The Politics of Remembering Ground Zero

Even though this is a memorial for a tragedy, it is also real estate, and real estate is a very expensive matter in New York.

NEW YORK - Michael Arad achieved the dream of many architects: He won the competition to design the memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001, in Manhattan. If he had thought, somewhat naively, that his plans would be implemented in the format he envisioned, he was quickly disillusioned. Arad, a young architect who seemed steeped in euphoria and quite astounded by his win, became caught up in an imbroglio of politicians, architects, public officials and interest groups.

"So many forces are interested in influencing this site," says Arad. "New York State, New York City, the memorial organizations of the victims' families - some of which support the project, while others oppose it. There are a great many architects with connections. Even though this is a memorial for a tragedy, it is also real estate, and real estate is a very expensive matter in New York. Many projects are planned for the site. There are and were a great many pressures. We have made some compromises.

"At first I was angry," recalls Arad. "Today I understand that it is impossible to build a memorial site on 16 acres (64 dunams) in Manhattan without battles. Even so, it is my responsibility to protect the project and ensure it is realized properly. One of my colleagues likened what is happening here to a race where the winner is the one who arrives last. Many people are losing patience and leaving [the project]. This project is so complicated that you have to persevere. The bottom line is that, despite all the difficulties, I am still involved in it."

Arad, 38, is the son of Moshe Arad, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and Mexico. As a typical diplomat's child, Michael was born abroad.

"It deeply distressed my mother, a fifth-generation Israeli, that I was born in the Diaspora, in London. It bothered her so much that the then-ambassador leased a small maternity home prior to my birth, so that formally, at least, I was born on Israeli soil."

All told, Arad has lived in Israel for nine years, in Jerusalem, although three of them were spent in the army, serving in an elite Golani commando unit. Today he lives in New York.

When he heard about the attack on the morning of September 11, 2001, he went up to the roof of his home in the East Village. After he saw the second plane collide with the South Tower, he jumped onto his bicycle to bring home his wife, who was downtown. Arad says he drafted his plan for the memorial site based on his personal experience.

"I wanted to create a memorial site people could connect with. After the attack I went to Washington Square at 2 A.M., and 20 to 30 people were standing silently beside the fountain there. There were a few candles. No one said anything, but there was a very strong connection between the people, who were all strangers. And suddenly you lost the sense of being an outsider that you get living in New York."

Arad's design consists of a huge square dotted with trees, with two huge empty spaces where the twin towers stood, and a square pool at the bottom of each space. The squares are supposed to create a sense of a large void, and thus emphasize the loss of the towers. The names of those killed will be etched around the edges of the pools.

"I imagined myself and other people coming and looking at the void created by the collapse of the towers," explains Arad. "They can watch water flow into this emptiness, but the void will not be filled."

In addition, a museum will be established under the square.

Recipe for chaos

Arad won the competition in January 2004. He was one of several thousand candidates, and never imagined he would win. It was a kind of exercise for him. After he completed his degree at the School of Architecture at Dartmouth College, he worked for an architecture firm that designed a 108-story tower in Hong Kong. When he drafted his design for the memorial site, he was working for the New York municipality, planning police stations.

After Arad won the contest, his project drew considerable criticism, in part for its high price - estimated at almost $1 billion.

"That figure is inflated," says Arad. "In order to create the impression that this is a super-expensive project, they included the cost estimate for the surrounding infrastructure. This created political pressure, and in the end the costs were cut. The current cost of the project is $500-$550 million, including the museum."

Conversations with other architects leave the impression that the project essentially has been taken out of Arad's hands. Peter Walker, a well-known landscape architect, is also involved in the project. The planning of the project's execution has been given to the firm David Brody Bond, and not to the firm where Arad works - Handel Architects, which has offices in New York and San Francisco.

Some people believe Arad should have appealed to the courts to ensure that he retained full control of the project. Others, however, feel he was too stubborn and did not know how to compromise, as is required in such a large project. The New York Times wrote an editorial noting that what Arad had designed quickly turned into something else, a site being planned by a committee: Almost everyone has a hand in it, and sometimes there are conflicts. What is happening here is a recipe for chaos, the Times said.

Do you feel the project has been stolen from you?

"No. A project of this scope comes out of a political process. This is not a project one does alone. Many people are involved in it, and I am one of them. So many inaccurate stories are floating around that it is difficult even to remember them all. As for Peter [Walker], I decided to bring him on board, based on a recommendation by the competition's panel of judges. I do not always agree with him, but that's life. Couples also have disagreements sometimes."

What about Davis Brody Bond?

"It is very acceptable in such a large project for one architecture firm to design it and for another to deal with the construction."

Concerning any legal intervention regarding his status on the project, Arad says, "I had a lawyer and I fought for things that seemed important to me. You have to know when to fight and when to talk. For example, I currently am fighting for a specific element in the project. The mayor is involved in this. If every step I take is accompanied by a lawyer, I will not have any support."

What got changed in the design?

"There were security and economic constraints, but basically, the project has not changed. The idea of a public square and its connection to the urban fabric still exists. The fact is that the two pools I designed are the center of the memorial site. Even so, the current plans have some beautiful elements that were added and were not in the original."

Which changes do you regret?

"It's a pity that they took out the galleries around the pools and under the square, where the names of the dead were to have been displayed."

Where does the project stand at present?

"The building process has been in the hands of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for about a year. We have been meeting. There have been legal and technical hitches along the entire way. The overall planning has been completed. Now there are more details that are being worked on.

"The construction actually has begun. Five or six stories will be built under the site, and there will be rail lines and a parking lot there. This is a massive site that once housed office towers, an enormous subway station and a huge commercial center. Before we can build the memorial site, we need to finish the big subway station. The memorial project is due to be completed in 2009, but most likely will not be done until 2010."

Memories from a military cemetery

In the meantime, Arad is already looking for his next big project. In the past few years he has dealt with several projects, including starting to plan a new building for the Simhat Torah synagogue for homosexuals and lesbians, which has not come to fruition; the initial planning of a memorial site at Dartmouth College, for the 11 alumni who were killed on September 11; and the construction of a residential tower and hotel in North Carolina.

Do you think you will become an architect of memorial sites?

"I have nothing against memorial sites. If I can do something original and meaningful, that's fine, but I do not feel I am limited to any one type of project. Incidentally, two years ago I was approached by [Colonel (Res.)] Kobi Marom, who served with me in Golani, and he suggested that I design a memorial site for Mt. Hermon. I worked on that pro bono. We made a few designs. Unfortunately, nothing happened with them, because they had no money."

Do you find it strange that an Israeli is planning a memorial project that is so American?

"I am proud to be Israeli, but that has no relevance to the project. My design was a reaction to the events, not as an Israeli, but as a person who experienced them firsthand."

Did anything in the Israeli memorial culture influence your design for the site?

"That's hard to say. When I was a child, in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood, I often stopped beside the [Mt. Herzl] military cemetery, and I loved just looking. There is much beauty there, and much silence. I loved the pine trees. Did that affect me? I don't know, but there is no doubt that it is part of my memory."