The architecture of memory

Daniel Libeskind's winning entry, Memory FOundations, is a master plan for new office towers and memorial space at Ground Zero.

Daniel Libeskind 521 (photo credit: SDL)
Daniel Libeskind 521
(photo credit: SDL)
When I call Studio Libeskind, the architectural firm of Daniel Libeskind, to talk to the man behind the master plan for the reconstruction of New York’s World Trade Center, I’m placed on hold.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the music running in an endless loop on hold is Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York.”
Despite Libeskind’s international background – born in Poland to Holocaust survivors, he and his family moved to Israel before coming to the United States – he considers himself a New Yorker. In his memoir, Breaking Ground, he says his parents’ search for a home ended in the Big Apple.
“In our strange loop through Israel, the Libeskinds were repeating the ebb and flow of the Jewish people,” he wrote. “We were Israelites, arriving in the Promised Land, but we were also Joseph, leaving it. Our real promised land would be New York City.”
Though his projects have taken him all over the world – Berlin for the Jewish Museum; Manchester, England, for the Imperial War Museum; Copenhagen for the Danish Jewish Museum; and San Francisco for the Contemporary Jewish Museum, to name a few – he talks to me from his New York offices, blocks from Ground Zero, where his master plan is taking shape as we speak.
“I think people will be quite amazed at how much has been accomplished,” Libeskind says, characterizing the downtown project as being in its “advanced stages.”
The memorial sector of the project is almost completely finished, and will be by the 10th anniversary of the attacks this September.
Tower No. 1, the apex of the encircling buildings meant to echo the torch of the Statue of Liberty, will not be finished, but will reach its full height of 1,776 feet by the anniversary.
Libeskind, talking quickly, rattles off his projections for September – the visitors’ center will be almost finished, the underground museum will be almost finished, the Port Authority transit terminal will almost be completed.
“By September 11, people will be able to see this is not a hole in the middle of New York. This is a memorial space with a clear spiritual quality. I think they will be astonished by the new vistas that the site offers to New York,” he says.
“What I concentrated on was not to build where people perished – which was about half the site,” the architect recalls in his conceptualization of the master plan. “It wasn’t just to create a surface memorial, but to go all the way down to the bedrock of New York, where there’s no more movement, and to really reveal both what never should have been revealed – the slurry wall beneath the city – but also how New York is built from its bedrock, and can transform from tragedy to aspiration.”
The slurry wall, a nearly-80-foot-tall wall supporting the entire site, is a kind of dam for the waters of the Hudson River. Exposing this underpinning, Libeskind says, became an underpinning of his own idea of connecting the new New York with the old.
“It was very difficult to expose it, but this is not the sort of thing that can be simulated,” he says. “It’s not something you can see on a plasma screen. You have to stand, viscerally, at the very bottom of New York, where the temperature is different, so that you can feel where you are. You’re at the very core of the attacks, of the memorial space where people actually perished, but you’re also at a very living foundation of the city of New York.”
AS HE speaks, Libeskind fairly radiates love for the idea of this physical experience.
“What an incredible feeling that will be – unlike the foundations of Rome or Athens, here you can see a foundation that is alive,” he says. “There’s moisture in the winter, it freezes in cold weather, and it breathes – and it supports the tallest building on the site.”
According to Libeskind, “that’s the amazing experience: the simultaneity of the past and the future, which you will only be able to understand by coming physically to the site. Each site is unique, and is irreplaceable and sacred as a result.”
This is not, by any means, to belittle the modern and present New York the master plan has in mind for the surface. Since the September 11 attacks, the population of Lower Manhattan has doubled.
“We are rebuilding momentum, and trying to create a new neighborhood that has 24/7 vitality, spurring the transformation of office buildings to residences,” the architect says. “We have twice the number of people living in lower Manhattan now. It’s developed into a fulcrum of America, where settlers and immigrants once came and continue to come – like Chinatown and Tribeca. It’s growing, and we’re beginning to see a very positive change, and a desolate area turn into a really beautiful neighborhood.”
As with past works, Libeskind conceives of the downtown buildings as compositions.
At this site in particular, he expresses his desire to integrate the memorial with the buildings surrounding it,and in doing so, to intertwine past and present. The Wedge of Light plaza, he says, is an attempt to connect the World Trade Center site to the Hudson in the west and Wall Street in the east by lines of natural light. The first of these lines, he says in his memoir, would strike “on September 11 of every year at precisely 8:46 a.m. – the moment when the first jet smashed into the North Tower. The second line would mark the spot where, at 10:28 a.m., the second tower buckled into dust and debris.
These two moments of that day would define the Wedge of Light, which would commemorate the events of that unforgettable morning.”
“Without memory, there is no future,” he tells me. And as both a New Yorker and the child of Holocaust survivors, he knows from whence he speaks.
“I speak as someone who’s a New Yorker, who saw the original World Trade Center being built, and as someone who understands that history has a meaning,” he says with passionate optimism. “That tragedy that befell New York also has to do with resolve – we can create a city that speaks to liberty, and to the symbols that America represents, in a true way. Our ideals are ideals that belong to the world, and New York will be a microcosm of that.”
On September 11, 2001, Libeskind was a world away from New York, both physically and metaphorically. He was in Germany, watching the opening of his Jewish Museum in Berlin, a tribute to a Jewish community eradicated by the deliberate hatred and violence of the Holocaust.
“It’s a very strange, and yet very profound, meeting of dates,” he recalls. On that day, he went from the museum to his studio in Berlin, telling himself, “Now I don’t have to speak about the Jewish Museum anymore – now people can enter it and see it for themselves.”
And then, around 2 p.m. Berlin time, he heard the news and saw the attacks on television.
The museum closed its doors for three days in the uncertainty following the terror in New York.
“You can never say history is over,” Libeskind says. “There is no moment when something is not related to something else – it’s all interrelated, always in the making. Strange as it is, the coincidence of the timing was a reminder to me that we have to respond at all times to the world around us.”
And that, he says, “is what I thought about this project from the very beginning – you have to start, not with gleaming buildings, but rather with what is irretrievable and eternally memorable: the victims.”
Due to the area’s history, he asserts, it will never be “just a piece of real estate.”
“This is a space, though inside a very busy, exciting city, that both memorializes the past and allows you to reflect on that past,” he says, citing the references within the architectural composition to the Statue of Liberty, the times of the attack, the history of New York and the boldness of the skyline.
“It’s a space that shapes memory, but also provides twenty-first-century New York with vibrant streets – it doesn’t shift it to a sad place,” he is quick to note. “We need to remember not only what happened, but also the vibrancy and the resolve of the streets of New York. It’s coordinated to create a composition of memory as well as a foundation for the future. You need one for the other.”
Will a non-architecture-savvy public, though, comprehend the sweeping intellectual allusions of the space? Libeskind believes so, and that there will be a universal accessibility enabling the public to look toward the future and remember the past simultaneously.
“There won’t be a single person who comes to New York who doesn’t first put their feet at Ground Zero. The general public will enjoy it – I think the station will be as grandiose as Grand Central,” he predicts.
“The memorial will provide a vast contemplative space. The buildings are all sustainable, though grand – even Tower 2 is still much taller than the Empire State Building.”
LIBESKIND IS a contemplative architect, and a conceptual one. Perhaps this is a natural byproduct of not having had a building of his own design built until he was in his 50s. Detractors can argue that with such a background, his leanings tend toward the theoretical rather than on-the-ground realities. Alternatively, though, it’s easy to see buildings and spaces designed by Libeskind as texts to be read on multiple levels – something he directly attributes, along with his reverence for memory and history, to his Jewish heritage.
“Everything I do is Jewish,” he tells me. “I’m Jewish and my thinking is Jewish. Everything I do has a certain sense to it, and it’s certainly informed by who I am, where I come from and who my parents are. Jewish understandings of the human soul and the meaning of where we are going and where we came from – these aren’t footnotes to my work. They’re central.”
Libeskind cites the Torah as a source for the potential sanctity of architecture.
“Architecture and building is an important act – it’s not a coincidence that our texts deal in detail with the tabernacle, and the meaning of the daily things that we do which relate us to stasis,” he says. “I’ve always believed that architecture has to tell a story. Buildings communicate a profound human story, and architecture is telling that story not with words, but with light and the importance of understanding the relation of light to shadow.”
According to Libeskind, “the Jewish tradition tells us about the fact that buildings can have multiple profundities – many different aspects to them, whether sheltering or sanctifying – they open us beyond ourselves, to something beyond us. That’s the Jewish spirit and also the spirit of architecture: It makes you have to believe in something beyond yourself.”
As he speaks, one can veritably hear verbal gesticulations in his boundless optimism.
“You simply cannot be a pessimist as an architect,” he says when I point this out to him. “You are laying foundations for the future, and it’s always about creating something that makes life better. It’s not a coincidence that Jewish texts have always been very articulate about what it means to open a door, and to build something. The mezuza reminds us of the importance of a threshold and transitions.”
And downtown Manhattan has become an area of transition in itself, from the past to the present and forward to the future.
“When we look at a city,” Libeskind wrote in his memoir, “we make very precise judgments about how it is made, what shape it is in, whether the materials from which it is built will endure or have to be replaced. But the fundamental lesson of New York and of the World Trade Center attacks is a different one: it is that what makes any city strong is not the concrete or steel of its skyscrapers, but the people who live there. Citizens of more than 90 nations died on September 11, 2001, and people from at least as many nations tried to save them. New York derives its strength from the heterogeneity of its population, and from the fact that despite the differences in their traditions, desires, cultures and incomes, millions of people have come and will continue to come to enjoy the promise of liberty and happiness guaranteed in our Constitution. It is this very promise that the terrorists tried to destroy, but the attack on 9/11 was spectacularly unsuccessful. It did not destroy New York. Nor did it destroy the material promise that continues to quicken here and that will continue to draw millions to this great city.”