Architect of Shoah museums unveils plan for Ground Zero

NEW YORK — If planners at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation aimed to generate excitement about the latest design study to rebuild the area destroyed on Sept. 11, they were wise to put Daniel Libeskind at the top of the line-up.

He is one of seven architects on the short list to design the memorial for the World Trade Center site.

A small man with gray hair and rectangular glasses, Libeskind was a dynamo dressed completely in black at the recent ceremony where seven proposals were presented, with his shirt buttoned up to the collar. At one point the former Bronx resident raised his fist in the air as he described a 1,776-foot skyscraper that would "reassert the pre-eminence of freedom and beauty."

Libeskind spoke with rushed excitement as he outlined his plan for a business, transportation and cultural complex that would "create a dense and exhilarating affirmation of New York." It seemed he was squeezing every second of airtime he could grasp to describe the Park of Heroes or the Wedge of Light, through which unobstructed sunlight would shine each year on the morning of Sept. 11.

Libeskind's architectutal design was chosen for the new Magnes Museum in San Francisco, but given the possible de-merger of the Jewish Museum of San Francisco and the Magnes, the fate of Libeskind's plan is far from clear.

First known solely as a conceptual architect, Libeskind is now most famous for his first commission, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, housed in a building punctured by symbolic voids.

"He has considered before exactly what it means to fill a space in with life and memory as a way to represent destruction," said James Young, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert on memorial architecture. "That was one" of the architects' "mandates."

At the recent unveiling of porposals in New York, Libeskind was followed by several other architects who have grappled in recent work with issues of destruction and memory.

Libeskind 55, who currently lives in Berlin, was born in Poland and spent his teens and early 20s in New York. He first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty through early morning mist from the boat that brought his family to America. "I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for. This is what this project is all about," he said, reading from a prepared statement that ended with the words "Life victorious."

That simple phrase captures Libeskind's philosophy of architecture, which he has called "an optimistic profession." In person, Libeskind is passionate, thoughtful and infectiously joyful. Still, his attitude toward his work is surprising, given that many of his major projects so far have embodied one of the darkest chapters in modern history, and one with personal resonance for the architect.

The son of Holocaust survivors who met in a displaced persons camp, Libeskind has said he sees beauty everywhere, "even those places abandoned by hope."

Thinking about rebuilding at the World Trade Center site, he stressed the importance of translating "memory and hope into physical materials and into architecture."

Libeskind was clearly moved by his experience standing in the chasm left by the fallen towers. "Really you have a revelation when you go down there," he said in a voice that hints of his Eastern European origins.

"It's the bedrock level, where New York was built from."

The 9/11 explosions revealed the walls that reinforced the World Trade Center's foundations. "They are the silent heroes of the attack," Libeskind said. "They survived it, the whole trauma, and they continue to protect the site and keep the Hudson River from flooding Manhattan. It's an amazing thing." Access to the buildings' footprints 70 feet below ground is an integral part of Libeskind's design for the site.

"Libeskind's been pushing the edge a long, long time," said Young, who suggested that by including Libeskind in the current design study the Development Corporation was embracing cutting-edge architecture.

A published poet with a mystical bent, for many years Libeskind worked on designs that could never be built, and could be publicly viewed only in museums and gallery exhibitions.

That all changed with the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Libeskind titled the project "Between the Lines," a reference to one of a constellation of ideas that shaped his design. On a map of Berlin, he plotted out the actual addressed of Jewish and gentile writers, artists and thinkers who had lived in Berlin up to 1933. From these points he constructed what he called "an irrational matrix," which became the basis for the crisscrossing lines that cut through the building's walls.

His World Trade Center plan employs a similar conceit: a "Matrix of Heroes" that would radiate outward from a central plaza. Its lines would trace the routes taken by firemen, policemen and rescue workers as they entered the site on Sept. 11. But they would also extend upwards and out toward the horizon to include all citizens in "the matrix of life."

"I wanted to make invisible lines visible and permanent," he said.

Asked if he considers himself a "Jewish architect," he said, "There is a Jewish dimension to my life in general. It's in my life, how can I do something foreign to that?" His Jewish background, he said, is such that "you could put me at a table with Chassidim on one side and virulent atheists on the other. And I could speak to all of them."