There’s a special purgatory reserved for those who would be New York’s master builders. For those who succeed, a measure of immortality is the reward. Those who fail are condemned to the margins of arcane Gotham monographs-the might-have-beens of the city’s developed environment.
Daniel and Nina Libeskind are fighting tooth and nail to escape the latter fate.
“There is no doubt that there is pressure on us to give up more than we want to give up,” said Ms. Libeskind. “That’s clear.” As she spoke, a corner of bright blue sky was visible over her shoulder through the ninth-floor window of Studio Daniel Libeskind’s temporary offices at 2 Rector Street. “That’s where the fights are. That’s where we’re having conversations, and I hope we’re getting close to a balance.”
Recently, however, balance has eluded the Libeskinds, the oddly twinnish public face of the winning design for the redevelopment of Ground Zero. The city’s daily newspapers have been full of news about the Libeskinds and their tense relationship with the city and state agencies and private real-estate interests that control Ground Zero. A June 17 editorial in the New York Post , bearing the headline “Control Freak,” pilloried the Libeskinds for trying to dictate the future of the site and described Mr. Libeskind as “self-promoting” and “bizarre.”
Just as often, however, the Libeskinds endure criticism for being outsiders, not yet ready to play with the big boys and build tall buildings and navigate the snarl of powerful interests at Ground Zero.
“The truth, of course, is somewhere in between,” Nina admitted with a laugh on a recent afternoon, when asked what the couple made of the alternating charges of megalomania and ineffectiveness.
Her husband characteristically sees their struggle in world-historical terms.
“All the great projects in history had this struggle,” he said. “We are the focus. I mean, who else is going to take responsibility for what’s going on? We are the target and we are at the epicenter. And we have to stay sober.”
At issue is their measure of control over what is built at Ground Zero-whether what goes up there reflects Mr. Libeskind’s vision, or the maelstrom of competing interests that has come to define the story of the World Trade Center. When, in February, crowds of the city’s best and brightest stood under the glass dome of the Winter Garden to applaud Mr. Libeskind for winning the most coveted commission in contemporary architecture, rebuilding officials praised his plan for its beauty and significance: the spire, standing at a symbolic height that etches the year of American independence into the skyline and evokes the torch-wielding arm of the Statue of Liberty; the deep well, marking the footprint of the original Twin Towers, in which the memorial would be placed, nestling against the surviving slurry wall that protects the site from the waters of the Hudson River; a public plaza bathed in light on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
How many of those elements will successfully find their way through the brutal development process, however, remains to be seen.
The Libeskinds have had to battle the Port Authority over who will control the design of the transit hub scheduled to be built at the site. One account had Ms. Libeskind protesting at a meeting with rebuilding officials that her husband had the right to design the terminal, and later conceding that an assisting architectural and engineering firm with more experience in transit development could be hired-if it played second fiddle to them.
The Libeskinds were reportedly in a battle with Larry Silverstein over their role in building the “iconic tower” that is the skyline element of the design for the site. Mr. Silverstein, who controls the leases for commercial development on the site, is moving to hire his own architect, and has been quietly and vaguely supportive of the Libeskind plan only since February.
The Libeskinds acknowledge that these battles are taking place.
“We are trying to forge a consensus amongst some very important constituents and stakeholders on the site-the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein and, to some degree, [Westfield America],” the retail leaseholders at the site, Ms. Libeskind said. “And I think we now have a much better idea of how we’ll work with the transportation hub.
“I don’t think [relations with Mr. Silverstein] are any more or less tense than they ever were,” she continued. “I mean, Mr. Silverstein started off by saying, ‘It’s a wonderful vision; we can’t work with it.’ Then he continued to say, ‘It’s a wonderful vision; we won’t work with it.’ Now it’s a wonderful vision, and they are working with it. And I think that is a huge leap. And now it’s: ‘How much input will we have into that particular vision?’ … It doesn’t feel out of control in any way. That doesn’t mean it is easy, but it is not out of control.” Ms. Libeskind said they were waiting to hear from Mr. Silverstein about a proposal they sent that would give them oversight in the construction of the 1,776-foot tower.
If the Libeskinds have one thing going for them, it is themselves. The two-with matching salt-and-pepper hair, glasses, sharp eyes and black clothing-have a way of refracting off each other. They finish each other’s sentences. They interpret each other for their audience.
But they are complementary rather than similar. He is prone to answer plain questions with long discourses that are as likely to encompass ancient Greece as populist political rhetoric-even when asked a question like, “What do you do to get away from all this?” His sentences unspool like an errant ball of wool; chasing it down is worthwhile, but sometimes tiring. He’s the idea guy. His face is rounder than hers, his cheeks large enough to accommodate a wide, toothy grin that sometimes seems to be his default facial expression. He is the salesman of the team: It is he who stands at podiums and sells the public on ideas, while gesturing towards models of his buildings. Ms. Libeskind stands behind him, nodding or dashing off to take a call.
But when it comes time to hash out a sticky political matter, it is Nina who advances. Her smaller features are rather more severe. Her blue eyes are stern and concentrated. A smile from her is an altogether less strenuous affair than it is for her husband-the cheeks just barely lift, the mouth is closed. Her speech is as clear and crisp as the memos she sends to the Port Authority-unequivocal, straightforward, tough.
They are a mutual-aid society. There is little one knows about the plans for Ground Zero that the other doesn’t; little that is not mutually understood, and therefore little that goes unspoken.
Worth the Fight
“Even after a horrible meeting-you’re drenched in sweat and nothing has gone right, and they’re beating up on you-you just get out and we say to each other, ‘This is worth fighting for,’” Mr. Libeskind said. “And it’s worth it, the scale of this. We are going to determine the way lower Manhattan is viewed for hundreds of years. You can’t just do this for show.”
Indeed, their private lives have been inundated by their current project. Nina has not taken a day off-including weekends-since October. She manages the business side of things, and is therefore involved in the Studio’s projects all over the world. But the Ground Zero project is central to their lives. Later this week, the two have scheduled a week-long trip abroad, crammed with state visits (by invitation from the president of Poland) and visits to project sites in Denmark, France, England and Germany. When they return, they will devote the rest of the summer to Ground Zero.
Mr. Libeskind is not always as intense in his work habits as his wife, the two admit. He is prone to make long trips to the Borders bookstore near their offices, an indulgence Ms. Libeskind does not allow herself very often. He gets home first in the evenings-they’re staying at a midtown hotel while renovations on their own apartment in Tribeca continue through the fall. When Nina arrives around 11 p.m., she cooks for the two of them; they talk over dinner, read and go to bed.
Private dinners with Governor George Pataki have given way to less intimate functions: Asked for an example, they cited a recent dinner with power brokers from the Bronx. Nina has been known to take the staff out for drinks on a Friday night after a particularly tough week. They had scheduled a three-week vacation in France for August, but have since decided not to take a vacation at all, but to steal three-day weekends here and there.
“We’ll spend our summer studying traffic patterns!” Daniel shouted merrily.
Their daughter is enrolled at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, an easy commute from their Tribeca apartment. Their sons, who live abroad, call often. In short, they do not play New York’s glamorous power elite. They negotiate with them.
“I feel very fortunate,” said Nina when asked whether their lives outside work were limited by their current position, “because we’re together.”
Their relationship undergirds what is perhaps their real asset as negotiators: an absolute conviction that they are right, that what they’re involved in is not just architecture, but a form of civic leadership and public trust. It is not an unambitious or shy kind of conviction to have, and it perhaps isn’t surprising that it rankles their adversaries.
“You just have to have a conviction that you have to go ahead, and that you’re doing something that is beyond just making money and beyond just building buildings,” said Ms. Libeskind. “And I think Daniel and I really feel that. And of course you feel insulted by things they say about you in the press-it would be inhuman not to. And sometimes we get aggravated, but it really is a blip on the screen … “
” … because 30 years from now, that’s not going to be the issue,” Daniel finished. “Thirty years from now, it’s going to be: ‘What did you build here?’”
Nina seems close to winning a more precise definition of their role at Ground Zero. In a work memo, Nina has presented a plan to the Port Authority that will define Studio Daniel Libeskind as having “oversight responsibility for the entire site,” covering “all project developments including, but not limited to, the new PATH station, underground pedestrian concourses and retail, public open spaces, performing arts center, museum and cultural institutions, memorial development, office and retail facilities, street character and infrastructure.”
What Oversight Means
Negotiating the meaning of the word “oversight” is the next step.
“There are, in fact, precise definitions of oversight,” Nina said. “And the way we see it-and I think the Port Authority sees it-is, it’s involvement. It’s not just advisory; it’s a meaningful involvement and integration into the process …. It does not include designing everything on the site.”
Daniel said the couple will fight to ensure that the “silhouette” of the 1,776-foot-tall spiral is maintained as in their original plan, whatever other interior modifications Mr. Silverstein and his architects may require.
“We would not just want a big commercial tower with an antenna stuck on it, because it does mean something,” Daniel said. “And that shape that the public has seen and expects to see there-they saw a symbolic and referential shape, and that’s what they have to see there.”
Nina said that the transit hub, from a design standpoint, as well as the museum and public concourses will resemble the design unveiled in February when Studio Daniel Libeskind won the commission.
But, when pressed, they admit that they have not sealed the deal.
“It is still a conversation that needs a conclusion,” Nina said. “I think we are closer with the Port Authority [which controls the museum, public concourses and transit hub]; with the Freedom Tower, it has not yet reached a resolution.”
In that, Daniel, especially, has an almost mystical confidence.
“This site is protected by the dreams and expectations of the public, and I think the public does not expect to be disappointed,” he said.
The kind of fight it takes to deliver that dream is exactly the Libeskinds’ kind of fight.
“I have never seen Daniel happier-ever,” Nina said. “I’ve just never seen him happier. He’s smiling all the time.”