No Lack of Rhetoric at WTC Designers’ Panel

On September 18, the AIA New York chapter presented a panel discussion, “Design: Ground Zero,” as part of the Learning from Lower Manhattan weekend. The panel brought together—for the first time—the site master planner Daniel Libeskind, memorial designer Michael Arad, and PATH station architect Santiago Calatrava. Leonard Lopate, host of an eponymous show on WNYC, moderated the discussion.

AIA New York chapter president Rick Bell kicked off the session, saying that the event was an attempt to “get beyond the rhetoric and confusion” that has plagued the reconstruction process from the beginning. Perhaps his expectations were too high; by the end of the panel it seemed that Libeskind had only sunk further and further into his almost unintelligible freedom-centric optimism, while Arad demonstrated how he had been schooled in the fine arts of evasive speech in the months since his selection. Even Calatrava was, to his own admission, fairly “peripatetic” in his responses.

Daniel Libeskind spoke first of his master plan, couched in the words we have so far come to expect from the downtrodden architect. He spoke eloquently, and typically, about freedom, history, New York, Ground Zero. “9/11 was not just a disaster that afflicted Lower Manhattan,” he said. “It was an attack against democracy.” He rounded off his opening introduction by saying, “This is not business as usual.” From the signs to come, it was.

Arad attempted to load a PowerPoint slideshow, to absolutely no avail. He remained in good spirits, making jokes to alleviate the tension. “They didn’t tell me I’d be doing stand up,” he said, as he moved from an officious position behind the podium to a fireside-chat-like stance in front of the table.

Eventually, with some help from the hosts, his slideshow loaded. It was a studio review-like presentation reminiscent of his very first public appearance at Federal Hall, where he and Peter Walker unveiled their collaborative design for the memorial. Arad gave great insight into his design mentality for the project, stating “Bedrock is something that wasn’t too important to me at the beginning of design” (fighting words in front of Libeskind), then displaying a rough sketch marking space for what he termed the “unidentified remains room,” which, through the Ground Zero PR system, had become known as the much-more-PC “family room.”

Santiago Calatrava then took the stage and drew on the easel, reminiscent of his own PATH station unveiling in January, and waxed rhapsodic about the daylight that would ideally penetrate 60 feet below street level into the station. He accompanied his words with beautiful, but imprecise, renderings of his design.

Then it got interesting.

As the panelists settled down for the discussion, Lopate pointed out that this was the first time the three of them had appeared together, then noted David Childs’ absence. Arad deferentially passed the first question “to my elders,” after which Lopate straightforwardly asked Daniel Libeskind to verify the rumor that a version of the original design for the Freedom Tower was going to be erected in Europe. No one is really sure what question Libeskind answered with his response, but it certainly wasn’t the one asked. “All’s well that ends well,” he said cheerily.

The surrealism of the panel was heightened when Lopate asked, jokingly, if any of these designers who spoke so eloquently about the meaning of America had been born in the U.S. “This is New York,” responded the Israeli-born Arad, then referred to Jerusalem as home. He described living downtown—in the East Village, which is not quite on the edges of the WTC pit—as part of what made the events at Ground Zero have particular resonance for him.

Libeskind jumped in, saying that “confirmation of the success of the master plan is the consensus of stakeholders,” to which Lopate responded, “I heard you were horrified when Arad was chosen.” Libeskind countered with an absolute and unequivocal “No!”: a politically savvy response, but unfortunately not backed up by the prevailing wisdom of Ground Zero trainspotters.

When asked why he had eliminated the cultural buildings, Arad—with an atypical savvy— responded, “The guidelines were in the principle, the street grid was a cue. The cultural buildings were an issue.” Perhaps he’s been taking notes from Libeskind. The discussion continued until Libeskind piped up with, “It is very important not to reduce music to a single note.”

The kicker of the day, however, was one of Libeskind’s closing statements: “The camel was not designed by committee. It was designed by God.” It was an oddly fitting end to a talk where, again, none of the panelists moved beyond rhetoric and confusion.

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