Daniel Libeskind: The Return Of Ground Zero's Master Planner

NEW YORK -- A few years ago, it seemed as if Daniel Libeskind was down for the count here at ground zero.

The commission for the Freedom Tower, now 1 World Trade Center, was taken away from him after years of disputes with David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Michael Arad, the designer of the National September 11 Memorial, scuttled Libeskind's plan to sink the memorial below ground. And there seemed to be almost no progress on the entire World Trade Center site, for which Libeskind had designed the master plan.

As Libeskind put it in an interview with The Huffington Post at his studio, it was almost as if he had won "a ticket to oblivion" when he won the master-plan competition. "I had to answer some tough questions: How do you get a plan implemented? How do you get a building built?"

No matter his critics, Libeskind managed to answer those questions. He got his plan implemented -- at least in broad strokes -- and he realized that it might be easier to get buildings built if someone else was designing them. Now, after a decade of squabbling among the architects, developers, government officials, and others involved in rebuilding ground zero, there is suddenly plenty of praise to go around for Libeskind and his plan and the role he played in helping to organize what just might be the world's most complex construction project.

But for all that the last 10 years of his life have been defined by Lower Manhattan, when Libeskind woke up on Sept. 11, 2001, his mind was focused entirely on Europe.

He put on his signature all-black outfit and glasses and thought about the last 13 years of his life. How he had suddenly become a practicing architect, suffered setbacks and won praise, all in an effort to build the Jewish Museum Berlin. And then, just hours after the first tourists started pouring into the museum, at 2:30 in the afternoon, word reached him that the Twin Towers in Manhattan had collapsed. "I turned to all my colleagues," Libeskind recalled, "and I do not know where it came from, but I said, 'I'm returning to Lower Manhattan.'"

The Bronx-raised Libeskind went back to New York a few weeks later and is still here. In the 10 years that have passed he has become as important and controversial and perhaps divisive a figure in the rebuilding of Ground Zero as any other designer. And his involvement in the project began because of a scheduling mistake.

Libeskind, who had been invited by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to serve as a juror reviewing master-plan entries, found himself unable to attend an important meeting for the project because of a speaking engagement. He chose to drop off the jury and instead submit his own master plan.

"It was about my deep emotion, my concern, that this site not be treated as a piece of real estate," Libeskind explained. "It is sacred."

Libeskind's plan was always first and foremost about the memorial to the victims of the terrorist attacks. He proposed 70-foot-deep openings that would reveal the foundations of the original towers, with a museum surrounding those footprints. And he understood the importance of restoring the street grid to the area and eliminating the 35-foot-tall streetless superblock that had plagued the original World Trade Center.

With half the 16-acre site allocated to public space, Libeskind designed a set of towers to fill out the rest of the land. Whatever one thinks of his decision to call for the Freedom Tower -- now 1 World Trade Center -- to stand precisely 1,776 feet tall, the suggestion for the various other office towers to get shorter as they wrap around the memorial was a wise one.

And at that conceptual level -- the massing and siting of the buildings, of the memorial, of the new streets -- it's remarkable how similar Libeskind's master plan is to what will actually be built on the site when major construction ends in 2015 or 2016.

"It's definitely my scheme," Libeskind is quick to say. Larry Silverstein, the developer of three of the office towers on the site who took on a 99-year lease for the site just before the terrorist attacks, says he's been "extremely, extremely observant of the master plan," and adds later in an interview that he's been "very faithful" to Libeskind.

But that's not entirely accurate, at least in the context of the largest skyscraper on the site. While -- at the urging of former New York Governor George Pataki -- Libeskind was originally to design 1 World Trade Center along with David Childs, the two ultimately could not work successfully with each other. Childs, who had designed 7 World Trade Center next door, was given the commission by himself at the end of 2004.

"To say I was a big advocate of Libeskind's is kind of understating it," Pataki said by phone this week. "And I remain a huge believer in his master plan. But ultimately the control at the building-by-building level was with the private developer."

The memorial itself has also been changed significantly from Libeskind's original plan; Michael Arad, its designer, says he couldn't be "observant of each and every element of the master plan," and so he decided to raise the sunken walkway that Libeskind had proposed and make the slurry wall of the original towers only visible from within the memorial museum.

In an interview, though, Arad said it was Libeskind who "established the broad parameters" of what is now the new World Trade Center and "acted as a guidestar. If you're going to build something, you need to start some place," he added.

That's why Libeskind looks back and at least claims to have no regrets. "I'm so happy to be able to design a piece of this city," he says. "If you're a conductor or a composer, Stravinsky or Copland, and the New York Philharmonic is performing your piece and you're conducting it, do you regret that you're not playing the first violin? That you're not playing the tuba? Of course not."