Flight 93 Visitor and Learning Center
In western Pennsylvania, Flight 93 National Memorial commemorates the 40 heroes that thwarted the hijackers of United flight 93 on September 11, 2001. The first new U.S. national park constructed in the 21st century, it has transformed the site of a former coal mine into a memorial landscape. This new visitor and learning center in the park enhances the visitor experience, providing educational and interpretive content that tells the story of flight 93 and that fateful day.
The Partners of Flight 93, a consortium of four organizations that include the families of the passengers and crew, the National Park Service, a private nonprofit, and an 80-member task force, developed a collaborative planning process and mission statement that has guided work at the site for more than 15 years. The memorial site was defined through agreements with adjacent landowners to preserve their perimeter viewsheds and the character of the surrounding landscape. The trails that wind through the site are open to both visitors and the community, allowing the memorial landscape to also serve as active open space.
“This project is a great example of poetic architecture in service of a central concept and experiential learning,” noted the jury. “The building is part of the landscape and context; without the building it would be simply a field. The site, layout, lines, flow, and circular motif are beautiful in their representation of the story they tell.”
“The building is part of the landscape and context; without the building it would be simply a field. The site, layout, lines, flow, and circular motif are beautiful in their representation of the story they tell.”- Jury comment
The contours of the land shape the memorial’s design, enhancing the site’s features for expressive power and education. By focusing the design in this way, the team has pointed visitor attention to the crash site while affording many opportunities to experience the space. A tree-lined walkway encircles the bowl-shaped field of honor, formerly a backfilled open-pit coal mine. Additional plantings create several groves that respond to the bowl’s circular form, a public embrace around the final resting place of the flight’s heroes.
Located between two concrete walls where the flight path crosses the edge of the field, the visitor center emphasizes the importance of the memorial and offers views of the site. The tall walls obscure views of the field from the parking areas as visitors wend their way along an entrance walkway that is aligned with the flight path. The walkway first leads to a comfort station and the learning center, where visitors are oriented and prepared for the emotional experience awaiting them.
On September 11, flight 93 crashed in front of a grove of hemlocks. Many of the trees were burned, but the grove absorbed and survived the event, standing today as a backdrop to the crash site and a focal point of the entire memorial experience. The trees’ tall trunks and alternating angled branches formed the design motif expressed in the materiality throughout the memorial and visitor center.
Through its presentation of stories around the events of September 11, 2001, and interpretations of the actions of flight 93’s passengers and crew, the visitor and learning center is an integral part of the memorial site. It also sets the stage for the third major phase of work at the site, a 93-foot-tall chime tower to be located near the park’s entrance.