Embattled Libeskind Defends Controversial W.T.C. Museum

If Daniel Libeskind’s word is gold at Ground Zero, then the controversial International Freedom Center is going to get rich.

The earnest master planner has long since been cut out of the daily action, but he gets hauled in to bless each change to his acclaimed site plan. His assent, therefore, would most likely be needed before the Freedom Center could be pushed out of its proposed spot right next to the planned memorial. Mr. Libeskind is not taking sides on the controversy just yet, but a statement to The Observer this week shows he thinks the Freedom Center has plenty to do with the terrorist attacks four years ago.

“The International Freedom Center,” Mr. Libeskind said, “will have a significant amount of space and curatorial content relating to Sept. 11 and the tragedy that befell New York that day. It will be a building that speaks about the world’s reaction to that tragic event and the principles upon which this country stands.”

The comment comes two months into a campaign by families of Sept. 11 victims to kick out the Freedom Center, a new museum, from the corner of the reconstituted Greenwich and Fulton streets, in what is known as the “memorial quadrant” of the site. The families have argued variously that the center will be anti-American, or that it takes up prime space that should be devoted instead to a Sept. 11 museum, which is now planned on the lower level of the memorial. But the debate also has a great deal to do with what Mr. Libeskind wanted when his master plan first met with so many goo-goos and gah-gahs from the public—and the Governor—when it was unveiled more than two years ago.

Mr. Libeskind was on vacation and has generally not given interviews on the subject, according to his publicist, so the few words he utters publicly carry a lot of meaning. Since Mr. Libeskind is still on the government payroll, his opinions may proceed more from where Governor Pataki stands on the issue than the other way around, but they nonetheless suggest what the official thinking on the matter is.

So far, what little news has come out indicates that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the state-city agency overseeing Ground Zero planning, is working out some sort of compromise. The Freedom Center is agreeing to take on more Sept. 11 content and has pledged not to offend anybody. According to a source, officials have scooted the Snøhetta-designed building as much as 40 feet away from the towers’ footprints and are trying to shrink its site below 250,000 square feet. The subterranean Sept. 11 museum has grown to “more than 100,000 square feet” in the words of one official, while it was less than half that size a year ago. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which actually owns the land there, is studying how it can move ventilation and mechanical systems, which were going to take up as much as 30,000 square feet of the so-called cultural building.

And perhaps most significantly, the LMDC has yet to come up with an alternative site for the Freedom Center, according to an individual familiar with downtown planning issues. And this almost a month after LMDC chairman John Whitehead pledged to take one last look for a new location, on or off the World Trade Center property. The agency, in a statement, says it “remains in active and ongoing discussions with the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center to ensure consistency with the Governor’s directive and the master site plan”—but the details of where these institutions will go have yet to be determined. The Governor, who essentially controls what happens at Ground Zero, is expected to make a decision soon—certainly before the Sept. 11 anniversary rolls around again.

“It’s a tough issue for him,” said Jeremy Soffin, director of public affairs at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit organization that supports keeping the Freedom Center in place. “A big piece of it is the perception of progress and control at Ground Zero. There has been a lot of consensus, the process was moving forward, and if you take that building out of the master plan, you will have to start over. What will go there?”

This is merely the latest form of a debate that goes back to the earliest days following the Sept. 11 attacks. Should the 16 acres be preserved as a memorial or integrated with quotidian structures? Should the design please the families of the victims or should it appeal to all comers? The International Freedom Center was chosen a year ago, and the location of some sort of cultural institution was pegged for that spot, at the reconstituted Fulton and Greenwich streets, as far back as two and a half years ago. Yet family members only brought out their pickets and e-mails this June, once The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Debra Burlingame, a former Court TV producer whose brother was the pilot of the plane that ended up crashing into the Pentagon.

“They kept calling it different things,” said Monica Iken, a Sept. 11 widow and founder of September’s Mission, an organization raising money for the memorial. She first understood that the Freedom Center would be adjacent to the memorial in March, during a meeting of the LMDC Families Advisory Committee. “It was called September 11 Place. People were confused. We all got blindsided when we realized what it was.”

Mr. Libeskind always imagined a building complex adjacent to the towers’ footprints that would include both a Sept. 11 museum and a cultural component, and the LMDC Web site posted these plans years ago for all to see. (Culture on the memorial quadrant now consists mainly of the Freedom Center, since the Drawing Center is most likely going to withdraw rather than be censored. A performing-arts complex will go across the street—far enough away to avoid controversy.) In a statement submitted for the competition in December 2002, Mr. Libeskind called for “a museum of the event, of memory and hope” to be placed at the “epicenter” of the site. In accompanying sketches, Mr. Libeskind called for “culture at heart” to act as a “protective filter and open access to hallowed ground.” The sketches show that Mr. Libeskind envisioned both a “museum” and “culture” to be occupying different parts of a building that would also provide an entrance to the memorial below, in the sunken area encompassing the footprints of the Twin Towers—although significantly, the “museum” part seemed to take up at least half of the room.

When it chose Mr. Libeskind’s site plan two months later, the LMDC stated that “an interpretive museum sits at the center of the site” and that “new cultural facilities and a performing arts center are sited around the bathtub Memorial Garden.” Within months, the agency called for proposals from institutions that wanted to locate at Ground Zero. Many revisions of the master site plan later, a February 2004 report included a map showing two cultural buildings—later consolidated into one—with a combined floor space of 200,000 to 250,000 square feet at the corner of Fulton and Greenwich. The report included the short list of institutions vying for the site, including something then called “The Museum of Freedom.” The Sept. 11 museum, only 50,000 to 70,000 square feet at the time, was then underground—a result of the museum including a portion of the slurry wall and other parts of the original foundation. The underground location, Ms. Burlingame likes to say, prompted one family member to say the museum will be “down there with the rats.”

Although the plans appeared on the LMDC’s Web site, the families apparently never saw them or recognized their importance, until Ms. Burlingame brought them to their attention. It wasn’t just the size or location that she objected to, but its politics. This was paradoxical to say the least. A couple of months earlier it was being portrayed by the left as a tool for the Republican Party, since its co-founder, Tom Bernstein of Chelsea Piers fame, was once President Bush’s business partner. But poring over the list of 89 names of advisors and board members, Ms. Burlingame found five to be guilty by association of a lack of patriotism. One was Mr. Bernstein, who is also the former board president of Human Rights First, an organization of human-rights lawyers that sued the Bush administration over Guantánamo. Another objectionable adviser was Eric Foner, a Columbia history professor, whom Ms. Burlingame chastises for attending an Iraq war teach-in where another Columbia colleague called for “a million Mogadishus.” Ms. Burlingame suggests Mr. Foner is sympathetic to the Mogadishu comment, when in fact he quickly called the colleague “idiotic” in the press. But he said enough other stuff to hang himself several times over in Ms. Burlingame’s court of law and ended up resigning as a Freedom Center adviser out of disgust at its unwillingness to stand up for free speech.

Ms. Burlingame says her objections to the Freedom Center are not political, and yet she has clearly emerged as a sort of spokeswoman for pro-Bush families, appearing on shows like Hardball and publishing three other op-eds in The Journal—needless to say, one of the most conservative editorial sections in the nation. She got there in a roundabout way, however. A self-described lifelong Democrat and daughter of a master sergeant in the Air Force, Ms. Burlingame went from being skeptical of President Bush’s reluctance to investigate Sept. 11 to one of his biggest fans, convinced that the real reason Sept. 11 happened was because, simply put, terrorists got a hold of some planes and crashed them into buildings.

By the time last year when liberal widows objected to President Bush’s use of Sept. 11 imagery in his re-election ads, Ms. Burlingame excoriated them for pretending to speak for all survivors. This time around, Ms. Burlingame isn’t claiming to speak for all victims’ families, but she is claiming to speak for the majority of them. “I felt that it was wrong for a handful of people to speak for the entire universe of 9/11 families on certain subjects, like politics,” she explained in an e-mail to The Observer. “They did not say ‘I think .… ’ They said ‘9/11 families want/need/believe …. ’ Here, we have virtually every major 9/11 family organization coming together and asking for a respectful memorial that adheres to the mission statement.”

She continued, “Our supporters number in the tens of thousands and, we believe, reflect the majority of the public. In fact, over 2,000 family members have signed the petition asking for no politics or unrelated historical exhibits. We have not received one contact, not one, from any family member objecting.”

The Take Back the Memorial Web site counts 39,224 signers of its petition to, well, take back the memorial. Two towns, albeit very small towns, have passed resolutions calling for the Freedom Center to back off, and the Sept. 11 campaigners are planning on making this a real grassroots national movement. Ms. Burlingame counts three million hits to her Web site. It has already forced the Freedom Center to pledge it will not offend victims’ families and the LMDC to scale down the building and move it at least 40 feet away from the memorial. “We all thought the 9/11 museum was the appropriate ‘culture’ for the site,” Ms. Burlingame wrote in an e-mail. “And, frankly, we haven’t heard of anyone who will want to come from all over the country and the world to hear about slavery, the Holocaust, etc.”

Meanwhile, there aren’t a whole lot of Sept. 11 families speaking up in its favor, not publicly. At best, they are indifferent.

“I don’t give a shit. There are more important things to worry about,” said Monica Gabrielle, one of the liberal Sept. 11 widows whom Ms. Burlingame tacitly criticized. Ms. Gabrielle is worrying, for instance, about how the Port Authority is not required to follow city building codes when new structures go up. “Not a rat’s ass.”

The Freedom Center, shunned by liberals and conservatives and too new to have the sort of audience that an existing institution would have, has no natural constituency—other than civic-minded planners and nearby residents who want culture somewhere on the site. The local community board seemingly endorsed the center, but its resolution does not specify that it remain on the memorial quadrant. And yet the Freedom Center just might pull through—if Mr. Libeskind has anything to do with it.