Two Architects Whip Up Tower In Mad Frenzy

The signature tower of the rebuilt World Trade Center is taking shape, and not a moment too soon. With scant three weeks left, the two architectural teams working together on the tower-one led by World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein’s architect David Childs, the other by Ground Zero master planner Daniel Libeskind-have been engaged in intense, seven-day-a-week meetings aimed at reconciling each side’s competing vision for the Freedom Tower, which is to be the tallest of five skyscrapers to rise from the ashes of Ground Zero.

Although many aspects of the proposed new tower are still in flux, several features are consistent to every recent draft rendering of the tower. Surviving from Mr. Libeskind’s original proposal is the asymmetrical shape of the tower, along with its narrow spire feature, both of which are meant to simulate the torchbearing arm of the Statue of Liberty seen from the harbor. Also surviving is the slanted roof that gives a spiraling sweep to the shape of the circle of the five skyscrapers, of descending height, called for in his master plan.

In a bow to Mr. Childs’ design, the building will most likely twist as it rises, although it’s not clear at this point when the building will right itself vertically, nor to what degree.

Other major considerations, like the height of the building, the materials to be used for the exterior, and other aesthetic and engineering questions, remain to be decided. But the major stumbling blocks seem to have been overcome, and both sides now say they’re confident they’ll be able to meet the Mr. Pataki’s Dec. 15 deadline.

They were off to a late start. After agreeing in July to a scheme that made Mr. Childs the lead architect for the building and Mr. Libeskind a “collaborator” on the project, each man spent weeks developing his own version of the tower without setting foot on common ground.

It wasn’t till a month ago, when Mr. Silverstein-under orders from development authorities-gave the two a blistering knuckle-rapping for refusing to work together, that the real work began.

“What essentially happened is that Childs and Libeskind abandoned their rigid adherence to their designs to try to come up with another building that incorporates the best of both,” said Mr. Libeskind’s lawyer, Ed Hayes, who has seen early drafts of the new tower.

To be sure, it’s still an awkward union of dueling egos-what Mr. Libeskind referred to as a “forced marriage.” But this marriage is almost full-term on what is hoped will be the world’s tallest building, with a due date of Dec. 15.

“At Larry Silverstein’s insistence and through a collaboration with Studio Daniel Libeskind, we are rapidly resolving these issues and will finalize a conceptual design by December 15th, thereby keeping to the Governor’s timetable,” Mr. Childs told The Observer in an e-mail.

Rocky Marriage

Things weren’t looking so rosy a month ago. On Oct. 28, a furious Mr. Silverstein had a meeting with Mr. Childs, Mr. Libeskind and his wife, Nina Libeskind, in which the developer pounded the table and said: “There’s no more time for personal or design differences. We need to come together on a consensus design in a couple of weeks.”

Headlines about the two sides’ competing visions for the Freedom Tower had been raging in the papers for the previous week. Mr. Silverstein was playing the role of mediator and motivator-in-chief because he had gained control of the Trade Center site in the summer of 2001, only a few weeks before terrorists destroyed the twin towers on Sept. 11. Mr. Libeskind entered the picture in February when Governor Pataki overrode the previously influential site-planning committee of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to annoint the Polish-born architect to design the site’s master plan.

Officially, Mr. Childs came on the scene on July 16, when Mr. Silverstein selected him to design the Freedom Tower. But from the very day of the Sept. 11 attack, the architects of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill-who were forced to flee their own downtown offices-had been working out designs, in their heads or on paper, for their client Mr. Silverstein. Moreover, the firm had already been Mr. Silverstein’s choice to upgrade the ground-level facilities at the complex, sprucing it up for potential renters. The relationship between the firm and the developer strengthened considerably in those days immediately following the attack.

From the beginning, the stage was set for strife. Both architects entered with enormous reputations and outsized egos, but it wasn’t clear who would be the last word on design matters for the Freedom Tower. According to an agreement that both men worked out in July, Mr. Childs was to be lead architect on the Freedom Tower; Mr. Libeskind was to collaborate, making sure that the building fit into the master plan. Mr. Libeskind, perhaps best known for his design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, is an acclaimed designer of visionary structures that challenge the status quo, but he has little experience with erecting massive commercial projects. Mr. Childs, who recently completed the massive, twin-towered Time Warner Center, is a world-renowned leader of commercial projects, but critics complain that he makes too many aesthetic sacrifices to his clients.

The War Room

For the last month, the 23rd floor of S.O.M.’s headquarters at 14 Wall Street has been home to nearly 50 architects, engineers, designers and consultants who have been working on various aspects of the Freedom Tower. Four of the 50 are employees of Studio Daniel Libeskind (not including Daniel and Nina themselves). S.O.M. employs the rest, approximately 10 of whom are full-time, with the remainder being part-time specialty consultants.

The office floor is a huge white room with no divider, and almost every wall can be used as a pin-up board. Conferences take place in two smaller rooms off to the side. Days start at 8 in the morning and sometimes go well into the next morning.

“The atmosphere is intense. It’s professional work; it’s pros focusing on the tasks at hand on tight deadline constraints,” said a member of the S.O.M team. “The theater you see in newspapers is absent in this room …. There are occasional strong differences of opinion, but this is a highly professional group.”

A source within the Libeskind camp, however, said that as recently as the end of last week, tensions between the two sides were somewhat more apparent: Mr. Childs was characterized as stubborn in his desire to flout the design principles that form the basis of the Libeskind design.

It is a claim that sources in the Childs camp vigorously dispute, though off the record, there are no shortage of countercharges. Daniel and Nina Libeskind are currently traveling in Hong Kong and were unavailable for comment.

Regardless, the source in the Libeskind camp said that any such tensions evaporated over the course of several marathon meetings this weekend.

If the road to this consensus has been twisted and laden with pitfalls, it is in no small part due to the aggressive timetable that Mr. Pataki laid out for the two competing sides. The Governor badly wants construction to start before the Republican National Convention comes to town in August-and if that means banging heads together, so be it.

“The Governor has done everything but take family members as hostages to make sure that this project moves along,” said Mr. Hayes, a longtime friend and adviser of Mr. Pataki’s. “Pataki is staking his whole place in history on this project. This is as large a historical project as anything in our history. The only one that compares is the rebuilding of Washington after the British burned it in 1812, at least in this country. Even the earthquake in San Francisco or the Chicago fire didn’t have the same public significance as this. In both those cases, they were basically just replacing what was there. This is something where they’re going to put in a whole new public infrastructure in a very important part of New York City in a very visible way.”