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interview - paul goldberger

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker and the author of Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. In this interview, conducted on Aug. 3, 2004, he recounts how and why politics and design clashed in the building of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero and describes the end result as "a well-meaning but sad compromise." He tells FRONTLINE: "I think it was a mistake to believe that two good architects, because they're both good architects with intelligent ideas and a commitment to Ground Zero, therefore can produce a single work that will be a coherent and good work. We had what I think is actually an unsuccessful collaboration, because the end result is not as good as either of their buildings were when they had their own separate ideas and visions for them."

Tell me about Daniel Libeskind.

Do you ask Matisse and Dali to collaborate on painting a picture together?  No, because they're such different kinds of artists that they could respect each other's work perhaps but not try to combine it. And so it was here.

Well, Libeskind is a strange figure in architecture, because he came out of the intellectual wing of architecture. He was an academic for many years, but never a very typical one. He would, on the one hand, do these very obscure buildings that were full of cultural references and often references to music and literature and philosophy, and it was sort of hard to figure out what the connection was between that and the actual forms. And his shapes were always very sharp and angular, and crisp and diagonal lines, and lines of force, and so forth. They didn't seem particularly to be about solving traditional architectural problems. They seemed to be so much about ideas that it was almost hard to connect them to the reality that buildings generally have to represent.

And then, suddenly, there he was as this figure doing the major architectural commission in the world, and his tone, his tune, his whole modus operandi was dramatically shifted from this intellectual ambience that he'd had around him to a sort of down-home, folksy, patriotic -- he was trying to sell radical architecture as if it were as comfortable and familiar as Colonial Williamsburg. But there's, of course, Libeskind's gift, to be able to promote the avant-garde as if it were familiar and traditional and even conservative.

Who won the competition? Libeskind the architect or Libeskind the salesman?

Do you know, with any architectural commission, you can ask the question, did the architect win, or did the salesman win? Because, in fact, that's a critical part of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright once said: "What's the first principle of architecture? Getting the job."

Libeskind is brilliant at getting the job. He speaks wonderfully. He speaks not only powerfully, but with enormous emotion and enormous connection to nonarchitectural issues, which can be very moving and very important. And he's been, in fact, over the years, evolving toward trying to present his architecture as the solving of a cultural problem, not just as physical form. So Libeskind's getting Ground Zero, I think, was very much the result of Libeskind's whole gestalt, if you will; Libeskind's whole stance that he's taken for a while toward the world, which is that architecture is a way of expressing a sense of cultural urgency, expressing a sense of shared cultural feeling, a way of expressing a society's desires and urges. Libeskind did that very effectively -- maybe more effectively than anyone else.

 

RELATED LINK

· The Limits of Architecture
An excerpt from Up from Zero, in which Goldberger assesses how power, politics, money and emotion affected the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. "Idealism met cynicism at Ground Zero," he writes, "and so far they have battled to a draw."

I don't think he won solely for the physical form of his design, although, in fact, the physical form of his design was a very good master plan and better than most of the others. It integrated and combined the different and often conflicting objectives here: the desire to go tall, to restore and renew the skyline; the desire to renew the commercial life of the city; and the need to commemorate.

Libeskind got this basic idea about Ground Zero, which is that it absolutely had to be both extraordinary and awesome, and yet it had to be ordinary and everyday so that it could renew the city. It had to do those two different things at the same time. That's not easy to do, and the fundamental idea of his plan was to embrace that contradiction and to make it both a place of the awesome and a place of the everyday. And that much one has to grant him -- that he understood that particular aspect of it as well [as], if not better than, anybody else.

Was choosing Libeskind to design the master plan an unusual choice for New York?

I think choosing Libeskind was a very unusual move for New York, which for all its role as an arts center, for all its role as a cultural center, has always been pretty conservative where it comes to building, because New York is also a money center, and New York is a place in which pragmatism often rules the roost, often reigns supreme. We are often the home to great architects who actually don't get to build very much here.

So when Libeskind was chosen, when a younger -- and, after all, in architecture, anyone under 50 is younger -- so that when a younger, cutting-edge architect is given a commission of this type, that's actually a pretty radical thing for New York. However, it's also true that that principle has been changing gradually over the years, and a lot of really good architects who are based in New York, who have not had that much work here, have begun in the last few years to get more of it. So the climate is a little different.

Do you think Libeskind believes his own rhetoric?

I think Libeskind, like all great salesmen, believes in what he's selling. I don't think he's cynically trying to put something over on people and then as soon as he's given a speech, runs into the back room and laughs that he's sort of fooled a bunch more people again. I don't think that's the case at all. I think he passionately does believe in it.

There are times when I wish the rhetoric would tone down a little bit. I think there are times when he does appear to have not aimed at the highest end intellectually, despite his history as a more intellectual, academic architect, but does appear to have deliberately sort of pushed it down, almost dumbed down his rhetoric, to make it more appealing.

But I think he does believe in it. I think he passionately believes in the idea of this piece of land as representing something sacred. I think he passionately believes in the role architecture can have as a social force, as an act of healing, as an act of commemoration, as a positive gesture that a culture makes to move forward. It's not just real estate. It is something of deep cultural meaning to him, and he believes that, as well he should, because it's true. I mean, if it weren't true, I don't know that I'd do what I do for a living or a lot of other people would do what they do for a living in architecture.

Was the choice of Libeskind affected by the timing of the competition? The particular moment in the reaction to 9/11?

Well, at the time that Libeskind won the competition, we were just beginning to come out of the first and most intensely raw period of post-9/11. It's important to remember that there was a whole period when there were tremendous forces pushing against building anything at all, and then there were some others that were pushing for just building as much commercial space as we possibly could, as fast as we possibly could, and if you want to put a little memorial in the middle, that's OK, but let's get moving.

The most important thing that happened in the 18 to 24 months after 9/11 was the gradual coming together of those points of view to a responsible middle ground that said we must build, we must move forward, but we cannot build in an ordinary way, and we must build in a way that commemorates and makes it clear that this land is special and sacred and different, and we must find a way to combine these almost incompatible things.

Now, Libeskind proceeded from the standpoint of belief in that and of trying to find a way to express these conflicting and different objectives. His winning reflected, I think, the movement at that moment toward a kind of responsible middle ground. But that's where I really believe we ought to be anyway.

What does it mean exactly that Libeskind won the competition to design the master plan?

Libeskind won the right to be the master planner for Ground Zero. How much that actually means still remains to be seen. It means a lot less than it looked like it meant. It doesn't mean the right to design any of the buildings, and so far he has not designed any buildings at Ground Zero. It means the right to do the basic layout and set the overall design for what we might call the fabric of Ground Zero.

I think it was a mistake to believe that two good architects, because they're both good architects with intelligent ideas and a commitment to Ground Zero, therefore can produce a single work that will be a coherent and good work.

It was Libeskind who figured out where the streets would be, where the memorial would be, where the towers would go, where the cultural buildings would go, and so forth. But he's not gotten to design any of them, and it remains to be seen, given how much change there's been here and how much the master plan has been fiddled with and altered, how much in the end it does mean.

He did not get to design the new transit station that's going to be a great symbolic centerpiece of Ground Zero, which is being done by Santiago Calatrava. He didn't really get to design the Freedom Tower, which is mainly David Childs and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill [SOM], although Libeskind had some limited involvement on it. And he did not get to design the memorial by Michael Arad, which in fact departs significantly from the master plan.

So while the master plan is still officially the sort of law of the land at Ground Zero, it's been altered and compromised in so many ways already that it's a fair question to ask how broad and how deep and how lasting is Libeskind's influence. Ultimately, he really ought to get one of the cultural buildings. I hope he does, because then at least he'll have a piece of architecture of his own that's part of the site.

So what happened?

Well, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation never advertised this event as a true architectural competition, and they never advertised it as even a final architectural design, but only as a study to find ideas to create a master plan. So nobody broke anybody's word. Libeskind was not promised the right to design the buildings and then [had] that right taken away.

What happened was more that Libeskind, like all of the other competitors in this exercise, did much more than just a layout. He took his layout, and he filled it with actual buildings, and the public looked at that stuff, and they thought they were looking at what Ground Zero was actually going to look like. And Libeskind wisely, and I think strategically, took advantage of that and said: "Well, the public has come to expect that this is what the buildings are going to look like, so of course they have to look like my vision of them. And I'm not just saying the tower goes there. I should be discussing and determining the basic parameters of that tower."

And, in fact, Gov. [George] Pataki announced his intention to start the tower in the summer of 2004, at a news conference, at a luncheon meeting, in spring of 2003, standing in front of a six-foot-tall banner of Libeskind's rendering of the Freedom Tower. So the governor, in fact, furthered this impression in the minds of people that Libeskind's sketches were the actual design for the building rather than just Libeskind's way of saying, "Here's where a tall tower will go, and here's roughly what I think it might look like." …

What was Gov. Pataki's role in the process?

Pataki was very taken by the Libeskind plan. The governor, who has always been the most powerful person in the Ground Zero planning process, was struck both by Daniel Libeskind personally and by his ideas. So the governor was quite willing to buy into this notion that Libeskind had done more than just a layout; that he had actually designed buildings, and it's fine to carry his vision forward. The governor, in fact, didn't expect that he would hit against a stone wall of people objecting to that, among them Larry Silverstein, the developer who was actually building the tower, who wanted his own architect, and then others who argued that Libeskind, whatever his other virtues might be, did not have much experience designing skyscrapers, and [that] a big tower -- in fact, the biggest skyscraper in the world -- shouldn't be done by somebody who'd never designed a skyscraper before. And so the idea arose that Libeskind would do it in collaboration with David Childs from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who was Larry Silverstein's choice.

Tell me about David Childs.

If Libeskind is an architect who came out of the intellectual wing of architecture and then tried to move into the mainstream, Childs is almost the other way around. He's somebody who's spent most of his career in the mainstream and has been trying to burnish his credentials on [the] more intellectual and more high-design side.

He's a senior partner and one of the key people in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, probably the most distinguished, large corporate-design architecture firm in America, and has done a lot of important work for them over the years. He's done quite a number of skyscrapers. He has done train stations, office buildings, airports, every which kind of thing. He's an architect with great depth of experience; he's also an architect with a great concern for civic buildings and for the role an architect plays or can play as a really important citizen in the community, and he sees architecture as leading the way that way.

In that sense, he and Libeskind agree; they both see the architect as potentially having a leadership role in society and not just as running around making shapes. However, they're very, very different in their view of how things should be done, in their view of what a skyscraper might be, in their view of how process works. David Childs is very corporate-oriented -- he runs one of the largest, most distinguished corporate architectural firms in the world. He is part of the establishment as, if you will, Daniel Libeskind was a sort of academic who came from the fringe and managed by force of personality, as well as quality of work, to push himself onto the radar screen [and] into the middle of the world of architecture.

What is the root of their conflict over the design of the Freedom Tower?

Well, Childs and Libeskind have fundamentally different ideas of what a skyscraper should be. Libeskind tends to begin with an idea and figures that it's the role of the engineer to make the idea of the architect possible and buildable. And often the idea for Libeskind is something rather pictorial, such as the notion in his Freedom Tower design that the Statue of Liberty would form the basis for the form of the skyscraper.

David Childs believed in the skyscraper as a much more rational object, and that when you're dealing with something that vast and that dependent on engineering, then the structural idea should come first, and that the architecture should in some way respect and reflect the structural reality of it and not be a sort of pictorial representation of something else. Now, Childs has done plenty of different kinds of buildings over the years; he's not just a structural rationalist. He did the Worldwide Plaza in New York 20 years ago or more. That is a sort of neoclassical skyscraper in a certain way, but it still is a building that follows the tradition of 20th-century skyscraper architecture in which structure still forms a key determinant of the form of the building, even if you cover it in a sort of faade of decoration with stone and brick later.

What is Childs' view of Libeskind's design for the Freedom Tower?

… I think Childs feels a skyscraper has two kinds of responsibility. It has to be true to a structural idea, and it has to be true to an urban idea. It has an urbanistic responsibility to connect and relate to its surroundings.

I think he has had a problem with Libeskind's Freedom Tower idea because it didn't do either one of those things in his view. It didn't really respond to the surroundings except in this very general way about the Statue of Liberty, and it didn't really respond to structural reality either, because it was so asymmetrical.

It's a little harsh, because, in fact, the building as Libeskind conceived of it was more elegant and better proportioned than Childs gave it credit for, and would have worked rather well, I think, on that site. And Childs' own vision for that building, which was very compromised over time as he and Libeskind tried to find a hybrid of their two ideas -- Childs' own vision wasn't really so well related to that location or site anyway. It was a sort of torqued or twisted tower that I didn't think really responded terribly well to the pattern of the cityscape there. So, in fact, I don't know that either building fully met what we might think of as Childs' test of a skyscraper.

Why was the Childs-Libeskind collaboration so difficult?

Well, I think it was well meaning to try to get these two architects to collaborate, but ultimately it was very unrealistic. They're both really strong artists as well as architects. They are strong-willed; they are strong-minded; they are both passionate about not only their own ambition, but about their own architectural ideas, and their ideas aren't the same. So, you know, do you ask Matisse and Dali to collaborate on painting a picture together? No, because they're such different kinds of artists that they could respect each other's work, perhaps, but not try to combine it. And so it was here.

I think it was a mistake to believe that two good architects, because they're both good architects with intelligent ideas and a commitment to Ground Zero, therefore can produce a single work that will be a coherent and good work. We had what I think is actually an unsuccessful collaboration, because the end result is not as good as either of their buildings were when they had their own separate ideas and visions for them.

What does Larry Silverstein think?

Silverstein has always been trying to sort of play it both ways. He wants to control the buildings he builds, but he wants to stay in a position of authority as much as possible, and yet does not want to offend the political forces that are ultimately in final control. So he sort of goes in and out between appearing to be assertive and appearing to withdraw somewhat.

In terms of the Libeskind master plan, Silverstein was very clever. When Libeskind was chosen, Silverstein hailed it as the right choice, said how wonderful it was, how much he looked forward to working with Libeskind, but he also very cleverly never said anything specifically about Libeskind's design for the tower. He just said it's the best site plan; what Libeskind had come up with was the best site plan. And Silverstein would not allow himself to be quoted as saying anything beyond that.

And so you could actually see that what Silverstein was trying to do was protect his relationship with Libeskind, but also protect the right to get the building designed by his own architect, who was David Childs. And in the end, that didn't quite work out that way, but it didn't work out Libeskind's way either. It worked out with the two of them in this uneasy, unnatural collaboration forced upon them by the governor.

What was the governor's motivation for forcing a collaboration between Libeskind and Childs?

The governor had really believed, I think, that Daniel's tower could simply be built as he had envisioned it. But in fact, it wasn't a fully realized skyscraper. Libeskind's design was really just a rough concept, even if it was more buildable in the end than either Childs or Silverstein wanted to admit. It might have been able to be turned into a buildable building, but it wasn't there yet.

The governor's enthusiastic endorsement of it kept Libeskind in the game, because it was what prevented Silverstein from saying, "Okay, this is really Childs' building; David, you just go and design the building for me." It allowed Libeskind to continue to keep his nose in the tent, as it were, and have some influence over it. But it also meant, for that uneasy collaboration that was not very successful, it meant [that] the governor couldn't agree with Silverstein's wish to have Childs do it all by himself. But the governor didn't want to tell Silverstein no, either, so the governor thought that by having the two collaborate, that would achieve the desired result.

What is Larry Silverstein's role in the process?

Silverstein's power has come mainly from the fact that he is entitled to the insurance proceeds, and the insurance proceeds are what's going to build the building. There's no other money to build the building. There are no tenants yet; there is no bank or finance company willing to put up the money as a loan, which is how office buildings are usually made. The only money to build the Freedom Tower is the money that will come from the insurance settlement. That money is controlled by Silverstein.

Now, it is possible because of the extraordinary circumstances that the governor could have condemned Silverstein's lease, bought him off, said, "Here's a few million dollars for your trouble, and now the rest of it, we're going to start all over again, and the insurance money will come back to the Port Authority and to the state." But the governor never did that, and so Silverstein remained in power because his lease remained in effect, and that in turn meant that he was entitled to the insurance money. And if you have the money, then you have to have some say over what the form of the tower will be, because he not only had the money, but the assignment to actually build the tower.

So, in fact, given all that, it's not surprising that the political forces sort of ended up in this detente, where the governor could push him only so far; he could push back only so far; Libeskind could push only so far; Childs could push only so far. Nobody fully controlled it, and the result is what we have, which is sort of a camel, not a horse.

Why couldn't Gov. Pataki control the process?

Well, the governor couldn't get rid of either Childs or Libeskind. He couldn't afford to make either of them go away. He couldn't make Libeskind go away because the world had seen the Libeskind vision. The governor had himself stood in front of the banner and proclaimed his intention to build that building, and the governor personally liked Libeskind and liked the design. So he couldn't make Libeskind disappear. He couldn't make Childs disappear because Childs was the architect who had the experience; he was the architect who had the endorsement of Larry Silverstein, the man who was going to build the building and, because of the insurance, who had the money.

So in the end, the governor felt he was stuck with both; [he] couldn't get either one to back down, so he said, "OK, guys, you go in there, and you make it work, and you design this building together." And because you don't want to offend the governor, and the governor is the most powerful person in this process, everyone said OK. But they really didn't want to work together; they didn't like to work together; they didn't like each other very much, after a short while; and it did not yield particularly encouraging results.

Tell me about the process of the Childs-Libeskind collaboration.

The meetings were tense ones, and many of them were not meetings that Childs and Libeskind themselves even attended. I think things often got so difficult that the two principals sometimes absented themselves and left staff to try to work together, but of course the staff are each very loyal to their commander, and so they didn't make much progress. And then Childs and one or two of his top people and Libeskind and one or two of his top people would get together again and try to push forward, and they would argue about different versions, and sometimes it became very, very heated.

And in the end, it came down to Libeskind absolutely insisting on certain key points -- that the asymmetry of the spire be retained as a reminder of his original Statue of Liberty idea and that something be done to mark the 1,776-foot height point. Childs, for his part, insisted on certain other things involving the structure, involving the top, which was a network of weblike cables that was originally conceived by the engineers Guy Battle and Guy Nordensen, who both contributed to this project at various points along the way.

So it really became a very complicated soup, a stew into which a lot of different people threw things. … It became very tense at the end, and it was a total mess, and there is a final version that in fact may not be final. It's still evolving; it's still changing, even though it was made public at a very splashy news conference in December, just before Christmas of 2003. I think it's going to continue to evolve and change. It's not final yet.

What do the families who lost people in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 think of the Freedom Tower?

My sense is that the families were much more concerned about the memorial competition, because that was going on at the same time, the international competition for a memorial design that attracted 5,201 entries -- the largest number of any such architectural competition in known history -- and that was being decided by an independent jury. That was the part of this long and complicated story that most interested the families.

I think they just sort of tuned out on the Freedom Tower. Some of them were annoyed that it was being built at all because they felt it was too commercial. Others preferred Libeskind; some may have preferred the Childs design. But they were not as engaged with that, so far as I could tell, as they were with the memorial.

Where do things stand now?

Pataki wanted one thing, which is to start on the Freedom Tower before the Republican National Convention came to New York at the end of the summer of 2004, so he could say, "You see, I've gotten it going; I have captained the ship of renewal at Ground Zero, and watch the progress." I think that means much more to Pataki than anything specific about the design.

Larry Silverstein is eager to move forward, but is also dealing with horrendous financial questions due to his failure to win his lawsuit against the insurance companies. He will end up with less money than he'd anticipated -- enough to build the Freedom Tower, but not enough to build the other buildings that are supposed to follow on the site, which means that they're postponed indefinitely, even though nobody will officially say that.

Daniel Libeskind is just hanging on, hoping that he will get one of the cultural buildings so he at least has a building of his own on this site, and not just a compromised master plan.

David Childs is, I think, hoping that as the Freedom Tower continues to evolve -- because it's not yet final, despite the fact that they've had the groundbreaking and the cornerstone -- that it will evolve in a way that sort of moves it more toward his own vision of that design. And he has 7 World Trade Center, Silverstein's other building, which is just adjacent to the site, and is rising rapidly now to his design. So he knows he'll have a big mark on the site no matter what happens, and we'll see.

What do you think of the Freedom Tower's final design?

I think Freedom Tower in the end is a well-meaning but sad compromise. It is not as good in my mind. Ironically, it's not as powerful and strong and clear a symbol as Daniel Libeskind's original vision for that building would have been. Neither is it as strong and powerful an innovative piece of structural design and advanced skyscraper design as David Childs' first vision of that building would have been. Both of them were much purer.

We've now ended up with a building that strikes me as a sad compromise. Really, it's like that old clich about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. I think we now have the camel of skyscrapers, and my only hope is that, as the process continues to play out, it will improve because they are still working on it; it is still going through more phases of redesign as it moves closer to real construction.

As an architecture critic, what did you think of the World Trade Center?

You know, I never thought I would miss the World Trade Center. I had never really liked what it did to the skyline. It threw it out of kilter. It was so gargantuan, so huge, that it made it an asymmetrical thing, and that beautiful Mont St. Michel-like quality that the New York skyline had always had, rising out of the water, was kind of thrown off balance by the World Trade Center.

But one of the extraordinary things about architecture is how we get used to it and learn to live with it over time and begin to feel OK about it. And after 20-some years, one had thought of the World Trade Center, if not necessarily as a lovable presence, as a benign, comforting, and expected one, and it had really become the campanile of Lower Manhattan, the great bell tower.

I was also not prepared for the extent to which people would feel its loss in terms of the skyline. I thought it was really just people like me who thought of the skyline as an object, as a beloved thing, but, in fact, the skyline was a treasured symbol to people from all over the city, all over the country, and all over the world. And when it was destroyed they felt that something had been taken away from them that was essential. …

I think that that sense of loss that so many people feel about the skyline has led to a ... general feeling that we really should replace it. We don't have to replace it with an office building that big because no one wants to live or work 110 stories in the sky, but we need some kind of great symbol, some icon, perhaps a tower that would be an Eiffel Tower of the 21st century, that would use the latest technology of our time to do what Eiffel had done in Paris in the 19th century, which was just to build a great symbol in the sky that would stand for its city and stand for progress and stand for reinventing the skyscraper. And what better place in which to reinvent the skyscraper than here on this key piece of land in the greatest city in the country in which the skyscraper was born? So a perfect place, really, to push the skyscraper forward and show renewal and show that we keep going.

I would like to hope that the design of the Freedom Tower were up to all of that. I think it unfortunately isn't quite, even if it tries hard. I hope it gets better before it's actually really built. …

 

 

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