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The Breaking of Michael Arad

The Original Vision
From left, one of Arad’s first sketches from 2002 of his idea of two voids reflected in the Hudson River; a model of that idea that he built on the roof of his East Village apartment building in October 2002; the rendering that he entered in the memorial competition in June 2003.   

The man the jury had chosen certainly did not lack for tenacity. “You can just never desist,” says Arad. “You have to always push back, whatever the pressures put on you.” To illustrate his point, he opens his laptop and pulls up a picture taken when he was a 19-year-old soldier in the Israeli Army during the first intifada. Standing in the desert, tanned and grinning broadly, he hoists a five-foot rocket-propelled-grenade launcher in his hands. “When I was in the Army, the unit I served in, you could never stop,” he explains, taking pleasure in the image. “It was a volunteer unit, and there was a fairly high rate of attrition. The people who stayed through are the people who were either great at it or the people who just didn’t know how to stop. And I fell into that second category.”

Though no firm timetable seems to have ever been established, construction was supposed to be under way by this spring. The failure to get the project moving has allowed costs to balloon. Construction materials have risen by 30 percent, while every 9/11 constituency has had ample opportunity to push its pet interest into the mix. Now the memorial complex includes a museum that started as an afterthought and has grown into a facility slated to cost roughly $160 million. Meanwhile, the fund-raising for the memorial, overseen by Gretchen Dykstra, the head of the World Trade Center Memorial Fund, has stalled as 9/11 fades in the philanthropic Zeitgeist. Blame gets passed around everywhere, and everywhere, perhaps, it’s deserved.

Of the eight finalists who presented their designs before the memorial jury, Arad was the only one who appeared without a team or a partner. “A lone wolf,” as one of the jurors described him. Also, his design ventured much further outside the lines of Daniel Libeskind’s ground-zero master plan than other contestants dared to go. Arad even blithely redrew a service ramp that the Port Authority had already planned and threw out the cultural building Libeskind had designed and that the LMDC said was required. The guidelines were “fairly restrictive in terms of what the memorial could and couldn’t be, and I think I pushed against it somewhat,” says Arad. “Daniel Libeskind had designed the memorial, and you were given the task of picking fabric swatches.”

Arad was surprised to hear later that he came across as arrogant during his presentation. “Because I felt so small,” he says, laughing. “And so worried. And I probably talked twice as fast as I should have.”

Lin recognized the value in Arad’s resistance. “Maya was able to set our sights on the kind of intensity—the scrutiny and the kind of forces that were going to come to play on his design,” says Michael Van Valkenburgh, a landscape architect who served on the jury. “We recognized a kind of stamina that he had. It seemed like it would hold up.” (Lin declined to comment.)

After Arad’s presentation, the jury pressed him to elaborate on his design. For landscaping, he’d planned just a handful of trees, which jurors thought barren and inhospitable. Arad tried to address the situation on his own, giving himself a crash course in landscaping, but the jury urged him to find a partner. Arad reached out to Walker, a renowned California designer whose firm had submitted a memorial proposal that didn’t make the cut. Walker accepted the invitation and then took the lead in presenting Arad’s revised model to the jury. Impressed with Walker, the jury insisted that Arad take him on as his partner. Reluctantly, Arad agreed.

The partnership was volatile from the start. Walker says the jurors asked him specifically to serve as a mentor to Arad because they were nervous about his inexperience. But Arad still gets agitated at suggestions that Walker is somehow the “co-designer” of the memorial. “I don’t care if Peter is described as this or that,” he says. “It’s my design.”

“I will fight this!” Daniel Libeskind yelled after learning that Arad’s memorial design had been picked. “I am the people’s architect!”

Arad immediately started behaving as if he had a powerful public mandate, which didn’t exactly put him in the right frame of mind to negotiate with Libeskind about fitting the memorial into the master plan. Libeskind, for his part, was enraged that Arad’s design had won. It effectively obliterated his original design for the memorial, which called for the area to remain a sunken pit with an open lawn at the bottom. “I will fight this!” he yelled during his first meeting about it with the LMDC. “I am the people’s architect!”

Shortly after, Arad met with Libeskind to agree on a model to unveil to the public. Arad disliked the cultural building that Libeskind had designed in his master plan because it obscured the plaza entrance, so he had relocated it to the southwest corner of the site, redrawing it as a boxy ten-story building that blocked the West Side Highway from view. LMDC officials referred to it as the “Motel 6” and wanted it returned to the northeast corner, where Libeskind had originally put it. Arad hoped it would go away altogether, and he made his point bluntly. “We went to Daniel’s office, and immediately Michael was taking exception to this thing,” says Walker. “It became a shouting match. Twice I took him out of the room.”