A Towering Vision for New York

Daniel Libeskind's Ground Zero design evokes both tragedy and the city's resilience

From a practical point of view, the Jewish Museum in Berlin has a few problems. For one thing, it doesn't have enough bathrooms, and its zigzag walls are a curator's nightmare. But the building, which suggests a distended Star of David, is aesthetically eloquent. Haunting and stark, it is at once an emotional work--a tribute to Jewish life in Germany and a Holocaust memorial--and a cutting-edge piece of architecture. And it resonates with the public: A million people have visited since the museum officially opened about a year and a half ago, making it the second most popular in the German capital after the Pergamon, which houses the Altar of Zeus from the Greek temple. "If it were an ordinary building, a box with square walls and good light, we wouldn't get that many visitors," says W. Michael Blumenthal, director of the Jewish Museum. "A significant number come to see the building."

The success of the Jewish Museum brought Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind so much acclaim that when New York City authorities solicited proposals to rebuild the World Trade Center site, they specifically asked him to participate. Libeskind, who is the child of Holocaust survivors and emigrated to New York when he was 13, is now one of two finalists; a decision on how officials will proceed should be announced by the end of February.

The widespread praise of what was actually his first commission has also led to numerous other high-profile projects around the world for his Studio Daniel Libeskind. The architect who gave the Jewish Museum a Garden of Exile to symbolize the diaspora has shown he can also design retail space, even gas stations. While many of his assignments have been museums, such as extensions of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Denver Art Museum, he is also designing a concert hall in Bremen, Germany, a convention center in Tel Aviv, and shopping centers in Germany and Switzerland.

In part because of this unexpected growth, Libeskind, 56, typically forms joint ventures with local architectural firms to build his projects. His partner and wife, Nina, oversees these relationships. She describes the process this way: "First the partner comes to us, we bond, then we send out a team to the partner's office." The two firms divide the work and the proceeds 50-50. The studio, which employs about 130 people around the world, has averaged about $12 million to $14 million in revenues over the past few years, she says.

If New York officials decide to proceed with Libeskind's design, however revamped, other architects will certainly be involved: Someone else would conceive the memorial itself as well as major parts of the project, such as the office buildings. "It has to be done by many different architects. That's the way New York was built," says Libeskind. Either way, he and his wife (and the youngest of their three children) will return to New York, the city he considers home, and open an office there, a move they had planned months earlier.

Even though the WTC is 100 times the size of the 120,000-square-foot Jewish Museum, both pose a similar conceptual problem: The buildings must confront tragedy and trauma yet still project a vibrancy and resilience. Unlike many of the other plans, which focus on the skyline, Libeskind's Memory Foundations grows out of the 70-foot-deep excavation site at Ground Zero. "Many of the designs depend on the one grand gesture," Libeskind says. "But they did not really address the issues that go beyond architecture--social issues, how cities really evolve....You have to start from the bottom up. Quite literally, that's what I did." His design would preserve the entire vast concrete basin dredged from the Hudson River, which was the foundation for both towers, as a place of quiet and meditation. A museum would provide a "filter" between the commercial activity and the "hallowed ground" below. A curved promenade would allow visitors to view the site from above.

A cluster of towers, with facades and roofs angling toward Ground Zero, would offer some 7.4 million square feet of office space, about 70% of what was lost. The tallest of the towers, rising to 1,776 feet, would be largely symbolic, given over mostly to whole floors of gardens, "because they are a constant affirmation of life," Libeskind says. He also allows for residential construction on the perimeter, about 1,750 new apartments, as well as ample retail, performance, and park space. The plan, though, will likely be modified so that construction doesn't extend as deep as he envisioned. The project must "accommodate bustling life all around and the optimism of New York, not just looking back," says Libeskind, who shares finalist honors with the New York-based group known as THINK. That proposal includes two towers of steel lattice that would rise 1,665 feet.

Designing the new World Trade Center would mark another step in Libeskind's transition from architecture historian and writer to leading practitioner. Libeskind, who was born in Poland, recalls arriving aboard a ship named the Constitution and sailing past the Statue of Liberty: "When you're coming as an immigrant, that whole weight of history, of the freedoms that are possible--it's something miraculous," he says.

Today, while he's every bit the chic international architect in a black shirt, black pants, and black-rimmed glasses, Libeskind is an unabashed patriot. His WTC presentation begins and concludes with a picture of the Statue of Liberty. Libeskind studied architecture at New York's prestigious Cooper Union, and before winning the Jewish Museum commission in 1989, he had taught at most of the world's best architecture schools. But it was only with the museum that he put theory into practice.

The Jewish Museum was probably as good a preparation for rebuilding the World Trade Center as anyone could have had. Libeskind spent a decade battling philistines, budget cuts, and bureaucrats to construct the zinc-clad structure. Although his design won a high-profile competition, "nobody expected it to be built," he says. The city of Berlin was broke and even canceled the project at one point. Libeskind attributes the museum's success to his decision in 1989 to move to Berlin and oversee the project personally. As Blumenthal says, "Libeskind is a pretty good politician." The architect is proud that the $40 million building was under budget, too. At one point, Libeskind had hoped to include slanted walls. After a top Berlin official argued it would be too expensive, Libeskind gave in: The idea, while interesting, wasn't essential.

Certainly, plenty of controversy and politics swirl around the WTC site. Although the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. selected the two finalists, the land is actually owned by the Port Authority, which is headed by the governors of New York and New Jersey. The Twin Towers, however, had been leased to developer Larry Silverstein, who has indicated he doesn't like any of the plans. All of the parties will be involved in the final decision. The city's citizens have some ideas, too: Libeskind has received hundreds of e-mails about his design, not all supportive. He says he answers every one--for now, anyway. Then there is the matter of money: Both proposals would run in the billions, and there will be great pressure to scale them back. Given all of these constraints, the two designs are perhaps best thought of as "inspirational guidelines," says Rick Bell, the executive director of the American Institute of Architects' New York Chapter.

As with the Jewish Museum, Libeskind approached the Trade Center competition by studying history. Before designing the museum, he read Nazi files on residents from the surrounding neighborhood who were deported to concentration camps. For the Trade Center, Libeskind, who became a U.S. citizen in 1965, reread the Declaration of Independence (hence the 1,776-foot tower) and fiction about New York by 19th century authors such as Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. He says his proposal aims to "create a dense and exhilarating affirmation of New York," of the kind Whitman portrayed in Leaves of Grass. That sense of the city's past could well help him play an important role in its future.

By Jack Ewing in Berlin, with Robert McNatt in New York

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