In 2003, Daniel Libeskind won the design competition for the entire World Trade Center memorial site. He was not well known until then, having only built one major building: the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Many of his original designs for specific buildings on the 9/11memorial site have been altered by other architects chosen to build the specific buildings. But Libeskind, 65, remains the master planner of the site. The Jewish Week caught up with him last week.
Q: You recently told The Jerusalem Post that “everything you do is Jewish.” How does your Jewish identity come through in “Memory Foundations,” what you call the Sept. 11 site master plan?
A: One of the fundamental aspects of Judaism is the sanctity of the human soul, and the importance of human life. Judaism stresses memory and renewal. I was raised with a deep appreciation for those ideas and they come through in all my work. When I started to design the original plan for the site, I didn’t think immediately: Let’s create big, glitzy buildings! Instead I first asked myself, How can I create something that balances memory and hope?
Many of the people involved with the Sept. 11 site come from the Jewish art world — Alice Greenwald, the 9/11 museum director, is a former director the Holocaust museum in Washington. One of the members of the memorial design jury was a leading scholar of Holocaust architecture; you’re the son of Holocaust survivors. Is that a coincidence?
No one was chosen because of their ethnicity. But what all these people shared in common was that they all have thought hard about memory. What they all did was connect memory and hope.
Do you see any parallels between the Holocaust and the Sept. 11?
I don’t think we can draw parallels, no. They are two entirely different things. But you can make the connection between the importance of memory to both events.
Several of your other buildings have been for Jewish institutions — the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, most notably. Did you incorporate any specific motifs from those projects into your Sept. 11 designs?
No. This was a unique piece of architecture. Many of the symbols I used for my Sept. 11 designs are specific to the event: the five towers, including the central one [formerly known as the Freedom Tower] were shaped like spirals meant to echo the Statue of Liberty torch; the main tower is still 1,776 feet high, a reference to America’s past; the slurry wall, which prevented the subways and downtown from flooding, have been kept intact and are being incorporated into the museum; my Wedge of Light design on the main plaza creates a window of sunlight, without shadow, each year on Sept. 11 from 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit, until 10:28, when the second tower collapsed.
These elements are significant not just as cute symbols. They refer to the cultural, philosophical and spiritual ground upon which the entire site stands.
Several of your original designs — most famously, the Freedom Tower — were cut, or changed significantly. Are there any elements no longer included that you really miss?
Let me say this on the record: nothing has changed. The master plan has been developed, but many of my specific designs were meant to evolve. That was part of the design: things had to be filled in by other architects.
Are you saying that the press misconstrued what happened?
Yes, yes, yes. The press looked at my original plan, saw that things changed, and said, “Look, none of his projects are being built!” But nothing’s changed; my design was meant to evolve.
For me, anyway, given all the parties involved in the site — developers, politicians, architects — it’s amazing how similar the site plan today is to the original. It’s proof that democracy is the best process. It shows you what’s great about America.
Both your parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland. You immigrated with them to America. What was it like for you, an immigrant, to rebuild what is now an iconic American site?
My parents, they’re not here anymore, but if they were, they would be riding the subway, they’d be in the streets, on the ground. That’s why I focused so much on those parts of the design — the plaza, the entryways, the slurry wall, the things on the ground. That’s where they would have been.
I’ll tell you a true story. When I was first thinking about my design, in November, 2002, the developers invited many of the architects in the competition to go down to Ground Zero. Once we got there, it was raining, and they asked us if we wanted to go all the way down, 70 feet, into the pit of the two towers. “No, no,” everyone said. “We can see it fine from up here.”
But something moved me, I wanted to go down. When I went down I touched the slurry wall and my life changed. This is actually true: at that moment, I saw my mother coming in on a ship from Poland, from the anti-Semitism, I saw myself coming to America. Right then, I called my office and told them, “Stop what you’re doing.” I have the idea for my design.