A Conversation With Daniel Libeskind

On Thursday February 20, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with World Trade Center site design finalist Daniel Libeskind. His plan for Ground Zero exposes the foundations of the original twin towers.



Gotham Gazette:
Welcome everyone, and thanks for coming. Today we are talking to Daniel Libeskind, a finalist in the competition to design Ground Zero.

GG:
Good morning, Mr. Libeskind (or good afternoon, as you are joining us from Germany!)

GG:
The New York Times reported today that rebuilding officials, as well as Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki, favor your design for the World Trade Center site. Why do you think that there is this apparent strong support?

Daniel Libeskind:
Because we have reached a balance between history, memory, revitalization and the future.

GG:
What do you mean specifically? How does your plan address these four things?

DL:
Revealing the slurry walls retains the memory and does not erase history. Revitalization is met by activating the street level and attaining heights and densities which speak to the future.

GG:
Your plan memorializes the September 11 attacks in many ways. Can you describe the design’s different features and the meanings behind them?

DL:
The first element is the Wedge of Light. A public space created by the sun angles on September 11 between the time the first tower was hit and the second tower collapsed. Every September 11 no shadow will fall on that public space. Park of Heroes is a park dedicated to all those who lost their lives on September 11. Third, the space of the memorial preserves the footprints, preserves the slurry wall and provides a generous space for the memorial competition. In order to repair the skyline and affirm life we are proposing an immediate building which will be a modification of the Gardens of the World Tower.

GG:
savethewtc asks, "Mr. Libeskind, thank you for all your dedication in this project. Regarding the rebuilding of the WTC site, there are some who support rebuilding tall to at least the height of the old WTC, and others who may fear to work at such heights. What are your personal thoughts on rebuilding to such heights and what do you tell people that fear of working so high?"

DL:
I think that currently there is an immense fear of working as high as people worked before. In my scheme we will balance that fear with the obvious need for higher heights and densities. There is an equal desire on many people's part to build taller than even before. But there is the reality that somebody has to commercially develop these buildings.

GG:
Why do you think there is an obvious need for higher heights?

DL:
There is a dramatic and urgent need to repair the skyline. I do not believe that two skeletons in the sky asserts the vitality of New York or the courage of America. I do believe that a distinctive and economically viable skyline has to be built.

GG:
Are you saying that the Think plan looks like two skeletons in the sky? Compare your plan to the other finalists. What do you believe your plan does better for the site?

DL:
Our scheme puts cultural life and retail and commercial life on the streets. A balance has to be reached between the memorial site and the activities of a bustling and active city life. We have formed a cultural nexus at the intersections of Greenwich and Fulton streets and will provide dense retail activity on the street level connected to the underground.

GG:
You are implying by your answer that the THINK plan is only two towers. But weren't those just meant to be the anchors to attract commercial and business development?

DL:
We have provided an attractor to that site by proposing the memorial site, the slurry walls, the cultural nexus, and the reintegrated city street grid. Surrounding this we will provide the space for flexible commercial development.

GG:
Peter Fegan asks, "What kind of message do you think leaving an open grave site in the middle of the World Trade Center sends not only to our city, but to terrorists around the world?"

DL:
We have been asked to look at the nature and atmosphere of the memorial site. Far from an open grave, the memorial site will prove to be an attractive, contemplative, and spiritual space. It reveals the heroic foundation of the slurry walls which withstood the incredible trauma of the attack. I do believe that one must preserve a space which will allow people to think, experience and reflect on the enormity of the tragedy.

GG:
Officials have said that both of the finalist plans will need to be modified before they choose one design. We have two questions about this:

Neil O asks, "The 1776 foot tall tower is amazing. Please don't get forced into decreasing the height. We need something to redefine the skyline and that tower is it. Do you plan to change that at all?"

savethewtc asks, "Mr. Libeskind, it has been said that the slurry walls may be unable to be exposed. If this is the case, your proposal will be significantly changed, how will your team respond to this change?"

DL:
We have no intention to decrease the height of any building. Beyond that we are not allowed to discuss the immediate tasks we have been given by the LMDC and the Port Authority since they have placed a strict embargo on our work. I can well assure you that the slurry walls will be visible and seen. The modification we have been asked to review will not in any way diminish our core ideas.

GG:
When will we know what the altered plans will look like?

DL:
When the LMDC and the Port Authority release them to the public.

GG:
Your design preserves the seven-acre hole where the twin towers stood, called the "bathtub," for a memorial 70 feet below ground level. The Times recently reported that rebuilding officials have asked you to change your design in order to make room for a bus parking garage and the PATH station. But many victims’ family members say that the entire 70-foot pit is sacred ground and should not be used for transportation infrastructure. How will you accommodate both of these views?

DL:
It is our understanding that the families are concerned about security issues. The path station is already being built. It has always been there and the tracks cover the south footprint. There is no possibility for the path train to be moved. The transportation infrastructure can be accommodated.

GG:
Community Gardener: "Mr. Libeskind - I'm talking now as someone who worked in the WTC during the first bombing in '93 & lost several friends on 9/11. My father-in-law was a construction worker on the original WTC, his last job before he retired. He and other craftsman said that the earlier building was rapidly and poorly constructed because of the exo-skeletal design? How do you plan to design your buildings with greater structural safety?"

DL:
It is correct that the original WTC Towers were not constructed to the more stringent rules and regulations that apply today. There is an entire family and community group that has made it their tasks to lobby for buildings built by the Port Authority to be at the highest standard. There is no possibility that either I or any other responsible architect would conceivably build high rise buildings without the latest structural and mechanical knowledge. That includes the knowledge of enclosed elevator cores, stair cores, egress and access, all of which can be engineered to a higher degree of safety.

GG:
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation will soon be conducting a separate competition for a memorial. Yet your design has many memorial spaces and, with its exposed hole where the Twin Towers stood, interprets how we should remember the attack. How might a separate memorial design fit in with your plan for Ground Zero?

DL:
What I am providing is the outline of a memorial site. It includes the memorial site, the footprints, the September 11th Plaza, and the walls around the site. This allows for not only a two dimensional space but a three dimensional one for the memorial competition. I have simply indicated the parameters of the site without any design included. Whatever memorial is chosen will be done by the jury designated.

GG:
Robert Beecher asks, "Do you personally plan on entering the memorial competition, or are you prohibited from entering?"

DL:
Simply put if I win then I shall work closely with whom ever wins the competition. If I lose, then I will have to think about it!

GG:
What is the cost of your World Trade Center site plan, and do you think that there will be enough money to build it?

DL:
Our WTC plan has been cost estimated at between 220 and 320 million dollars. It is considered the bargain basement of all the schemes in the competition. I believe there will be more then enough money for this scheme.

GG:
Do you think that is one reason that your plan is the frontrunner? Because of its cost?

DL:
I cannot comment on that. Certainly I have tried to be economically responsible to the client and to the people of New York who have to pay for this.

GG:
Do you have an idea of how much of your plan would be paid for with private vs. public money?

DL:
Clearly the office towers will be developed by private developers and investors. And clearly the below ground infrastructure will be paid for by FEMA money administered by the Port Authority and the LMDC. The above ground public spaces, including roads and parks, will be paid for with public funds. And obviously cultural institutions, like a performing art center and a museum, will be paid for by public funds with some private donations.

GG:
GSD asks, "What role is the "winner" likely to play when economics and the realities of real estate finance come into play? How could you or another architect ensure that the integrity of the architectural vision is not compromised?"

DL:
As an architect who has had the good fortune to build primarily public projects, I believe that one of the most important roles is to be a strong and persuasive advocate. I believe that the urban idea has to be strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of both developers and politicians.

GG:
Philip Nobel, in a Nation article, said that "the shaken should look elsewhere [besides architecture] for solace." Are people investing too much hope that the aesthetics of architecture will heal the city or provide solutions?

DL:
I would respectfully disagree. I believe architecture to be a communicative public art that tells a story, not just of its own making, but much more importantly the story of its context.

GG:
Bessie asks, "I don't know if this question has been asked but do you believe there are some "fundamental flaws" in the program - in the sense that is there a new kind of program, more process oriented, that can foster a new approach to place making and city building in the 21st century?"

DL:
I have participated in countless competitions. This one has proven to be the most open minded and civically driven that I have ever experienced. There is no doubt that the difficulties inherent in this process have been due to the uniqueness of the tragedy and of the depth of the response needed. No matter what the result, as an American and a New Yorker I have felt privileged and honored to be part of it.

GG:
Thanks for coming today, Mr. Libeskind.

DL:
Thank you for the opportunity.


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