Zero Catfight: Big Architects In Twin Snits

On the afternoon of Oct. 28, developer Larry Silverstein was addressing his warring architects. His eyes were bulging. His fists were pounding. Ground Zero master planners Daniel and Nina Libeskind were there, as well as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architectDavid Childs; the feud between the two firms over their dueling designs for the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero had eaten up headlines for nearly a week.

“There’s no more time for personal or design differences,” Mr. Silverstein said. “We need to come together on a consensus design in a couple of weeks.”

In the course of a one-hour meeting, little more was done to define the tenuous relationship between Messrs. Childs and Libeskind. But after months of working on their own tower designs, then clashing over which design was feasible, which had public support, and even who was being cooperative and who was being uncooperative, the two were told they had no choice.

Governor GeorgePataki, who is scheduled to make a presentation in front of the influential Association for a Better New York on Oct. 30, planned to reaffirm the aggressive timeline he laid out in April for the redevelopment of Ground Zero.

Time is ticking away. The Governor wants spadework to begin next year-many note that the Republican National Convention is coming to town in 2004-and for the structural steel of the building to be in place in time for the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11 in 2006.

Not long ago, Mr. Pataki seemed to have a bird in the hand with the Freedom Tower. To develop the building, Mr. Pataki didn’t have to go far. Mr. Silverstein, the original leaseholder on the 10.5 million square feet of office space destroyed on Sept. 11, had at least some of his insurance proceeds stacked up and ready to spend; the rebuilding agencies Mr. Pataki largely controls-the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority-had hired Mr. Libeskind as the architect for the site.

The problem is, Mr. Silverstein had all along insisted upon his right to designate an architect for his building. He named David Childs, creating a political problem: How could Mr. Pataki promise to deliver the Freedom Tower that was part of the original Libeskind plan when another world-renowned architect was taking the lead position on the project?

At the Oct. 28 meeting, there was little in the way of new direction for the two architects. The two sides agreed that their joint design would have to somehow mark the 1,776-foot height that was a selling point of Mr. Libeskind’s original site design; that the “spiral feature” of the design should be preserved; that the Freedom Tower ought to read in some way as asymmetrical; and that the shape of the building would in some way reference the Statue of Liberty, as in Mr. Libeskind’s original design. But both sides already believed their separate designs for towers achieved those objectives.

After a week of recriminations, rumor-mongering and preening on both sides, however, it had come time to get to work. And for two people as different in their personalities, architectural styles, politics and experiences as Daniel Libeskind and David Childs, that is no easy task.

Trouble began some two months after the two architects shook hands in front of Ground Zero in July with Mr. Silverstein. The handshake was the result of a long meeting-it took all the sides some eight hours just to draft the press release that would announce the collaboration between Messrs. Childs and Libeskind. Mr. Childs was to be the lead architect on the plan; Mr. Libeskind was to “collaborate” with him on it, and guarantee that the building Mr. Childs designed was consistent with the framework of his master plan. Less well defined were “consistency” and “master plan.” Does the master plan refer just to the ground level and sub-grade, and some loose specs for the masses of different buildings aboveground? Or can it specify certain design elements, even certain specific designs, for some or all of the buildings that go there? And how much “consistency” with his original design was Mr. Libeskind allowed to enforce?

According to sources, Mr. Childs asked Mr. Libeskind to identify the criteria for conformity with the master plan. They were that the building had to respect the heights of the spiral of office buildings depicted in his design, which led from the southeast corner of the site around its eastern and northern sides to its peak at the top of the Freedom Tower at the northwest corner of the site. Also, the silhouette of the building had to be asymmetrical, and the western face had to be flush with the western slurry wall that defines the site.

Several architects from the Libeskinds’ office were dispatched to the offices of S.O.M. nearby. In a Sept. 22 meeting it was determined that each was going to develop a tower, and then each take a pass at the other’s towers, before beginning to work together on a single design.

A week later, David Childs presented his tower designs in a meeting to Mr. Libeskind. Mr. Libeskind, by all accounts, was disappointed. The asymmetry in the design was not obvious from many vantage points elsewhere on the site. The twisting tower did not remain flush on its western face with the western slurry wall of Ground Zero. And the shape of the top was symmetrical looking-a vast square lattice-work crown incorporating four television antennae.

Mr. Libeskind’s design team went to work on a series of images of buildings that formed a sort of spectrum: on the left, the original Libeskind design. With each successive take, the design appeared to morph into the David Childs tower; the eighth design, at the right end of the spectrum, was Mr. Childs’.

According to sources sympathetic with Mr. Libeskind’s position, Mr. Childs appeared guardedly optimistic about working on one of the designs near the middle of the spectrum.

In fact, according to sources, S.O.M. was as dissatisfied with these as the Libes-kind camp had been with Mr. Childs’ design.

For one thing, they were worried about money. Structural engineering programming had not been carried out on either tower, but it seemed to them that an asymmetrical tower would require immense internal structural steel to resist the lateral movement of the wind at its tremendous height, especially near the top. They said the tendency of an off-center spire would be to shear off the building, unless it were rooted firmly into the central core of the building. It is difficult to build a spire on top of the building that is rooted firmly into its central core but stands off to the side. Such considerations not only made the structural guts of the building appear to be extremely expensive-a consideration for their insurance-proceeds-starved client, Mr. Silverstein-but could bulk up the centers of each floor, leaving too little surrounding space to create office space attractive enough to compensate for the construction costs.

S.O.M. supporters are disdainful of Studio Daniel Libeskind’s ability to develop office towers. If Mr. Libeskind’s lack of experience building them is part of it, the greater part of it undoubtedly comes from S.O.M.’s own unparalleled productivity in the “supertall” category around the world.

But the dispute between the two architects reflects a general ambivalence to determine in a straightforward way what the city wants to build at Ground Zero. Early on, serious questions about whether the primary purpose of the site was to memorialize the dead, and the attack that claimed their lives on Sept. 11, or to repair the financial wound sustained by the city and specifically by lower Manhattan in the wake of the attacks.

The two are not inconsistent: That belief is what has motivated every one of the schemes presented to the public last year by a raft of top-notch architects from around the world. But in each one a leaning toward one purpose or another is evident.

Nowhere is that contrast clearer than in these two towers. Mr. Childs seeks to remake the skyline with a muscular obelisk of Gothamesque beauty and Babel proportions. The feeling is of an epic strength that cannot possibly have sprung from the abject destruction wrought by nine men with box cutters on two airplanes: At 2,000 feet, it is higher than the tower proposed by Mr. Libeskind. That tower, rather than to remake Ground Zero as a bigger and sturdier version of what preceded it, contains the images of destruction and creation in its shard-like sculptured buildings surrounding the memorial pit at its center, anchored in the slurry walls of the excavated World Trade Center.

Mr. Childs presents an experiment in forms; Mr. Libeskind, an experiment in public expression. One seeks to expand the language of architecture; the other to expand the language of memory. One tells the story of Ground Zero in a voice of almost breathless optimism, by expressing a purely formal relationship between the history of the site and its future-as a stone statue at a grave site inevitably chronicles the afterlife of the soul and not its extinction. The other tells the story of Ground Zero more representationally, literally staking the future of New York in a ruin-like, shattered structure.

David Childs is a master of form and of moving the conversation of architecture into new areas. Critics grumble that he makes too many sacrifices to the corporate interests of the clients he serves. But his technical prowess is doubted nowhere. The resulting buildings are sometimes beautiful, and always complete unto themselves. It is not so much that Mr. Childs’ buildings could be put anywhere; they belong only and exactly where they are, because the idiosyncrasies of a given site become a part of the larger formal problem of building a particular building there. The building solves the problem of location-much as Mr. Childs solved the problem of locating a modern train station, the new Penn Station, in the center of a neo-classical post office. With reference to this latest effort, such formal preoccupations will doubtless resonate with the public less strongly than the supremely beautiful building itself that is the result of them. It is difficult to describe his building except in architectural terms; it is impossible to describe it in terms of the tragedy that occurred on the spot where he wants it to be built.

Daniel Libeskind is a master communicator, but it is the public conversation about Ground Zero and about Sept. 11 he seeks to advance, and not the conversation that is developing inside of his discipline as an architect. His work does not speak to the formal preoccupations of his contemporaries in the field. It is part of why many there label him an outsider, or suggest that he is better at getting attention than he is at getting anything built. He does not want to solve problems. He wants to build a stage on which to kick those problems back to the public. It is an appropriate and tenable position for the builder of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for the Imperial War Museum in England. Whether it is a tenable position for the architect of a mixed-use complex of offices, retail uses, public memorial and arts spaces to be erected on the site of New York’s most terrifying historical moment remains to be seen. At one extreme the design could look mawkish; at the other, glib.

It’s personal, too. The two don’t get along. Mr. Childs is the quiet one: Self-effacing and courteous, he is the better when it comes to cold delivery. If Mr. Libeskind took offense from Mr. Childs at their meetings, it is not difficult to imagine. Mr. Libeskind prefers the dull, earnest counterattack. And that has its own rhetorical genius to it: Mr. Libeskind manages to grab the moral high ground, as if all along he were saying, “I don’t understand, why can’t we all just get along?”

Of course, the answer to that question well precedes both Mr. Libeskind and Mr. Childs’ direct involvement in the rebuilding effort.

Mr. Pataki had oversold the public on Mr. Libeskind’s design for the site. In a rush to ensure public involvement in the selection process his rebuilding agency, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation last year charged a select group of architects with the task of coming up with site plans-boring engineering documents, basically-and dolling them up as pretty architectural models the public could “vote” on in massive conferences. By the end of the whole process, the rebuilding authorities found themselves faced with a public that expected them to build precisely the crystalline model they had seen on display in the Winter Garden. Sticky issues like whether the owners of the building would be willing to work with their architect were besides the point.

Of course, Mr. Libeskind believes himself to have designed a real building, albeit on a tight budget and a tighter timeline, as his entry in the competition. Many ask why, if the buildings that were part of the site were never meant to be built, real-estate experts were called in to pass on to the LMDC their judgments about the commercial viability of the “floorplates”-usable office space on each floor of the building-in the finalist designs. If most who were involved directly in the rebuilding effort conceived of the chosen plan as a site map, not a final model for building purposes, the public was not as sophisticated in its understanding. (Some say rebuilding officials banked on that fact.)

Then, Larry Silverstein’s insurance troubles put him in the uncomfortable position of having limited funds to rebuild with, but also holding the only private source of rebuilding money. He has to come up with the most important building in the world when it was precisely his chief asset-the leasehold on the World Trade Center-that went up in a cloud of noxious gas on Sept. 11. His backers are knocking on his door; his insurers won’t pay up.

So it was no surprise that the agreement between the two in July to “collaborate” on a design for the tower met with skepticism. Mr. Childs, as the chosen architect of Mr. Silverstein, who is the developer of the tower, was to be the lead architect; Mr. Libeskind was to consult, and to ensure that the final product was “consistent” with the master plan Mr. Pataki heralded in February in the Winter Garden when Mr. Libeskind was awarded the title of master planner of Ground Zero.

Supporters of Mr. Childs wail that Mr. Libeskind has become more of a client than a collaborator. If he doesn’t like the design, it’s back to the drawing board. Surely, they argue, ensuring consistency does not allow him that level of control.

Supporters of Mr. Libeskind stake his claim to direct the design of buildings on the fact that his design was so popular. Private meetings between a developer and his chosen “corporate” architect are likely to yield something that will come cheap for Mr. Silverstein, guarantee profit margins, and sell out the public interest in restoring the skyline. Surely “collaborating” on the project guarantees him more say in the final design than merely to provide a commentary on Mr. Childs’ independently developed ideas.

All sides came out of the meeting claiming they felt positive. That’s good, said one observer at the meeting. With only two to four weeks to come up with a final design for the building, “we don’t have the luxury of having another blowup.”

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