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Every day, a row of smudges, made by noses pressing up to the glass, forms along the facade of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum’s entrance pavilion. For architect Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, this is a clear sign of the building’s success. “First you focus on yourself,” he says, “then you draw closer and focus on what’s inside, and what’s inside is other people looking at you.”

We are here on a glorious afternoon in May, and the semi-reflective pavilion, located between the memorial fountains, captures movements across its metal and striated glass cladding, a detail that mimics how light and shadows once played across the original Twin Towers. Inside, the view is analogous. Between the two rusted tridents in the main atrium, and beyond the webbed steel structure that supports the facade, the new Freedom Tower soars skyward. “You are not thinking about the abstraction of death,” says Dykers. “You’re thinking about you and the people immediately around you, and that’s very much the role of the building.”

The pavilion houses an auditorium, a café and the mechanical rooms (the lungs for the entire memorial site) within a calming palette of concrete, re­constituted ash and natural light. In contrast, the 10,220-square-metre museum below ground level, designed by local architects Davis Brody Bond, submerges you in darkness. A wooden ramp that twists like a ribbon, flowing between the fountains’ aluminum-clad volumes, leads to a viewing platform overlooking Foundation Hall, where visitors can take in two incredible artifacts: the slurry wall that held fast against the Hudson River as the towers fell, and the last steel column removed from Ground Zero.

Deep inside the museum, the exhibits form an evolving document of those who died that day. The walls are lined with their portraits, and display cases are filled with the everyday objects found on the site: lipstick, wallets, ID tags. These tangible items are supplemented with interactive digital displays, including a row of tables along a recumbent steel beam, where visitors can leave behind their thoughts with electronic pens.

How you feel about the museum depends on you. Tom Hennes of Thinc, who crafted the exhibit’s design, wants the museum to resonate with every person, from the survivors, the first responders and family members of the victims to the many millions more of us who watched the event unfold onscreen. “It’s about giving people a chance to come as close as they feel they need or want to, and no closer. We characterized it from the beginning as not wanting to re-traumatize people.”

But the fraught collective sentiment about the attacks also guaranteed instant controversy, including the disbelief that kitschy souvenirs are sold in the gift shop. In June, the Washington Post blasted the museum. Philip Kennicott wrote, after walking through it, “You’ve learned nothing about the overwhelming cost of two wars, the loss of civil liberties, the secret renditions,” and every other catastrophic policy decision enacted in the name of 9/11. This may be true, yet I couldn’t help but be moved by the exhibits and the reactions of those around me. As Hennes says, “By witnessing and being witnessed by others, my deepest hope is to build the capacity for empathy with each other.” ­

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