Q&A | Interview with World Trade Center Site Architect Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind won the competition of the master plan architect for the World Trade Center site in 2003. There have been much political wrangling, changes and debate, but construction of the site is well underway. Libeskind spoke to WNYC about the 10th anniversary, what the term "sacred ground" means to him and the musicality of the site.

Libeskind, born in Poland in 1946, moved to Israel with his parents before moving to New York at age 13. He attended Bronx High School of Science and played professional piano before he was an architect. He attended Cooper Union, and now runs Studio Daniel Libeskind with his wife, Nina, and is currently engaged in between 20 and 30 ongoing projects.

What did you learn by watching the first World Trade Center being built?

I was a student at Cooper Union at the time. What I learned was how vast the infrastructure was. To create the land for the towers and to create the linkage, which of course you have now with the PATH train, that was a quantum leap with the scale of New York that was not so popular with many people. And as students of architecture we always said ‘my god, this is really going to change New York fundamentally,’ and of course it did. The towers became an icon. 

When you were working on the master plan, did you keep that in the back of your mind?

More than that. For example, not to build two gigantic towers or even three gigantic towers, but to spread the density of office space. We have 10 million square feet of office space. Instead of putting it into two buildings — or even some architects considered putting it in one building — I said let’s put them into five buildings. So the building can be lower, they can be safer. They can create a better streetscape so that streets are pleasant to walk. They don’t have those wind tunnels. And to me, they’re more connected to the scale of the historic downtown New York.

Do anniversaries have symbolic qualities for you? Does this 10th anniversary have particular symbolism?

Of course, every anniversary. We would not be human if we didn’t remember and this event, this tragedy, in which so many people perished it really changed the world. It changed every one of us, as New Yorkers, as Americans, as people of goodwill around the world were changed.

In architecture, the anniversary is every time you are on the site; you are connecting the memory of that day. But also with the resurgence of New York, with a new public civic space, with new life — which really goes into the 21st Century — I think is the best response to the terror. It shows it wasn’t diminished, but actually increased in the spirit and culture of New York and the streets of New York where people can come together and the memorial. That was always my notion of the anniversary that its should bring together the memory of that day and what it meant to New Yorkers, to human beings, to everyone. But also to move New York forward, a kind of extension of the fun and celebratory quality of this city.

Rendering of Lower Manhattan with World Trade Center site (Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)

What do you think people will see 20 to 100 years from now when they visit the World Trade Center site?

It will become part of the fabric of New York — but a very meaningful part. It is a piece of real estate, but there’s something special about it, it is sacred ground. That’s why, in my master plan, I built on about half of the space. We have 16 acres, so about eight acres of the site are left open for public space. I often thought about my mother and father who worked in sweat shops around Lower Manhattan. Where would they be? They would not be in the high-rise towers. They’d be on the streets of New York, in the subways, in the trains. What do we give them? What do we give the people of New York? Give them a space that is beautiful, that is inspiring, that is connected to the history, and of course that history will always be there. You won’t be able to just get it on TV or the Internet. You will have to viscerally stand in that park and feel that you can descend all the down to bedrock — all the way to where the tragedy happened. But also out of that place, that slurry wall, there will rise to the apex, those towers the working life of New York. I think the site will be an inspiration even 200 years from now. People will see something very special, a magnificent public space.

What does "sacred ground" mean to you?

I decided not to build where the towers stood. I thought it was not possible to just build buildings there because now it’s a special place. It’s a space where you can feel the history and not just two dimensionally, you feel it in depth, because you can descend some 75 feet to bedrock, experience that incredible foundation wall, the slurry wall, which, had it collapsed, would’ve flooded the New York subway system in a kind of apocalypse. But that wall held. And I thought, 'Wow, from that bedrock of the tragedy, rise the foundation of great towers.' And it’s a civic space, a space to bring people together, a museum that will speak about the solidarity of New Yorkers and others around the world in response to this attack. It’s something that has a special light. I placed the towers on the periphery of the site so they would not impinge on the site and create large shadows.

Is the slurry wall the most symbolically important part of the site to you?

The slurry wall is certainly important. Usually, when you see a foundation, you see it in Rome or Athens, foundations of the dead past, but this is a living foundation — which is supporting the site, which is still something that continues to inspire us with a memory, but also with the future. But there are other symbolic elements: 1776, the date of the Declaration of Independence, of the pinnacle of Tower 1. The Wedge of Light. Plus I created an additional public space from Broadway, when you come from the east side of the site to enter the memorial there is a space I created that is defined by two lines of light: 8:46 a.m., when the first tower was struck and 10:28 a.m. which is when the second tower collapsed, and that’s the central skylight of the beautiful PATH terminal that is being built. So even in the light of New York, there is memory in the skyline and in the sky, and I think even busy commuters going to work will be struck. They are doing everyday functions, but there is something significant here, something to think about, something that doesn’t shift New York to a pessimistic register, but registers the history and also injects that character of unstoppable optimism, which is the characteristic of New York. 

Original sketch of the master plan (Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)

What are people asking you overseas about the World Trade Center site?

Everybody all over the world, no matter where I am people want to know, 'What are New Yorkers doing? What is the site going to be like? How does it respond to those attacks? What is it going to show when we get there? How is it going to feel?' And I think it’s a site that’s like a bell around the world. People really look at New York as a focal point and that event is such a fundamental event of the century that everyone is looking at New Yorkers: 'How do New Yorkers respond?' I consider this really fundamental that New Yorkers responded and the master plan, and all the other people — the investors, the families of the victims, the different governors, the mayor, PATH train authorities, architects — came together with a consensus. That this is really not just business as usual and that it will be something attractive, that it will be something that will draw people with a meaning. It will be fun. It’ll be inspiring. It will be something you can learn from, and it will also open new vistas that New York is so famous for.

Is there a particular artist or sound  that inspired the World Trade Center site?

I thought of a symphonic sound, you know, 'Da-da-da-duuuum.' You think of the center, you have to be struck by the immensity of that memory and at the same time affirm, like in Beethoven’s Fifth. But you also have to allow for the streets, the Gershwinian quality of jazz or the aleatory of the happening. It’s a multimedia kind of sound.

Can you take us on an audio walking tour of the site?

At the center, there’s the overture. It’s the beginning. It sets that kind of standard for the site. It’s the first beat of the fifth that also sets the stage for the silence of the site. But as you move on to the street, as you move to the east [and] get Broadway — Boogie Woogie. You get the variety, you get the PATH terminal, you get the station, you get Church Street. As you move from north to south and east to west you get different melodies on the streets on Greenwich Street, and it’s almost a boulevard. You get a sense of “An American in Paris.” You get sounds of the streets. You get sounds of the blues, sounds of Aron Copland when you look at the skyline around the Hudson. And yet it’s all kind of unified. It’s a composition. You get different hands, but the unity of the sound of that design that brings them together and it’s a kind of shared experience.

The name I gave to the project: Memory Foundations. Because it’s about memory and at the center of it is a foundation for 21st Century New York. And it’s simultaneously both. The memory becomes the foundation, and the foundations are memorable and that’s the composition.




Early sketches and renderings of the World Trade Center site (Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind).