In early 2003, architect Daniel Libeskind’s “Memory Foundations” design was selected as the master plan for the 16-acre World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. But since that triumphant moment, nothing has proved easy for Libeskind or for the site itself. There have been endless arguments over the form and meaning of ground zero, highlighted by Libeskind’s own very public tussle with architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whom World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein selected to design the site’s tallest tower. At times, Libeskind seemed to have little influence at all over what was happening at ground zero. But in this interview, he maintains that the core ideas of his master plan have informed what is being built, most notably the memorial that opens to the public on Sept. 12, 2011. Those ideas included a cluster of towers that would spiral upward to a height of 1,776 feet (evoking the year of the Declaration of Independence) and an excavated pit that would invite visitors to journey down to the bedrock beneath the twin towers. The following is an edited transcript:
Tribune: You reportedly were horrified when Michael Arad’s design in 2004 was chosen as the winner of the memorial competition, because it made significant departures from your master plan — replacing your open pit, for instance, with a ground-level plaza punctuated by reflecting pools that recalled the footprints of the twin towers. Now the question is what you think of the finished memorial. Do you embrace it, reject it or have mixed feelings about it?
Libeskind: I definitely embrace it. I think it’s a very creative and profound interpretation of the idea of the master plan. The memorial is a new civic center that commemorates and also creates a new meaning for the site. … My idea in the master plan was that this was a place of the spirit. This is where people perished. It was not a piece of real estate any longer. You could not put a building there. I had really emphasized the depth, the three-dimensionality of the pit. Michael Arad interpreted it in a very good way by providing continuity on the street level and by sinking the footprints down deep and creating the idea that the museum is part of the underground. He also kept the (master plan’s) idea of the waterfalls and did it his own way.
Tribune: I don’t recall waterfalls in the master plan.
Libeskind: There was a large (waterfall) in the center of the master plan…It’s very important to have water on the site in terms of bringing nature to the site and fighting the urban heat island effect.
Tribune: Are you disappointed that the finished product isn’t turning out exactly as you had envisioned?
Libeskind: As a master planner, I understood that what is important is the interpretation. I didn’t want to create a shackle for the designers. I wanted to give a creative space for people to work creatively with their own interpretation. …I don’t want to minimize there were challenges with Larry (Silverstein). I think that’s the nature of creating a work of this scale.
Tribune: Your master plan was appealing because it so effectively balanced the commemorative and the commercial, remembrance and renewal. Will the plan ultimately achieve that balance?
Libeskind: I absolutely believe that. … Almost half of this 16-acre site is public space. It’s about culture, it’s about the street, the nature of the atmosphere that you have there. It’s very inspiring, I think, as you walk around and see the elements come together. In the museum, you can really get a complete sense of going down to the depths, of bedrock. This is something that cannot be simulated with videos of TV or any new media. It’s really a visceral encounter with this piece of New York.
Tribune: What are your thoughts about Peter Walker’s landscape design for the memorial?
Libeskind: I think the landscape is very beautiful. It has trees (that soften Arad’s stark original plaza design) and creates places where people can sit. … It’s full of symbols and also full of the liveliness which a plan of this scale has to have. I think we will see something emerging that really feels inspiring, which changes one’s view of this tragic event. (The issue was:) How do you create a plan that doesn’t shift New York to sadness but has a kind of civic quality, a symbolic quality that is positive.