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The Breaking of Michael Arad

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Daniel Libeskind, the designer of the Freedom Tower.  

Walker grew concerned, he says. As part of accepting the deal to design the landscape of the memorial, he had signed a contract saying he would remain Arad’s partner until the completion of the project—come what may. “I remember being in a separate office, saying, ‘Michael, we made a deal here. How much do you think we’re going to get by shaking our fist?’ He said, ‘Oh, I was just bluffing.’ That’s when I started wondering whether we may have bitten off more than we could chew.”

“It was not an easy meeting,” admits Arad, “but I think it was going to be necessary to bridge a fairly large divide.”

Arad and Libeskind were taken to separate rooms. After they both apologized, Matthew Higgins, the LMDC’s chief operating officer, suggested splitting the culture building in half, retaining Libeskind’s unique design but opening up the plaza entrance. Everyone agreed.

The day before the unveiling, Mayor Bloomberg came to see the new model. He liked Arad’s design but had a question. “What about the names?” he asked.

Arad wanted to display the names of those who died in random order around the two pools, to signify the random nature of the acts of terror—a kind of equality in tragedy. But he also had a concept called “meaningful adjacencies,” by which certain family members would be grouped together. Arad agonized over which to choose. “It was an incredibly painful choice to make,” he says. “It was one of the moments in the process where I cried. It felt like doing the right thing was very painful.”

Bloomberg had a different concern—that uniformed personnel, like firefighters and police officers, be recognized. Foreseeing this, Arad had toyed with the idea of marking the names of firemen, policemen, and Port Authority and EMT workers with subtle insignia.

That notion ran into problems, too. In a private viewing of the model, both Fire Department officials and victims’ families angrily demanded a more prominent display. The families of flight attendants chimed in with their own demand for insignia. This would be but one of many run-ins with victims groups, and at that point, Arad was able to at least feign diplomacy. The next day, he said in a statement, “Every way you find to resolve this satisfies some, but causes pain and anguish to others.”

Arad had been living in New York for a little more than two years before 9/11. His trajectory up to that point had been odd—born in London, he’d spent his high-school years in Mexico City, where his father was the Israeli ambassador (he was a close aide to Yitzhak Rabin back home). Arad eventually went to Dartmouth, interrupting his studies to serve in the Israeli military. He met his wife, Melanie Fitzpatrick, now a corporate lawyer, in college, and after graduation, they snowboarded in Colorado for a year. Then they went off together to their respective graduate schools at Georgia Tech before finally moving to Manhattan. “New York was a place I wanted to live and work all along,” he says. “If I wasn’t going to live in Israel, I had to live in New York.” Arad’s first job was at the big architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, where he spent a year designing the top twenty floors of a Hong Kong skyscraper.

From the roof of his apartment on First Avenue, he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Heading downtown later that morning, Arad picked up a singed photograph of somebody’s prized show dog, which had evidently flown out of one of the towers. Arad went home and traced the owner through the American Kennel Society. “I picked it up and couldn’t put it down,” he says, noting that he and his wife also keep a show dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Ginger. “It was one of those things I felt responsible for just by picking it up.”

The dog’s owner was an AON Corporation employee who escaped 2 World Trade Center. He met Arad for dinner two months later. “It was this almost involuntary need to participate,” says Arad.

Bored by abstract corporate work, Arad soon left KPF in favor of a job with the design department of the Housing Authority. He was inspired to make the switch when he noticed a nice Housing Authority police station in his neighborhood and decided he’d rather design things like that. After the birth of his first child, he took paternity leave, which he devoted to working on his memorial design.

In the PowerPoint presentation he gives on the genesis of the memorial, Arad comes across like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Long before the contest was announced, he says, fragments of ideas came to him—first a birthday cake in a pastry-shop window featuring the Twin Towers etched in frosting. Near the Hudson River one evening, he imagined “the idea of the reflection of the skyline on the river and these absences being superimposed on it.”


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