Gehry Tops Danny: Ground Zero Winner Scores Art Center

Daniel Libeskind has no buildings at Ground Zero to call his own.

On Oct. 12, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation announced that architect Frank Gehry, of Bilbao fame, had won the competition to design a performing-arts center at the World Trade Center. The complex will house the Joyce Theater International Dance Center and the Signature Theatre Center. Mr. Libeskind, the site’s master planner, had been short-listed in the competition—which represented the last commission he could compete for. With his loss, it now appears that Mr. Libeskind will not be designing any of the major buildings slotted for the site with which New Yorkers have identified him since he won the coveted master-planner role there in February, 2003.

The LMDC also announced on Tuesday that the relatively unknown Oslo-based architectural firm Snøhetta won the competition to design a museum at Ground Zero to house the International Freedom Center, a yet-to-be-created educational institution for exhibits related to mankind’s “enduring quest for freedom.” The museum will also house the Drawing Center, a fine-arts institution that exhibits drawings. Mr. Libeskind was not short-listed for that commission. He is overseas and was unavailable for comment at press time.

Neither Mr. Gehry nor the principals of Snøhetta submitted any renderings of their proposals. Schematic designs are expected by early 2005. Instead, the competition was based largely on interviews and in-person evaluations of the short-listed firms’ completed projects.

“When I was interviewed for the Signature Theatre and the Joyce Theater,” Mr. Gehry said in a statement, “I was taken to the window to look at the site from above and tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t control it.”

Craig Dykers, one of two principals at Snøhetta, told The Observer from Norway that he wouldn’t know what form the museum will take until he gets a better idea of the Freedom Center’s program.

Mr. Dykers’ 15-year-old firm is best known in the architectural world for designing the library in Alexandria, Egypt—whose predecessor, a Wonder of the Ancient World, was destroyed in antiquity. Mr. Dykers also said Snøhetta will be collaborating on the project with Adamson Associates, an Ontario-based firm that is currently working with the architect Sir Norman Foster on the Hearst Tower in midtown.

The two cultural complexes will be located across the street from one another at the intersection of Greenwich and Fulton streets—the performing-arts building just to the east of the Freedom Tower, and the museum on the northeast corner of the memorial quad.

For Mr. Gehry, whose signature undulating-steel buildings have made him a household name throughout the world, the commission to design the performing-arts complex at Ground Zero represents a return to downtown Manhattan after the Bloomberg administration sunk the Guggenheim’s plan to build one of his buildings on the East River.

For Mr. Libeskind, however, Mr. Gehry’s commission represents the culmination of his dashed hopes of designing at least one major building on the site—for there are no more commissions up for grabs. Although he collaborated on the design of the Freedom Tower, he had to play second fiddle to the lead designer on the project, Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s David Childs. On the memorial competition, which eventually went to East Village architect Michael Arad, Mr. Libeskind was ineligible to compete. (What’s more, the panel that chose Mr. Arad chose a design that significantly reconfigured Mr. Libeskind’s master plan.) The Port Authority unilaterally selected Santiago Calatrava for the PATH station. And for the remaining skyscrapers on the site, World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein has already named an all-star lineup of architects for each project: Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and Fumihiko Maki. The two cultural commissions were Mr. Libeskind’s last shots.

What seems ironic is that Mr. Libeskind got short-listed for the performing-arts complex, and not the museum. Before he ever emerged as a contender to design the World Trade Center master plan, Mr. Libeskind’s most prominent commission to date had been the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Upon its completion in 1999, the visually arresting, near universally admired building instantly thrust him into the rarefied circle of the world’s most sought-after museum designers. So it was all the more humiliating for him and his staff when, in mid-September of this year, Studio Daniel Libeskind did not even make the museum-commission short list.

Of all the architectural commissions slotted for the 16-acre site—the five skyscrapers including the Freedom Tower, the memorial, the transportation center and another cultural building complex—Mr. Libeskind should have had a leg up on the museum competition. But he didn’t, losing out to a group of six finalists that included both household names, like the architect I.M. Pei, and the lesser-known Snøhetta. What’s worse, the early-round competition was not even based on actual museum designs. Rather, entrants only had to answer questions about their firm’s philosophy and architectural credentials. Mr. Libeskind, the master planner for the site, didn’t even make that cut.

It had less to do with his architectural qualifications than with the bitter aftertaste that lingered in the wake of his public feud last winter over the design of the Freedom Tower with Mr. Silverstein and Mr. Childs, some said.

A member of the panel that deliberated over the Freedom Center museum commission, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Observer that many panel members feared Mr. Libeskind would prove to be a “difficult” partner on the project.

“Why start off with someone difficult?” the panel member said. “If the reputation is that there’s a little bit of contentiousness, why do that to yourself?”

The panel member deliberating over the building’s short list said that neither the representatives of the Freedom Center nor of the Drawing Center felt entirely comfortable with the prospect of selecting Mr. Libeskind as their architect.

“There was concern that we’ve got two very different types of institutions—one starting out from scratch, and another that’s a wonderful little place in Soho—and neither wanted to be overwhelmed by the personality and the idée fixe of the architect,” the panel member said. “There was—how should I put it?—a little concern that that may be the case [with Libeskind].”

Mr. Libeskind’s feud with Mr. Childs and Mr. Silverstein stemmed from a July 2003 power-sharing arrangement that made Mr. Childs the lead designer of the Freedom Tower and Mr. Libeskind a “collaborating” architect. Mr. Childs favored a massive, symmetrical tower that topped out above 2,000 feet, whereas Mr. Libeskind envisioned a slimmer, asymmetrical tower whose spire would reach the symbolic height of 1,776 feet. The “forced marriage,” as Mr. Libeskind later put it, provided headline fodder for the media for months, peaking with what the New York Post termed a “Watergate” style break-in of Mr. Childs’ offices by Mr. Libeskind’s staffers. It was clear to anyone who was even cursorily following the dispute that each side was using the press to try to publicly disparage the other.

The Freedom Center museum-panel member suggested, while declining to elaborate, that Mr. Libeskind missed out on the short list because several panel members believed that Mr. Libeskind’s relatively aggressive posturing was more the rule than the exception.

“It went beyond Childs and Libeskind,” the panel member said. “There were some people on the panel who knew Libeskind’s style. They knew what was going on with this guy.”

To be sure, Mr. Libeskind’s quarrel with Mr. Childs and Mr. Silverstein is emblematic of a larger issue that has its roots in a dispute over the very role of the master planner. On any given development site, the role of the master planner has as much or even more to do with urban planning as it does with what most people normally associate with architecture. The master planner decides the configuration of buildings on a site, their relative heights and bulks, the positioning of green or open space, and the interplay of streets and walkways. And while master planners typically do get to design one, if not all of the main buildings on a site, this is not necessarily the case.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Libeskind won that master plan competition in February 2003, he felt he held a public mandate to ensure that the plan’s most iconic element, the Freedom Tower, would closely resemble the model he presented in his winning entry. However, that was not necessarily his decision to make. Mr. Silverstein holds a 99-year lease on the site, and although he had acquiesced to the LMDC’s decision to hold an international design competition for a master planner, he had not ceded his right to chose his own architects for the commercial portion of the sight—i.e., the skyscrapers. In fact, he had already selected Mr. Childs for the Freedom Tower job, and thus the roots of the dispute were born.

Bitter as the Freedom Tower dispute was, however, it did not seem to affect the decision-making process of the panel members deliberating on the short list for the commission for the joint Joyce Dance Company–Signature Theatre building. Panel member Joseph Melillo, executive producer for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, said that during deliberations last month, no one even brought up the “forced marriage” issue while considering Mr. Libeskind’s entry to the competition.

“We were all mature adults in that room, and we were evaluating the merits of the specific proposal; and that’s why he was short-listed,” he said. “It wasn’t pertinent to the actual framing of the individual proposals put on the table. It was what was crafted by the Libeskind organization and the architect himself [that counted].”

In a strange bit of irony, Mr. Libeskind, whose wife is from Canada, currently holds the Frank O. Gehry chair in the architecture department at the University of Toronto. Also, both he and Mr. Gehry are currently engaged in crosstown architectural projects in Toronto: Mr. Libeskind is designing a new wing of the Royal Ontario Museum, and Mr. Gehry is planning a renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Mr. Libeskind’s loss in the cultural-complex competition is sure to renew talk among the chattering classes that he has been further marginalized in the rebuilding process.

But the counterspin from the Libeskinds’ supporters in the architecture scene was already coming thick and fast on the night of Oct. 12.

“Ironically, if they don’t have a commission, it gives them all the more reason to focus on making the site plan work with buildings being designed by others,” said Ric Bell, executive director of American Institute of Architects, who was instrumental in organizing many of the public sessions during 2002 and 2003 in which the public was invited to respond to the rebuilding process.

“The role of the site architect, if they are frozen out of the cultural facilities, is to work more diligently and harder than ever to make sure that some of the spirit of the architecture of the site plan comes through.”

The architectural competition that concluded yesterday began in June of 2003, when the LMDC invited cultural institutions from around the world to apply for space in one of the two buildings slotted for the World Trade Center site. From October through January 2004, an evaluation committee made up of representatives from the LMDC, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the State Council on the Arts reviewed and short-listed all 113 applicants. The four winners were announced on June 10. The next step was to find architects to design the institutions’ homes.

On Aug. 2, the LMDC issued a request for proposals to architectural firms, which asked them detailed questions about their credentials. The LMDC then convened two volunteer panels, one to evaluate the submissions for each building. Both panels included members from the LMDC, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the State Council on the Arts, plus two outside experts. The Freedom Center/Drawing Center panel included Charles Shorter, a trustee at Studio Museum of Harlem and a principal at Ernst & Young’s real-estate advisors group, and Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and president of the Museum of Modern Art; the Joyce/Signature panel included Mr. Melillo of B.A.M. and Alexander Cooper, of the noted architectural firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

The members of the Joyce/Signature panel met on Sept. 13 at the LMDC’s headquarters at 120 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan to review the 34 proposals they had received. Mr. Melillo said the applications ran the gamut from professional, high-gloss binder-bound presentations to ones that betrayed precious little effort.

The panel finished the short list that day, and did not meet again. The winning entry was entirely up to the representatives of the Joyce and the Signature. Mr. Melillo called his experience one of the most creative professional environments he’s ever worked in and “had the privilege to be part of.”

The Freedom Center/Drawing Center panel invested a good deal more time and effort on their deliberations, meeting at least eight times between mid-September and early October, spending either half or full days at the LMDC headquarters each time. The panel short-listed 10 out of 34 firms. By Oct. 1, the panel had narrowed the list down to the first-, second- and third-place finishers within that short-list group, and decided, furthermore, that they wanted the front-runner, Snøhetta, to bring in an associate. On Oct. 4, the associate came in for an interview, and on Oct 6 the panel greenlighted the associate as part of the winning team. Although most of the panel members stayed on until the end as advisors, only members of the Freedom Center and Drawing center had actual votes.