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.
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.
George Pataki, whose term as governor of New York ended last year, repeatedly intervened to preserve the master plan's integrity, and New York papers kept logs of the drawn-out battles: Freedom Tower architect David Childs refused to meet with Libeskind, Libeskind walked out of a meeting with Childs, etc.
The battles have added years to the completion date. At one time Freedom Tower was scheduled to be finished this year, but its construction is only about to reach above ground level. Now construction at the site is slated to conclude in 2014. "The end will come and the project will be built," Libeskind said earlier this month from his studio in lower Manhattan. But he acknowledged that it remains "a complex road."
Technically, Libeskind is the master planner while other architects, including nemesis David Childs, are architects of record for each component of the project. Childs, whose firm lost to Libeskind in the master planning competition, is the architect of Freedom Tower. He has repeatedly fought to increase the footprints of each building and to diminish the open spaces for pedestrian traffic and memorials to 9/11 victims.
To survive the tug-of-war among Ground Zero's stakeholders, Libeskind listens to Nina, his wife of 38 years and mother of their three children. Nina has long been a partner in Studio Daniel Libeskind projects, but her collaboration on a project the whole world is watching has proved vital. She sensed political maneuvering away from the master plan and helped Libeskind plot necessary compromises while remaining stolid about what he considered the essential and symbolic features of the site: the slurry wall, the 1,776-foot height, the wedge of light, and the torch emblem.
Libeskind's wife serves as both confidante and spokesman. At a recent B'nai B'rith real estate luncheon at New York's Cornell Club, she told the audience that Libeskind's studio "would fight tooth and nail" the downtown interests who want the 9/11 memorial at grade rather than its planned slope to 30 feet below grade. "There is a need to have the sanctity of the site preserved and the need to show the slurry wall," she said.
In the end Libeskind is confident the reconstructed site will become a new neighborhood with "a feeling of human scale in the midst of grand buildings, something emotional, moving, not simply an abstraction."
Libeskind generally is affable about ongoing disputes. The slurry wall is being readied, he notes, and the construction closely resembles his original plan. "I continue to be concerned with all the details and all aspects of the project, but the great controversies are over," he said. He's also not surprised by the give-and-take. "The Greeks considered the city the polis, and it has always been about politics, about people. Architecture is difficult because it is art on a public scale. You can think to write a book in your room. But to build a building you have to do it with civic empathy."
Libeskind's decision to become an architect is the result of listening to his mother. Libeskind wanted to be an artist like Andy Warhol. "Varhole?" she said. "For every Varhole there's a thousand penniless waiters. Be an architect." Architecture, she told him, is both trade and art form.
Dora and Nachman Libeskind were Holocaust survivors from Poland. After the war they tried to recreate family life in their hometown of Lodz, which had a Jewish population of 220,000 before the German occupation and 5,000 after.
Life under the Soviets was equally bad, and the family immigrated to New York in 1959 when Daniel was 13. Dora worked in a sweatshop dying fur collars. Nachman took a job in a printshop only blocks from the World Trade Center site. "My parents were survivors of a special kind," Libeskind said. "They never gave up hope."
Much of Libeskind's architectural philosophy is grounded in wide reading of Jewish philosophers, Hindu literature, and the Bible. It is cemented in a reaction against the dehumanizing work of the Holocaust and the collectivism and oppression his family suffered under Soviet invasion. Human faces are important inspiration in his designs and he is unembarrassed to talk about searching for the soul of a building. "Too often architecture is considered something abstract, as if it were the placing of an object in a place. But it is always set down in time, always part of history, always part of communication," he explained.
Fellow architects chortle at his soulful approach and his patriotism, but Libeskind has never gotten over America. When his family arrived in New York, "every person in the street looked to us like a hero, a god," he wrote in his 2004 book, Breaking Ground. "These were the people who had beamed us Radio Free Europe." Prohibited from speaking Yiddish in Poland, even in Israel where his family lived a brief time, his family discovered in New York that "anyone could speak any language-and did." Asked to contribute to Rolling Stone a list of items for "what's cool," Libeskind named fusion, Emily Dickinson, the Bible, and the Bronx.
Despite the tags of tradition, Libeskind's buildings have stirred controversy and traditionalists accuse him of deconstructive design. "Is there a sell-by date for Libeskind's expressively jagged architecture?" asked Architectural Record critic Suzanne Stephens after Libeskind's expansion to the Denver Art Museum opened last year.
Libeskind rejects the deconstructivist label but doesn't deny that his buildings could be called outlandish: "My aim is to design something very specific to the address to which it is being built. But I don't believe that means you have to be conformist. Buildings like the [Berlin] Jewish Museum respond to context by establishing a new context. They fit the context but are also dynamic. And they create their own dynamic. In time they become beloved, a reinforcing aspect to the city because they are visible and a serious contributor to the future."
With ongoing projects that take him around the world, Libeskind is eager to prove both his and the Ground Zero project's staying power. "People say I should get out of New York, get away from Ground Zero. But I don't want to. I live here. I work here. I see it out of my window each day. I believe in it. Investors will come and go. Politicians come and go. People's emotions come and go. I am here to stay."