The winning design for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site—created by Cret Professor of Architecture Daniel Libeskind, with help from GSFA Dean Gary Hack—seeks both to provide a fitting memorial to the victims of the attack on the Twin Towers and to restore the vibrant neighborhood that their original construction erased.

“I meditated many days on this seemingly impossible dichotomy. To acknowledge the terrible deaths which occurred on this site, while looking to the future with hope, seemed like two moments which could not be joined,” writes the architect Daniel Libeskind, Penn’s Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture, describing his first visit to Ground Zero. “I sought to find a solution which would bring these seemingly contradictory viewpoints into an unexpected unity. So, I went to look at the site, to stand within it, to see people walking around it, to feel its power and listen to its voices.”

IN FEBRUARY, concluding one of the most highly publicized and politically sensitive architectural competitions in the world, the design concept that grew out of this meditation, which Libeskind called “Memory Foundations,” was selected from an initial 400-plus proposals to guide the redevelopment of the 16-acre World Trade Center site. Libeskind is jubilant about his selection, yet realistic about the challenges that lie ahead in seeing it through from design to construction. In a telephone interview from Berlin, where his firm, Studio Daniel Libeskind, has its headquarters, he says he “looks forward to working with stakeholders to make the necessary compromises without losing the integrity of the design.”

That will be a tough job, but Libeskind’s mix of highly symbolic architecture and pragmatism has been tested before. His design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin—also the result of a competition—catapulted him to fame when it opened in 2001, but that was after 10 years of controversy over the project. Libeskind moved his practice to Berlin to participate in the political process, which was so contentious that a legislator who favored his design was killed with a letter bomb.

Though his work also includes more quotidian projects such as shopping centers and department stores, he is especially celebrated for memorials and museums and his work has been widely lauded for his evocation of traumatic events. Paul Goldberger, architectural critic for The New Yorker magazine, says Libeskind has a “gift for interweaving simple, commemorative concepts and abstract architectural ideas—no one alive does this better” and that he has “a natural instinct for melding sacred space with a functioning city.” Ada Louise Huxtable, the doyenne of American architectural critics, says Libeskind has “perfected an intensely individual, profoundly moving architecture of memory and loss of unsurpassed impact and meaning.”

A museum on the events of 9/11 will lead visitors to the “bathtub” Memorial Garden, where a portion of the original slurry wall is exposed.

Libeskind’s life exemplifies the American immigrant success story. Born in Poland, he moved to Israel with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors. When he was 13, the family came to the United States, settling in New York, where he attended the highly selective Bronx High School of Science and studied architecture at Cooper Union, another elite city institution. An articulate and emotive speaker, Libeskind tells of arriving by ship like millions of immigrants before him, “seeing the skyline of New York and the Statue of Liberty for the first time … and never forgetting that sight and what it stands for.”

One of the images in the slide presentation Libeskind’s firm created for the design (from which the graphics in this article are drawn) puts the viewer at sea in New York Harbor, looking past Lady Liberty toward the restored Lower Manhattan skyline as envisioned in his design. The major elements of his concept for the site are: a memorial garden that includes the remnant of the massive underground slurry wall that protected the site from the nearby Hudson River; a 1,776 feet high tower—which would be the tallest building in the world—topped by a transmission antenna that replaces one lost in the attack; and a “wedge of light” area, in which no shadow will fall every September 11th from 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit, until 10:48 a.m., when the second tower fell. In addition, parks, plazas, office buildings, a hotel, an interpretive museum, cultural facilities, and a performing arts center, retail space above and below ground, and extensive transportation infrastructure are all part of the conceptual plan, now being refined and detailed.

Libeskind’s selection was the end of a procedural saga, one that went forward in the maelstrom of emotional and political issues after the attack. Among the various interest groups that rapidly coalesced was the pro-bono New York, New Visions, which included architects and other design professionals, including a number of Penn alumni (see box). The most powerful was a government entity, the Lower Manhattan Development Commission (LMDC), created by New York’s Governor George Pataki in October 2001. The LMDC rushed to present six design concepts to the public within months. All were summarily rejected.

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All images ©Studio Daniel Libeskind

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03