Anatomy of a Photo Op: Celebrating a “Historic Collaboration” at the WTC

A sardonic look at the behind-the-scenes politics between developer Larry Silverstein, architect David Childs, & WTC master planner Daniel Libeskind.

Date: July 16, 2003
Place: Ground Zero Gate 7

Purpose: To celebrate a “historic collaboration” between World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein; architect David Childs, of Skidmore Owings & Merrill; and WTC master site planner Daniel Libeskind.

The Cast of Characters (see right): Janno Lieber, EVP World Trade Center Development, Silverstein Properties; Childs; Libeskind; Silverstein; Kevin Rampe, president, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; and Edmond Schorno, Chief of Staff of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Context: The event occurs thirteen hours after a marathon negotiating session puts Childs in charge of the design for the “Freedom Tower,” relegating Libeskind to an advisory role.

Danny’s Demeanor: The air is thick and heavy. Libeskind looks uncharacteristically glum. There is a perverse mathematical equation at play here that does not work to his advantage: Libeskind minus his usual incandescent, 1000-watt smile equals a short, middle-aged man shrouded in black and drenched in July humidity.

Backdrop: Ground Zero is a massive, exhilarating web of construction activity. Work proceeds on the temporary PATH station. Your first impression: Wow, the site is gigantic! Then you do some quick arm-chair urban planning: You place the “world’s tallest building” in the northwest corner of the site (as per Libeskind), reserve a third of it for a memorial, plunk down a transit hub, a cultural center (City Opera, anyone?), three or four (or five, if Silverstein has his way) 50-story office buildings, and—presto—it’s [original competition winner] Beyer Blinder Belle’s hugely unpopular design all over again.

Set Up: Two rows of TV cameras form a semi-circle around the cast, as cameramen bark out directions: “Move closer together!” “Put your arms around each other!” “Smile!” Libeskind becomes animated—it’s Showtime. He stands at the chest-high barrier overlooking the site, between Childs (who is about a foot taller than he is) and Silverstein, who looks like a bobble head doll come to life: an enormous head attached to a skinny, 72-year-old body.

No Questions Please: Reporters begin firing questions. “This is not a press conference,” Rampe says, as the cast ignores the press and grins for the real audience, the TV cameras. Rampe offers the horde a scrap, an innocuous sound bite about “moving forward,” blah, blah, blah. Sensing a dead-end, the reporters turn to Libeskind. “How do you feel about your new role?” “Will you be able to work together with Silverstein and Childs?” “Is your plan dead?” Libeskind steps forward, the boom mics devouring him. He performs a nimble verbal tap dance, avoiding specifics, but promises a “beautiful” building. This is not vintage Libeskind—the poetry is missing—but it’s hot, he was up until three in the morning negotiating, and it will probably sound good enough for Eyewitness News’s seven-second sound bite.

The Money Shot: Childs is asked about how he’ll work with Libeskind. He now steps forward, all arms and legs, a looming presence. “If body language means anything,” he bellows, sounding like one of the world’s best backslappers, “then this says everything!” With that, Childs’s long right arm wraps the diminutive Libeskind in an enveloping clinch; he caps it with the obligatory stage whisper and a shared joke. It is the emblematic image of historic “collaboration” and control.

Categories: Planning