In two weeks, we will commemorate another anniversary—the twelfth—of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. This particular anniversary is notable because a new building now stands on that long-empty site.
1 World Trade Center, the iconic Ground Zero skyscraper formerly known as the Freedom Tower, this summer became the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere by some measures. It’s not, however, the building that Daniel Libeskind, the site’s master planner, conceived of over a decade ago. In fact, there’s only one remnant of the original design—the building’s height, a symbolic 1,776 feet. Another architect transformed the original plans, and Libeskind has been cut almost entirely out of the process.
I’ve been investigating the political battle behind the rebuilding effort since it began, over a decade ago, and have just published a book on the topic, “Battle for Ground Zero.” Libeskind is one of the story’s most dramatic characters. At first, the exile inspired Libeskind to lash out in frustration: he launched a public-relations offensive and filed a lawsuit. “I am the people’s architect!” he was known to declare. But as the opening of 1 World Trade Center approaches, a curious thing has happened. Libeskind has quietly transformed into one of the site’s most ardent boosters.
Libeskind, sixty-seven years old, is unlike other downtown decision-makers. He dresses almost exclusively in black, from his cowboy boots to his thick, square-framed glasses. As one victim’s family member memorably put it, in an interview with the Times, Libeskind is “that magical little guy with the black pants, black shoes, black socks, black belt, black shirt and black glasses.” He talks in a free-form, stream-of-conscious manner, hands in motion, peppering his soliloquies with references to Baudelaire, or to the history of the Eiffel Tower, or to the beauty of the New York Street grid. Libeskind considers himself an artist.
In September of 2002, he had been running an architecture studio in Berlin when he entered a competition to design a master plan for the World Trade Center site. At the time, commercially develop on the site was controversial. Two months earlier, at an enormous town-hall meeting called “Listening to the City,” the public had overwhelmingly rejected several sets of master plans, in part because people said that they put too many office buildings on a now sacred, historic piece of land. But Larry Silverstein, the site’s developer, along with Governor George Pataki and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, wanted to rebuild all of Silverstein’s destroyed office space—ten million square feet. After their first failure, officials in charge of the rebuilding plan seemed to feel that a high-profile, international design competition would help people imagine a future World Trade Center site and grow more excited about office buildings.
Libeskind was technically not competing to design the site’s individual buildings. But during the competition, officials instructed the would-be planners to design buildings to help illustrate, and sell, their master plans. Libeskind came up with a sharp-angled skyscraper, topped with a twisting spire. He won. Pataki named the skyscraper the Freedom Tower.
The conditions of Libeskind’s appointment were slippery, however. Officially, the competition was for the site’s master planner: that is, for an architect to map the sixteen-acre site, to find the right location not only for the commercial towers but also for a train station, memorial, and museum. Libeskind believed his mandate was to create “a space for people, not just corporations.”
Because Libeskind had designed buildings for the competition, many people expected—reasonably—that they would one day be built. The catch was that there was no guarantee that the architecture from the master-plan competition would be built; it was intended to get people excited about a master plan. As the leaseholder, Silverstein owned the right to hire whichever architect he wanted, and he didn’t want Libeskind. In fact, by the time Libeskind had won, Silverstein had already hired David Childs, an architect at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, to design the site’s iconic skyscraper.
After the competition, Libeskind, Silverstein, and Childs held a series of tense negotiations; eventually, Libeskind ceded the position of architect of the Freedom Tower to Childs, agreeing instead to “meaningfully collaborate” on the project. (A 2003 profile of Libeskind examines this critical moment in the rebuilding.) But Libeskind hardly retreated. After Childs took over the Freedom Tower, Libeskind sent some architects over to Childs’s firm to keep tabs on the design. That angered the firm; its architects didn’t like being watched. Upon learning that Childs had increased the size of the building, partly to create more marketable office space, and shortened Libeskind’s asymmetrical spire, Libeskind appealed directly to Pataki, convincing him that honoring the master plan meant keeping his 1,776 foot height and distinctive top. Pataki called Childs from Bermuda, where he was vacationing at a house owned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and implored him to make the adjustments. (Childs initially honored Pataki’s requests, but in 2005, after the New York Police Department demanded changes to make the building safer, he returned to a short, straight spire, leaving only Libeskind’s symbolic height unchanged.)
Separately, Libeskind sued Larry Silverstein in July of 2004, seeking more than eight hundred thousand dollars of unpaid fees for his early work on Freedom Tower. Compared with the four-billion-dollar price tag for the entire project, this was a small sum, but it was symbolic. Silverstein initially argued that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had compensated Libeskind in full. A few months later, in October of 2004, they case settled for the diminished sum of three hundred and seventy thousand dollars.
Soon after that, Libeskind began a gradual turnaround on 1 World Trade Center. (The building will be home to The New Yorker and its parent company, Condé Nast, starting in 2015.) He stopped badmouthing Silverstein and Childs. He stopped complaining to the governor. He repaired relationships with past enemies: “Our connection has really grown over time,” Janno Lieber, President of World Trade Center Properties, told me. When Childs redesigned the Freedom Tower, in 2005, in response to the police department’s requests, Libeskind actually released a statement describing the new building as “even better than the tower we had before.” In September of 2006, when Silverstein unveiled the designs for his three remaining towers at Ground Zero, Libeskind attended the press conference and smiled for photographers.
In conversations with friends and colleagues, Libeskind took to discussing his World Trade Center site master plan rather than his discarded Freedom Tower design. He did the same when I talked with him last fall—an approach, it seemed, that allowed him to focus on his successes at the site rather than his failures. Libeskind said that he was pleased that one aspect of his original building design remains intact—the symbolic height—but wouldn’t talk much about 1 World Trade Center, preferring instead to celebrate the entire sixteen-acre site more generally. “[It is] a moving space, a space that doesn’t shift New York to a pessimistic register, where there’s an imbalance, where people feel sad, but a space that has fantastic character,” Libeskind told me. “It’s a total transformation, as I actually envisioned it, and as I think New Yorkers wanted it to be.” (One element that distinguished Libeskind’s entry in the competition was the way that he integrated commemorative features with practical elements—putting the train station next to the memorial plaza, for instance.)
Rick Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects and a friend of Libeskind’s, said that he believes the architect probably remains displeased, privately, that he lost the Freedom Tower to Childs. “I know he has disappointments,” Bell said. But Bell believes that Libeskind eventually abandoned the hope of being an architect for any of the site’s buildings and “took the long-term view.”
Libeskind’s transformation may be somewhat self-serving. Being the site’s master planner has been good for him, likely helping to bring new commissions his way. Embracing his role, however compromised, has likely aided the Libeskind brand—a perk to which even an artist is not immune.
It’s also possible that it has become more awkward for Libeskind to criticize the building as the public’s views of David Child’s 1 World Trade Center have appeared, in recent years, to gradually shift in its favor. Child’s building looks like a conventional New York skyscraper, particularly when compared to Libeskind’s original; instead of sharp angles and asymmetries, 1 World Trade Center features a wide, concrete base, designed to protect against future attack, and a more traditional profile. For a long time, many critics complained that the building failed to meet the expectations for amazing architecture at Ground Zero. But lately, more critics appear to be softening their judgment. “Surprisingly, [it] pleases me to see it rising, even though it’s not a great building,” Kurt Andersen, a novelist and former architecture critic, told Vanity Fair this summer. “And the fact that it’s taken more than a decade to finish, I think—the gradualism—makes that sense of emblematic rebirth more acute and irresistible.”
When I pressed him to discuss the building’s architecture last fall, Libeskind steered the conversation to a discussion of the broader site. He also downplayed the conflicts of the past, saying he knew all along that being the site’s master planner did not entitle him to design the site’s five skyscrapers, including the Freedom Tower. “I never thought I would build this whole project,” Libeskind said with a characteristic wave of his hand. “I would have to be an insane mad man to think I am building all of these buildings.” Libeskind said that Childs’s redesign of his building was part of the inevitable process of design. “That’s the evolution of architecture,” he said. “You don’t come up with a picture and say, ‘This is going to be built.’” He was always prepared to compromise, he said.
Last week, I asked a spokesman for Silverstein whether the 2004 settlement with Libeskind included a clause disallowing Libeskind from badmouthing Silverstein, Childs, or the project. “Absolutely not,” he said. Libeskind’s wife and business partner, Nina, told me that as far as she could remember, there was no such clause, adding, “Daniel was never asked to withhold his opinion about the design of the building.” Libeskind’s office declined to check the settlement, which has never been made public, to confirm this recollection. Nina described the couple’s relationship with Silverstein as “an evolution.” She told me, “There may have been different opinions and disagreements, but once things were sorted out, we decided to move on.”
Libeskind said that his evolution was triggered by a simple realization: he went from fighting to collaborating because he realized that he needed to work within the existing system—that is, the more-or-less democratic process of rebuilding the site. “I was always in it, fighting for what I think was right,” he said. “But in the end I think, as Churchill said, there is no better system. It might be horrible,” he continued, but “as tough as it is, it brings something forward.”
Elizabeth Greenspan is the author of “Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Daniel Libeskind was commissioned to design the extension to the Denver Art Museum and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco after he won a competition in 2003 to create a master plan for the World Trade Center. Libeskind was selected to design the extension to the Denver Art Museum in 2000 and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in 1998.
Photograph by Timur Emek/AP.
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