The agony of victory

Special Issue | Daniel Libeskind has had one of the hardest jobs in America. Will the architect's redesign at Ground Zero satisfy the nations and the generations to come?

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

To be the master planner of the new site at Ground Zero, one has to navigate the wishes of the design jury, the landowner, the leaseholder, the mayor of New York City, the governor of New York, the FBI, the families of 2,749 people who died there, and the 115 nations that lost citizens at the site and believe they have a stake in how it's rebuilt.

One has to bring together past and present for future generations who will ask what happened there.

And one has to enjoy the prospect of working with New York's city fathers, its cut-throat business leaders, and jealous fellow architects-for about the next decade.

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To be the man to accomplish this, one has to be Daniel Libeskind: a latecomer to the design competition, an outsider in the New York architecture scene, a teacher whose designs had never been built until he was 52, a man who stands about 5 feet tall in this vast audience of jury and judges, and an incurable optimist.

What's his secret? How can one man prevail in the face of such a task and given such odds? In Libeskind's case, by knowing whom to listen to: his mother, his wife, and Saint Augustine.

Libeskind heeded the words of Augustine from the bowels of Ground Zero on a rainy day in November 2002. He had bested over 400 design entries to become one of seven finalists in a design competition many denounced as premature, pushed by leaseholder Larry Silverstein to recoup his 10 million square feet of office space destroyed on 9/11.

The other finalists were content to survey the site from an office window at 1 Liberty Plaza, but Libeskind wanted to go into it. With a Port Authority worker, he and his wife Nina descended a ramp to bedrock. This was the pit: a hole in Manhattan 16 acres in size at the surface and 70 feet deep that opened when the twin towers fell.

Here, Libeskind said, he felt "the enormity of the loss." Seven stories of foundation and infrastructure that once lay beneath the World Trade Center, gone.

But down in the pit Libeskind discovered the "slurry wall," a dam far beneath lower Manhattan, holding back the Hudson River and serving as the western foundation to the World Trade Center site. It was intact. Had it split with the force of the World Trade Center's collapse, the New York subway system would have flooded and the city likely would have been underwater.

Libeskind says that at that moment, his hand pressed to the cold, damp slurry wall, he heard the same voice Augustine reports hearing in his Confessions. "Take it and read it. Take it and read it." For Augustine it was a call to take up the Scriptures; for Libeskind it was a call to "read" the slurry wall, "a revelatory experience," he says, and a metaphor for what remains when everything else falls down.

Libeskind scratched what he had designed up to that point and began again, looking this time, he said, not to his penciled sketches on paper napkins but to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for inspiration-the bedrock values of human life and liberty, the things in America that lasted. He had six weeks.

At its unveiling the Libeskind plan "struck a common nerve," wrote Wall Street Journal critic Ada Louise Huxtable: "You could tell by the sustained applause and tears that this is what people really wanted." At 57, the son of immigrants, who grew up in public housing in the Bronx, had won what may be the most ambitious architectural project in New York City this century.

His winning design was something utterly different from the other finalists' entries: four slender ascending towers culminating in a premiere landmark building-the Freedom Tower-standing 1,776 feet tall and finished in a glass spire mirroring the Statue of Liberty torch. In the center of the site, where the twin towers once stood, a memorial garden cuts below ground to reveal the slurry wall. The design's open spaces allow a wedge of light from above to penetrate the site, recalling the sunlight on the towers at the moment each was fatally struck by aircraft.

Libeskind told WORLD, "I believe when finished it will convey the depth of what was experienced at the site and without contradicting the vitality of New York."

At that point, despite victory, Libeskind was far from finished. The trek from competition to construction would prove long and messy. Leaseholder Larry Silverstein demanded more office space in the five towers. City and federal officials demanded more security. Architects for each component of the site threatened to tinker with individual buildings in ways that compromised the whole. Protesters denounced the site's failure to include low-income housing.


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