By DANIEL LIBESKIND
SOMETIMES it seems that the most important quality an architect can possess is optimism. For example, it took 12 years for the Jewish Museum I designed in Berlin to finally open to the public. A few hours later it had to close. The date: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. That jarring confluence of events not only predated but also presaged my role in rebuilding ground zero. And the memories of what we went through in Berlin give me confidence that we will succeed in New York as well.
When I won the museum competition, Berliners were divided between those who felt my design would represent the new Germany and others who found it too prominent and unsuitable. Many said the building would never be built. Once it was built, the naysayers said it would never be occupied. When the exhibitions were installed, they said no one would come. Since it re-opened the day after 9/11, it has become one of the most visited museums in Europe.
We persevered through seven governments, six name changes, five culture ministers, four museum directors, three mayors, two sides of a wall and one unification - with zero regrets. I was called naïve, foolishly optimistic and worse. Today, of course, the same charges echo in New York. Critics stress that it has been nearly four years since the attacks and claim that little progress has been made. They are wrong.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, chaos gave way to grief, which eventually turned into a burning determination to do the right thing - for the victims, the families, the city, the nation. Yet what was the right thing? Rebuild the twin towers? Preserve the 16 acres as an empty field of memory? The city and state rightly decided that the public should help answer these questions. A first series of designs was presented and rejected. A second planning effort, international in reach and wide-ranging in scope, led to a spectacular display of finalists at the rebuilt Winter Garden. I was fortunate enough to be selected as the winner.
It is worth remembering that it was only two years ago that the master plan contract was signed. The general agreement for the creation of land parcels and underground structures was accepted just 20 months ago. Measured against any reasonable standard, this project has come a long way in a very short time. (Recall that after the Oklahoma City bombing it took five years to complete the memorial and six years to finish the museum.)
Perhaps a detailed explanation of the status of the major facets of the project, and a reminder of what we will have in the end, will help allay New Yorkers' famous impatience.
The 9/11 memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, set within a tree-filled park, will abut the old towers' exposed foundation, or slurry wall, which descends 75 feet down to bedrock. It will have two sunken pools in the footprints of the towers, 35 feet below the ground, with cascading waterfalls. A full-scale mock-up of the waterfalls is being tested now; construction of the memorial will begin next spring and it should be completed in September 2009.
The Freedom Tower - which will reach 1,776 feet into the sky - is being redesigned to make it the safest tower in the world. Yes, work has been delayed by security concerns, but we may make up for this with an expedited construction schedule and a simpler, more slender design. The new plans will be made public in a matter of weeks.
Other aspects of the effort are proceeding apace. Groundbreaking for Santiago Calatrava's spectacular transportation center is set for late summer; work should be completed in 2009. The International Freedom Center and International Drawing Center will break ground on their shared cultural center in 2007; it too should open in 2009. And we will soon see Frank Gehry's design for the performing arts center, which should be completed in about three years.
At the center of all this will be the Wedge of Light Plaza, a public space the size of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Its shape was inspired by the configuration of sunlight at the Trade Center at the times on that terrible morning when the first plane struck and when the second tower fell.
The master plan is not a straitjacket. For example, if a decision were made to convert some towers to residential instead of commercial use, the plan could accommodate that decision without compromising integrity or sacrificing light and air.
Some things, however, are inviolable. The Freedom Tower must remain the beacon around which the others cluster. It must stand 1,776 feet tall, and it should beckon toward the Hudson River. These are not simply hallmarks of a plastic keychain souvenir. Symbols matter - whether the slurry wall, the Wedge of Light Plaza or the luminous Freedom Tower itself. The quality of what we achieve at ground zero will, after all, define the New York skyline and give shape to our aspirations and dreams.
When I hear the naysayers carping about the supposed lack of progress, I like to think of a phrase written by George Washington in a letter during the bleak early days of the Revolutionary War: "Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages."
The record of achievement in America then and now affirms my optimism and sustains my resolve.