, but we want to strike up a discussion.

The discussion is not over

New York reality is intense, at the same time as people’s close proximity to each other’s lives creates a distance, here as elsewhere. But it is important to experience Ground Zero with one’s own body, says Dykers.

IHA: It is obvious that architecturally, there’s something very different happening in the memorial site, in the middle, than in the towers surrounding it, that have a very conventional relationship to their site. The opportunity to tie the whole situation at ground Zero together seems to me totally lost. There is an obvious opportunity to work in section in New York, which is lost if you treat a tall building simply as an extrusion of its footprint.

CD: Well, Libeskind’s idea with the masterplan was to create a spiral of tall buildings around the site, which is a sectional condition. Some of those projects are on hold at the moment, so I think we won’t know what that will be until all the buildings are built. But yes, the towers can be seen by some observers as conventional.

But it is important that this place in the city, including our building, needs to be seen through actual observation rather than through imagery. The pictures don’t seem to make it work, and even walking around the memorial and the pavilion right now doesn’t help all that much, because you can’t even go inside, and you can only experience two and a half facades... But still there’s a kind of quality to it that you get at eye level, which is central to the experience. And we were constantly designing the building from eye level.

The architectural challenge has been how to make something that was both coordinated with everything around it, in functional terms, and at the same time provided a natural condition in what is otherwise a traumatic place. People’s minds are traumatised when they go there. And it’ll be that way for a long time. So you have to give people a sense of comfort. But the place also needs to challenge you, which the pavilion does through its shifting shape and the balance of the surfaces between presence and elusiveness. It’s the kind of thing that probably won’t do to well in pictures for a while, but when you are there, at eye level, it is already happening.

Pavilion, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. Architects: Snøhetta. Photo: Are Carlsen


Project credits
Name of project: National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center
Address: West Street/Greenwich Street, New York
Completion: September 2012
Client: National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center
Architect: Snøhetta AS (pavilion); Michael Arad & Peter Walker & Partners (park), Aedas (underground museum)
Area: 13 000 sq.m.
Cost: 86 million USD
Photo: Are Carlsen