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Interview With Ground Zero Architect Daniel Libeskind - 2003-03-23

After months of high-stakes design competitions and often impassioned public debate, a working plan has finally been approved for Ground Zero, the terrorist-scarred site in New York City where the World Trade Center towers once stood. The building complex that will replace the towers is the brainchild of a 56-year-old Polish-American architect named Daniel Libeskind.

Raised in the Bronx, New York, Mr. Libeskind is famous for his use of unconventional crystalline forms, evident in his recently completed Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. Libeskind's design for the Ground Zero site includes several commercial buildings, ll shorter than 70 stories tall, as well cultural centers, a transportation hub, and an office tower whose soaring height, 572 meters, or 1,776 feet pays homage to the 1776 birthdate of American independence.

Daniel Libeskind spoke with VOA's Adam Phillips by telephone from his office in Berlin - he'll soon be moving his firm to New York - and explained his vision for one of the most important and closely-watched pieces of real estate in modern American history.

Libeskind: "I hope it will provide a very beautiful environment, a very moving environment and inspiring environment, whether you are just a commuter going to work and then coming back home at night, whether you are a family living in the neighborhood, or whether you are a visitor coming to the memorial site, [I hope] that it will be uplifting, that it will be inspiring, that it would be an eternal testament to the heroes of 9-11, and at the same time an affirmation of everything we believe in and everything that is the future of the world."
Phillips: "Tell me about how the slurry wall will work and the memorial and all that. What are you shooting for [intending] there?"
Libeskind: "Well, I was very moved when I walked around the site with millions of New Yorkers and trying to fathom and grasp what had happened on that site. And then, when I walked into the site itself, not only the indelible footprints of the towers were there, but something really amazing, which were the foundation walls, the so-called slurry walls, which are the foundation that protect that site from being flooded by the Hudson River. So they withstood that attack. And to me they are as eloquent as our Constitution in testifying to individual worth, individual value and the power of and strength of our democracy. And so I retained them. They are also something that speaks right from the bedrock of New York to its future in the skies. It is something that is so moving. But [the walls are] also a kind of miracle of construction. Not only were the towers a miracle of height, but the foundation that supported the entire edifice - and continues to support it is really a miracle of construction. So I wanted the public, the citizens, to be aware of where they are standing. It really is a sacred ground, a spiritual space."

For Mr. Libeskind, the physical descent to the memorial will be integral to the experience of the sacred space itself.

Libeskind: "It takes a long time. You go by ramp, it takes a while to get down there. And then when you get down 30 feet [about 10 meters] below, you see those foundation walls which still stand, you no longer hear the cars, you don't hear the traffic, you are in a space which will be developed as the Park of Memory with works of art, with all sort of possibilities. With even a great wall of light which will be bringing light into the transportation system which is down below the site."
Phillips: "It's interesting when you talk about the slurry wall, how the present and the past and the future sort of melt into each other. There aren't such absolute boundaries between these different modes, [such] as we are used to with more classical memorials and heroic architecture."
Libeskind: "Well, memory is part of everyday life. But on this site it's so powerful. And yet memory that gives you hope and gives you the light of day and makes you go forward in optimistic and creative ways. That's what New York is about. And I think that's what the site is. We will remember the heroes who fell on the site eternally. But we will also show that New York is second to no city. It is a capital of the world, and it [the site] will have that vigor and reaffirmation of life, activity, commerce [and] culture that it really deserves."
Phillips: "All the American press has been praising you not only for your architectural abilities but also for your political acumen. There is a hell of a lot that has to happen before this thing actually gets built!"
Libeskind: "There are many stakeholders. There is the Port Authority of New York. There is the City of New York. There is the State of New York. There are federal monies involved in this. There are private investors. And one has to remember that, at the end, it's not just about retail and office buildings and the stations and all the money that will be spent on the site. This site belongs to every single New Yorker. And every American! This site belongs to them, and every free person in the world who has a good heart also has the site in their heart. So the site belongs to everyone. And, as such, I think one has to deal with the complexity and the wide range of emotional responses that have to be addressed by the architecture and the plan. It's a civic art - architecture and urban design at this scale. This is not a private activity that one can indulge in a studio with some drawings and models. This is right in the middle of the marketplace. And I think what makes a great democratic capital like New York a pluralistic city with heterogeneous interests is precisely that one has to navigate and reconcile all sorts of different aspects of the site and different stakeholders. It is the art of negotiation, and compromise. Of course, in the end, the site and the buildings have to preserve their integrity ethical, architectural and urban - of what the design stands for. And I fully intend to do that over the next years."
Phillips: "Yes. New York is a tough town. You're going to have to really be able to stand firm as well as to give."
Libeskind: "You've got to remember: I'm from the Bronx and I grew up in the Bronx. My parents were working people. I never thought of the world in an elitist way. It's where the people are, and the energy of New York and its creativity. I am sure that the design will undergo evolution. And it always gets better! I think a design that evolves is always better than a design that didn't evolve!"

Daniel Libeskind is the Polish-American architect whose plan for the rebuilding of New York's Ground Zero site was approved late last month.