For 30 years, the World Trade Center Plaza showcased a 25-foot, bronze sculpture known as The Sphere. After miraculously surviving the events of September 11, 2001, the sculpture was moved around the city again and again only to return home to the 9/11 Memorial.
Standing in the World Trade Center before the attacks, you would never have guessed that this piece of art would later transform into a symbol of resilience and strength.
Visiting the memorial today gives you the chance to see it up close, but without really knowing the journey the The Sphere has taken around New York, you might as well be looking at any other piece of rubble. Like so many elements of the 9/11 Memorial, the significance comes from its meaning and history, rather than just how it looks.
The History of Koenig’s Sphere
The sculpture was originally placed in the World Trade Center Plaza in 1971, before Tower 2 was even complete. Owners of the World Trade Center and the Port Authority had come up with the idea in 1966, hiring a German artist named Fritz Koening.
Koenig assembled The Sphere in West Germany and shipped it to Manhattan as one large piece. It was one of the biggest projects he had ever created, with 52 bronze segments in total, and it took four years to build.
Once it arrived in New York, the sculpture was placed in the Austin J. Tobin Plaza, right in the middle of the World Trade Center. Symbolizing world peace through trade and commerce, the artwork was right at home in the financial center of the city.
A ring of fountains, designed by architect Minouru Yamasaki, was added around The Sphere to resemble the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Yamasaki also designed the original World Trade Center.
Fun fact: When Koening first built the sculpture, he titled it Große Kugelkaryatide N.Y., which roughly translates to Large Sphere N.Y. Obviously the given name is much easier for most Americans to pronounce, so the change was made to go with the English translation.
The World Trade Center Sphere on September 11
In the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center, The Sphere was recovered from the wreckage. There was some severe damage, but amazingly, it stayed mostly intact. Like a shining beacon of hope amidst the rubble and debris, the sculpture was a true light in a time of darkness.
Following this discovery, it was dismantled and stored at JFK Airport until March of 2002. The Sphere also sparked a lot of media attention and became the subject of a 2001 documentary entitled “Koenig’s Sphere.” The film shows director Percy Adlon visiting Ground Zero with Koenig just five weeks after September 11. Koenig shares the story of his creation of the sculpture and debates what’s in store for its future.
A New Home in Battery Park
Six months after the September 11 attacks, the sculpture was moved from the salve yard at JFK and rededicated with an eternal flame in Battery Park. It stood in unrestored condition as a temporary memorial to the victims. Koenig supervised the move and attended the rededication ceremony, noting that the sculpture had officially taken on a new meaning, one he never intended or imagined, but that provided hope.
As progress continued on the construction of the memorial, many 9/11 families online voiced the opinion that The Sphere should eventually be returned to its original home in the World Trade Center, as part of the 9/11 Memorial. Koenig also agreed and pushed for the move as well.
However, there was significant pushback from those involved with planning and designing the memorial. They argued that the damaged sphere might negatively impact the memorial’s unique dynamic.
Unfortunately, Koenig passed away in February of 2017, before the final decision was reached.
How Koenig’s Famous Sphere Returned Home
Eventually, an agreement was made that the sculpture be placed outside the 9/11 Memorial.
This decision was thanks to Michael Burke, who lost his firefighter brother in the attacks and passionately fought for The Sphere to return to the site.
In the summer of 2017, the sculpture was moved to its permanent home in Liberty Park, overlooking the 9/11 Memorial. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey held a ceremony at the park in November of that year to celebrate its return to the World Trade Center.
Visiting the World Trade Center Sphere: What to See
The Sphere is different from many of the elements of the memorial. Unlike the pools and newly planted trees, nothing about the sculpture was rebuilt or created after September 11. Even the Survivor Tree, which was also found in the rubble of Ground Zero, has been nursed back to health and returned to its former glory.
On the other hand, The Sphere survived and was physically affected by 9/11. Many of the artifacts damaged in the attacks and other physical remains are on display in the 9/11 Museum, which you must pay to see. The Sphere, however, is free to visit and reflect on, serving as a reminder of just how much damage was done that day. It carries with it the tragedy of the attacks but still tells a story of indestructible spirit.
Guide tip: The original location of The Sphere was not in the same spot it is currently located. Greenwich Street was extended and today runs over the original home of the sculpture. You can see both spots on a walking tour of Ground Zero.
Remembering 9/11 Through Art
Welcoming The Sphere back to the World Trade Center was definitely a triumph, but it can still be unsettling for some to see. As a New Yorker, it reminds me of the images of Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11 — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
By remembering, we pay tribute to the lives that were lost, the heroes who stepped up that day and in the days that followed, and how our city is strong enough to overcome any obstacle. When you visit the 9/11 Memorial, you can’t miss seeing the sculpture. It’s part of the 9/11 story and an important landmark on the landscape of Ground Zero.
For more on the thoughtful design behind what you can see at Ground Zero, read about the architects and designers who helped create the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.