The weight of history was felt in this moment. It would be a memorable day for Daniel Libeskind, son of two Polish Holocaust survivors. He was getting ready for the opening ceremony of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. After twelve years of construction, the building was to be ceremoniously opened in the early evening. For Libeskind, who was born in Poland and grew up in Israel and later in the USA, it was a touching moment. In his architecture studio in Berlin he said to a colleague: “At good last, history has a space where it can be experienced by a new generation.”
A few hours later, he would realize that a new, brutal chapter of world history was opened that very day. It was September 11, 2001. Soon, horrible images of the burning Twin Towers would flicker across the screens everywhere. The 9/11 terror attacks were unfolding, and 3000 people were to lose their lives that day. The events would change the course of history; a new era of war and terror had just begun. Eventually, a statement was issued that the Jewish Museum would not be opened that day.
Two blocks from Ground Zero and almost 17 years after the nightmare, we meet Daniel Libeskind in his architecture office in New York, amidst dozens of models of his construction projects. From the 18th floor, the 9/11 memorial park in Lower Manhattan is visible.
“History does not repeat, it rhymes,” he tells us. Libeskind pauses. As for most people of the metropolis, the memory of that day is still fresh in his mind.
Architect of the World Trade Center. Then, quietly, he continues: “When I saw the images on TV, I immediately told my wife, Nina: ‘I want to go back to NY as soon as possible!” Once back home, Libeskind, now 71, became a key figure in the comeback of New York after the devastating terror attack; his architectural designs for the construction of the New World Trade Center were selected in an open bid over numerous other entries. The entire ground plan of “Ground Zero,” the location where the new towers stand, the idea of the footprints of the old towers, the impressive fountains—all these elements flew from the creative feather of the superstar architect, who found his home in the Big Apple. At the end of the selection process, Libeskind won the bid against a competition of 5000 other architects from around the world.
Quote: I stood at the bottom of a 75 m pit, where the former foundation of the Twin Towers lay, and I knew: this is not an urban design project. This is about America. A symbol!
A 75 m hole. “It was all a coincidence,” he explains. Libeskind now stands in front of the model he submitted to the call back then; he looks at it almost reverentially. Initially, he was asked to sit on the jury to select the winning submission. When that was not possible due to other commitments, he decided to submit a proposition himself. When Libeskind descended into the foundation pit seeking inspiration for his design, most of the debris of what were once the Twin Towers had already been cleaned away. “The weather was miserable, drizzling rain, a grey, leaden blanket of clouds hanging low above me,” the architect remembers. The sight of the already-cleaned-up terror site was overpowering. In the middle of Lower Manhattan, a gigantic, 75 m deep hole opened up, secured by strong cement walls, the so called “slurry wall” set up to keep out the groundwater of the nearby Hudson River. He descended down a ramp into the pit and stared at the raw cement walls. “That’s when inspiration struck,” he says, still with excitement in his voice. “I knew we had to send a signal that we would not let ourselves be intimidated.” Still in the pit, he called his team in Berlin: “Scrap everything we’ve done until now, we’re starting from scratch.” His design, he felt, needed to be courageous, symbolic, iconic. The architect knew: “This is not an urban design project, this is about the people of America, about society, about our whole culture. It is a symbol!” He adds, ”In the flash of a moment, I had a vision.” In part, this vision was informed by his memories of arriving at the port of New York after crossing the Atlantic with his family on a steam boat, the first time he saw the Statue of Liberty.
Libeskind developed a plan of meticulous detail. He even stipulated a height of 1776 feet, a symbolic number (the year of the American Declaration of independence) and higher than the previous towers had been. He gave the tower the grandiose name “Freedom Tower.” On one side on top of the tower, a needle points boldly at the sky, an aesthetic reflection of Statue of Liberty’s raised arm. The project is a personal one for the architect. He had witnessed how the original towers were erected on an artificial landmass on the Hudson River in the 70s. He used to stroll around the construction site with friends, exploring a bizarre moonscape of sand and rubble. “The buildings were so colossal, they exceeded all known dimensions, even in the mega metropolis New York: they were two vertical giants,” Libeskind reminisces.
Quote: I was already packing my bags when Michael Bloomberg, then mayor of New York, called me. Him and governor Pataki had overruled the vote of the jury and named me the winner.
Bloomberg chose the winning design. Libeskind was initially confident about his chances, but after the final presentation, doubt set in. Members of a rival team at the competing firm Michael Arad and Peter Walker, who presented the project “Reflecting Absence,” gave him the finger as they walked past him, he tells us grimly. Indeed, not long afterwards, The New York Times ran the story that the rivals had been picked as winners by the jury. “I remember thinking to myself: ‘what a shame, but nothing can be done about it,’” Libeskind grins. He was already packing his backs to return to his office in Berlin when the telephone rang. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and the then-sitting governor of New York, George Pataki, asked him to meet them straight away. “Mr. Libeskind,” he was told on the phone, “don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” What followed was the highlight: in a spectacular turn of events, the two most powerful politicians of the State of New York overruled the voting of the expert jury and named Daniel Libeskind the winner.
Eventually, another architect took over the actual design of the Freedom Tower, but Libeskind’s proposal was, in large part, realized. It was a highlight in his eventful life, which spans an arch from the horrors of the Holocaust to the most important reconstruction project in history.