When Michael Arad unveiled his winning design for the World Trade Center Memorial, the last person New York wanted to hear from was another architect. It was January 2004, by which point the ground-zero rebuilding effort had devolved into a grating public spectacle of political bullying and grief-mongering. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the city-state agency charged with rebuilding the site, had abjectly failed to control the process, and the fierce bickering over Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower looked certain to result in an epic compromise that nobody would be satisfied with. Design, it seemed, couldn’t create unity; it led only to intractable differences of taste.
But Arad’s memorial, which he titled Reflecting Absence, conveyed a power and grace that restored the tantalizing possibility of redemption at ground zero. Here was a vision worth believing in, born in the days following 9/11, when the young architect pedaled his ten-speed bike all over lower Manhattan; one time, he joined an impromptu vigil in Washington Square Park at 2 a.m. “It was a very strong sense of community,” says Arad, an Israeli citizen. “It was something I never felt before. I love New York, but I’d felt like an outsider here. I felt a sense of community because of what happened.”
Arad channeled those sentiments into a simple memorial based on two voids placed where the towers once stood, each a city block in length; water would pour from the edges into shimmering pools 30 feet below. Descending underground on ramps, visitors would hear the sound of rushing water, like a thousand people whispering in unison. At the bottom, the space would open up into a gallery with high, cantilevered ceilings. The names of the 2,749 dead would be etched on the perimeter of the pools, all lit by sunlight coming through the sheets of falling water.
Arad’s design had been one of 5,201 entries in an open competition. Anybody could enter and anybody did. They came from all over the world, from professional architects, designers, and artists, as well as inspired amateurs like Dr. Robert Jarvik, the artificial-heart inventor. Over the last six months of 2003, a thirteen-member jury sifted through every last submission and then deliberated among eight finalists, including Arad. In the secret proceedings, Maya Lin, the designer-cum-martyr of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, pushed for Arad’s design; he could not have had a more meaningful advocate. If Lin recognized in Arad something of herself, if she saw in his design a connection to her own extraordinary monument to grief and memory, then maybe Arad’s memorial was really equal to this tragedy. And maybe that would protect it from the conflict that had swallowed up every other inch of ground zero.
One January morning, Arad heard on the radio that the jury had selected a winner, and then received a call at 10:30 a.m. from an LMDC official asking him to come in and sign some papers. Arad said his car battery was dead and asked if it would be okay if he waited until the next day. Told to come in immediately, Arad started to realize that he had won. “I had a hunch going into it,” he says. “It’s a moment that’s, you know—whatever euphoria that existed that moment quickly turned to, well, what are the things I need to do now?”
Days later, on a frigid afternoon, Arad stood next to Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, fragile, almost tender under the glare of the TV cameras, surrounded by press and 9/11 family members, and explained how the design came from a “personal sense of grief and loss.” Arad—whose most serious architectural work to that point had been a police station for the Housing Authority—was handed the commission of a lifetime. “It was a little surreal, the experience,” he says, looking back on that day. “There’s a statue of George Washington in front of the building. It’s a building that has meaning to American history. It all fit together as . . . very sobering. And very, very, very humbling.”
Today, that moment of humility seems like a lifetime ago, as Arad’s memorial teeters on the brink of collapse. The latest cost estimate issued this month—an impossible $972 million—has Bloomberg demanding that the design be scaled back, while others suggest that it be scrapped altogether. The battle that is now breaking into full view has been raging behind the scenes since the moment Arad’s plan was picked. He has waged a personal war against the LMDC—to defend his design, he says, from the agency’s cronyism and shoddy management. In violation of his contract, he has taken his case directly to board members and former jurists and now for the first time tells the full story of what has happened to the memorial, as he sees it (others see it quite differently). “I have no choice but to fight them every step of the way,” says Arad. “I can’t tell you how many other stupid ideas have been proposed over the last two years.”
From the beginning, Arad has been forced to work with various other architects because of the complexity and scale of the project, and he has alienated almost all of them. In fact, the LMDC has barred Arad from communicating with Davis Brody Bond, the architect of record on the site, at the request of its veteran partner, 70-year-old Max Bond. The titular co-designer of the memorial, landscape architect Peter Walker, 74, rarely speaks to Arad. “I think Michael’s relationship with all of the architects has eroded,” says Stefan Pryor, the president of the LMDC. “It’s shades of bad. I say that as someone who does respect Michael.”
Officials say they are as much confused by Arad as they are angry with him. “Genius or egomaniac?” asks one former official, who, like many others interviewed for this story, tells tales of Arad’s tantrums and threats. With less than seven months before the governor’s third and final term expires, the LMDC is under extreme pressure to get the memorial on schedule for a 2009 opening, so that Pataki might still reasonably claim credit for it. If Pataki leaves ground zero a mess, that’s his entire legacy right there.
Many victims groups don’t care for Arad’s design—the powerful Coalition of 9/11 Families hates the fact that it’s underground—but they haven’t been the ones holding it back, try as they might. Many point to Arad’s intransigence as a primary source of the delay. “I would say it’s doubled the length of time,” says Doug Findlay, a partner at Peter Walker & Partners, “[and] that’s the low end of the scale.” Arad counters that he has been nothing if not expedient, perhaps too much so for his handlers’ tastes. The same day he won the contest, he began calling model-makers and renderers. Within a week, he was on the phone with engineers. “I pushed the process forward by saying, ‘We should do this, this, and this right now,’ ” recalls Arad, peering from behind rectangular glasses, his hair combed neatly across his forehead. “ ‘Please find the budget for me to find a structural engineer, a mechanical engineer, a civil engineer, so we can do the preliminary work.’ ”