Trade Center site architect seeks to preserve memories

Daniel Libeskind, in talk at university, says you can’t be a pessimistic architect.

By: Elyse Graham
   Modern architecture has neglected its crucial role of preserving memory, Daniel Libeskind, the architect who won the commission to design the World Trade Center master plan, told a Princeton University audience Tuesday.
   "Architecture has lost its communicative power to tell a story," Mr. Libeskind said. "The 20th century corrupted architecture and made it into a machine."
   He said he hopes to restore his art’s emotive power by reintroducing critical dialogue among colleagues, and building structures that prompt visitors to experience the past while being directed to thoughts of the future.
   Mr. Libeskind gave the William G. Bowen Lecture, presented annually by the Center for Jewish Life.
   A Polish immigrant, Mr. Libeskind is not new to creating designs that preserve memories. One of his first major commissions was to build a space to hold the paintings of Holocaust-era artist Felix Nussbaum. His projects also include the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England, and numerous other museums, halls and installations.
   As he progressed in his career, Mr. Libeskind said he discovered that many contemporary architects view their buildings as purely functional, like toasters or washing machines. In response, he said, he began to design buildings with a communicative dimension.
   "Concrete … can be a means to an end which is not purely material," Mr. Libeskind said. "Architecture cannot speak through words, but speaks through the experience of the visitor."
   Mr. Libeskind said when he started to plan the Trade Center site reconstruction, he was initially daunted by the two extremes of how the public wanted the site preserved. Half wanted to build nothing, leaving the site as a graveyard, and half wanted to build a monument even taller than the original Twin Towers. One plan would emphasize death, the other life.
   Mr. Libeskind said he solved the problem by combining the choices. His plan, he said, is for "a living memorial — a memorial which is alive in every sense."
   Every aspect of the Ground Zero plan is imbued with meaning, he said. For instance, the plan includes a spiraling set of towers, the tallest of which, the Freedom Tower, is 1,776 feet high — the world’s tallest, according to proponents.
   But Mr. Libeskind said the new tower’s symbolism makes such height comparisons meaningless. Calling the American Constitution the world’s first document declaring all men equal, Mr. Libeskind said 1776 is "a number that can never be surpassed," even by taller buildings.
   The original tower, which included "air gardens" on the upper reaches to act as "a constant affirmation of life," has been modified as Mr. Libeskind was forced to revise the plans by working with architect David Childs, representing the site’s owner. The gardens are not part of the current Freedom Tower’s plans.
   Mr. Libeskind has also constructed his master plan so a wedge of sunlight falls on a plaza each year on Sept. 11 between 8:46 and 10:28 a.m., the times the first plane hit the Trade Center and the second tower collapsed. Mr. Libeskind said the Wedge of Light, because it is outside human control, will provide "a glimpse into a luminosity which is kind of cosmic."
   Pivotal to the inspiration for Mr. Libeskind’s project was his childhood experience seeing the New York skyline on his ship passage to America.
   "I had seen New York’s skyline in the movies and papers, but nothing prepares you for what you see," Mr. Libeskind said. "Nothing prepares you for the unfathomable power of what human beings can do."
   The World Trade Center master plan, he said, was created in that spirit.
   "Architecture is the most optimistic profession," said Mr. Libeskind. "You can be a pessimistic author or a pessimistic businessman, but you can’t be a pessimistic architect. There’s always the act of construction that brings something better forward, that brings hope."