The Man Who Is Almost There

When Berlin-based American architect Daniel Libeskind unveiled his plan for the World Trade Center site last month to members of families still grieving the loss of loved ones in the Sept. 11 terror attack, several of them wept.

Unlike any of the competing proposals, Mr. Libeskind’s plan did something that had profound meaning for the bereaved: his design called for a new tower that would be set in the old foundation, which remained behind when the towers collapsed. The actual pit-the enormous bedrock-lined hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood-would be left virtually untouched, a testament to the memory of the dead.

For many of the families, Mr. Libeskind had deftly captured the emotional contradictions inherent in building a new commercial center on what is effectively a mass grave. His design embodied a series of wrenching questions: How can we merge mourning and morning commuters, retail and remembrance? If the site is made beautiful, is tragedy faithlessly forgotten? If it is raw, and bares the scars of loss too vividly, will it maintain the requisite respect for the dignity of the dead?

“There’s going to be living here,” Mr. Libeskind told The Observer as he picked at a poached egg in the restaurant of the Four Seasons hotel. Sitting there with his wife, Nina Libeskind (who is also his business manager), the couple looked almost like twins: short crowns of salt-and-pepper hair, black leather blazers, glasses. Mr. Libeskind, a neat and practical man, succinctly summed up what New Yorkers want from the new structure: “They want streets; they want shops; they want a memorial.”

Such understatement belies Mr. Libeskind’s ability to connect with the profound emotional needs of the families, as well as with other New Yorkers who don’t want the new structure to bury the past. In fact, Mr. Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors, a man who arrived in New York harbor by boat in 1960, is undoubtedly the man who has the best chance of uniting the cacophony of interests squabbling over the site’s future.

Consider his design: It calls for a crystal spire whose foundation is firmly set in the pit-it has come to be known as “the bathtub”-a hole that is lined with ancient bedrock that, for millennia, has kept the waters of the Hudson River at bay. The spire rises up out of the pit, and as it does, it appears to repeat the lines of the Statue of Liberty, spiraling upwards and thinning out like the line from the strong shoulders of the statue to the hand held aloft, its torch topped by a copper flame. The upper stories are set off by gardens that seem to hang in the sky.

The beauty of the design is that by rising up out of the pit, it proceeds upward from memorial to cultural to retail to office uses. And so the business end of the new structure appears conceptually at the other end of a vertical spectrum that is grounded in the memorial. “I don’t think there’s a disjunct there,” he said.

Mr. Libeskind is no stranger to reconciling paradoxes. Although he’s an expatriate who moved to Berlin a decade ago, his design is packed with patriotic gestures-the tower is exactly 1,776 feet tall. Mr. Libeskind is the son of Holocaust survivors, and yet he has aided in the rebuilding of Berlin with his design for the Jewish Museum there. He is a world-class architect, and yet he once supported his family by playing the accordion.

The greatest weapon Mr. Libeskind may have is his life story, which has taught him how to use architecture to heal the wounds of loss while simultaneously keeping the past alive, to preserve historical memory and connect it with the practical needs of the future. As the structures he proposes morph from a memorial at the bottom into a business center and a garden at the top, it moves in space up out of loss and into a world of day-to-day business decisions, from loss to normalcy, which is where New York hopes to move as we go forward in time.

A month ago, it would have been impossible to predict that Mr. Libeskind would emerge as the front-runner. When he first unveiled his design in December, the instant polls in CNN, the Daily News and the New York Post gave it roughly third or fourth place in the field of designs presented by seven contending architectural firms.

But in the month since, Mr. Libeskind has slowly maneuvered his way to the front of the pack, by making a series of subtle political alliances, working to make his plan accessible to everyone who will listen, and making constant efforts to deepen his emotional connection to the families. He has met with developer Larry Silverstein, who owned the lease on the site, to discuss the compatibility of his plans with the developer’s needs. He has fielded over 300 phone calls and e-mails from families who lost loved ones in the attack. He has pitched his plan on television and on the radio. He has worked with engineers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, to discuss the feasibility of grounding the design in “the bathtub.” With his particular brand of almost self-deprecating politesse, Mr. Libeskind has emerged, in the words of New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, as “the most likely figure to pull together the conflicting constituencies” that have a stake in Ground Zero.

In a trade that’s dominated by ego-driven builders who often seek to impose their vision on city dwellers, Mr. Libeskind is acutely focused on pleasing New Yorkers, many of whom are inordinately focused on this emotionally fraught project.

“It’s extremely unusual for New York that [Ground Zero] is not just being planned in a back room,” he said. “Every New Yorker that has eyes and a soul has been rooted to that spot.”

“His plan has a sensitivity to the memorialization process,” said Pratt Institute architect Ron Shiffman, a co-founder of New York New Visions, a coalition of 21 architecture, planning and design firms that has lately been critical of the rebuilding process.

“It shows that you can have a strong place for remembrance and still deal with the enormous logistical and commercial needs,” Mr. Shiffman continued. “And my guess is that this has led to communication between various poles in the rebuilding process.”

Mr. Shiffman noted that when another civic group watching the rebuilding efforts, Imagine New York, printed nine principles for the rebuilding effort and distributed them to architects working on Ground Zero proposals, only Mr. Libeskind responded, requesting meetings with representatives from all the group’s constituencies. “He has the ability to engage New Yorkers of all stripes,” Mr. Shiffman said.

That’s exactly what needs to be done, and fast. The turf war between the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation continues to cloud the project. And time is running out. LMDC planner Alex Garvin and the Port Authority’s own separately hired architect, Stanton Eckstut, are now facing a February deadline to choose one of the proposals. Whichever architect wins will work with Mr. Garvin and Mr. Eckstut, as well as a welter of other conflicting interests, to reach a final design and oversee the building of it. (Mr. Libeskind’s design for the site, in a characteristic move, also allows other architects to design some of the buildings in later phases of the redevelopment.)

Mr. Libeskind is exactly the sort of diplomat this job needs. “It’s important to me as an architect to communicate with the public, to engage with the public and answer their questions,” he said. “I’m not a cynic and I’m not a skeptic. I believe in the civic process, and I have faith in it. There has to be a line of integrity through the whole project.”

Mr. Libeskind’s political skills have reassured many of the power brokers involved in the process. “I think we’re focused on design, but character is something to take a look at,” said one source close to the decision-making process. “It’s not going to drive it, but certainly you have to be concerned with who you’re working with.”

When he was young, Mr. Libeskind supported his family by playing the accordion, through concerts and scholarships won grinding away on that ungainly instrument. He and his family put their savings together and emigrated from Communist Poland to Israel, and then New York in 1960. Mr. Libeskind is probably one of the last immigrants to see the Statue of Liberty from the deck of the ship that brought him to the New World.

“I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for,” he said. “This is what this project is all about.”

Once in New York, he continued to play the accordion. Isaac Stern instructed him to move on to piano, saying he’d winded the bellows of the accordion already after he gave a performance at Carnegie Hall. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and Cooper Union, where he learned to be an architect.

“We saw [the World Trade Center] being built when I was in architecture school,” Mr. Libeskind remembered. It was not, at the time, an altogether popular project with the students there.

His own relatively successful career in architecture didn’t earn him a significant international reputation-until he was chosen to design the Jewish Museum in Berlin. A controversial project, the museum was more than 10 years in the making, and the New Yorker decided to move his operations to Berlin to participate in the civic debate that accompanied the development of the museum. The move earned him enmity from many of his closest Jewish friends and relatives, who had also emigrated from Europe to New York.

“I was almost disowned by my family,” he said. “This was not a place we wanted to go back to.”

As the museum neared completion, however, his father forgave him. Visiting him in Berlin, his father told him, “You did the right thing.”

The museum opened on Sept. 9, 2001.

Two days later, his American cohort in Berlin was marooned in Europe, with international flights to New York canceled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Mr. Libeskind and his kin sat around the television, watching and wondering. As the cameras swept over the harbor, depicting that unforgettable image of the two towers ejecting a steady plume of smoke eastward over the city, the Statue of Liberty was often foregrounded-just as it was when he arrived by ship decades earlier, and just as it is in the soaring spire that will be built if his proposal carries the day.

Mr. Libeskind decided to try to design the new building in part because his brother-in-law worked for the Port Authority for 15 years. But he also saw his work on the Jewish Museum in Berlin and on the World Trade Center site as part of a single, larger mission.

“You can’t just rest,” he said, both of Europe after Auschwitz and New York after Sept. 11. “You have to assert your vigor in the face of attack, and also your optimism.”

Mr. Libeskind began paying visits to Ground Zero-”to listen to the voices there,” as he put it.

“When I went down to Ground Zero, and when I stood 70 feet below the bedrock and saw those walls, those foundations, continue to support and function, I said, ‘You know, that’s really what draws together life and the memory and the sacred space of that site’,” he said when presenting his plan last month.

Mr. Libeskind’s proposal to ground the memorial in the bare slurry walls of “the bathtub” met a burst of early skepticism. One report characterized grieving families as upset with the idea: too depressing, too reminiscent of death. But that report was followed by tearful and apologetic phone calls to Mr. Libeskind’s Berlin studio, and a dialogue with family members about the memorial was underway.

Little by little, the subtle touches of the plan began to be appreciated. For instance, each Sept. 11, the sun will strike the site between 8:46 a.m. and 10:18 a.m. in such a way that light will bathe the pit where the towers stood.

“The bathtub” would also be visible from above, from a curving promenade that would give access to a museum and then, sweeping up first the northern and then the eastern sides of the site, would cross through commercial buildings, including the tower with the garden in the spire-which, at 1,776 feet, would be the world’s tallest building.

The dead of Ground Zero are memorialized even in the pavement, where the names of the rescue companies that responded to the attacks will be inscribed, drawn at angles from the center of “the bathtub” out in the direction of their various firehouses and headquarters.

“I didn’t design a memorial. But the question is how to integrate a memorial,” Mr. Libeskind said, reflecting the broadly held opinion among victims’ families that the memorial should be central to any site design. “[This design] goes all the way down to the bedrock. At the same time, I protect the site with the cultural institutions. What is on the street has to be lively and entertaining, and not just make these things contradictory.”

Of course, even if Mr. Garvin and Mr. Eckstut decide to work with Mr. Libeskind’s plan for the site, the memorial portion is likely to look different. An international competition to design the memorial portion inside of the site plan that’s selected next month will begin in the spring, and yet another designer will be brought to the table then.

Mr. Garvin has acknowledged his esteem for Mr. Libeskind. In the fall, when a team was selected by the LMDC to vet architects who wanted to submit plans for this latest round, the effort was led by architect Billie Tsien and Chelsea Piers developer Roland Betts. Mr. Garvin reportedly wanted Mr. Libeskind to join that panel after tracking him down at the Venice Biennale for architecture, and Mr. Libeskind accepted; his firm had already been thinking hard about the site, but he didn’t expect to be one of the architects selected by the panel, so he joined.

But when he couldn’t make the first meeting, he submitted his credentials and was selected. The committee was impressed not just with Mr. Libeskind’s design work, but also because of his constant and public involvement over the course of 12 years in the glacial process that brought the Jewish Museum in Berlin into being. It’s a kind of atmosphere that Mr. Libeskind professes to thrive in.

While architects were free to dip down to as little as six million square feet of office space-a bit more than half of what the Port Authority lost in the Sept. 11 attack-few of the architects skimped on office space. Mr. Libeskind’s plan, like some of the others, is more sympathetic to the economic realities of the site than one would expect from an artist.

“We can’t do two 110-story buildings with giant floorplates, because I think it’s unrealistic,” Mr. Libeskind said. “But I certainly believe that we should have a higher point that resolves the skyline … and it has to be economically viable! Some say, ‘This is all public money-this should be all about public space.’ But it isn’t!”

Since his main personal connection to the site is through the Port Authority, he is also sympathetic to the losses of the agency, as well as those of Larry Silverstein, whose company will have to struggle with rent payments to the Port Authority without deriving any income from the site until it’s rebuilt-a commitment Mr. Libeskind said he admired.

“A very kind man,” Mr. Libeskind said of Mr. Silverstein. “It’s sort of a coalition of interests we are talking about, and we’ve had a sympathetic greeting from everyone. It’s been very gratifying.