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The Breaking of Michael Arad


The Working Models
Arad had to make his concept fit within the tight framework of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan. Here, from November 2004, is an interior view of the memorial, left, and an aerial view with Libeskind’s Freedom Tower behind it.  

Arad couldn’t shake the image of absences on water and started to work on a physical manifestation of it. He and a model-maker named Jimmy Awad constructed a small fountain consisting of two square voids set into a black surface. It was made of Plexiglas, with a motor taken from a Bed, Bath & Beyond desk fountain. “It was really a magical moment, to see this idea that’s in your head,” he says.

When the contest was announced, Arad says, he hesitated at first, wondering if he could fit his vision into the quirky space Libeskind had designated for it. But he discovered the fine print in the contest guidelines allowed for designs that digressed from the master plan. With just two weeks to assemble a presentation, he persuaded a few colleagues to help him construct his concept, barely meeting the deadline. Later, there would be complaints about his failure to share credit.

“This business of being so angry at things that you can’t function—I think that’s a real problem. He’s not quite in control of himself,” Walker said of Arad.

In describing his inspiration, Arad speaks of a vision bigger than himself. “It sounds really over the top to say you’re responsible for the city of New York, but I do feel responsibility to the city of New York, to this country, to people everywhere. So many people were affected by the events of September 11, and I feel this is one of the ways that that event will be understood and defined.”

It is typical for architects to pay their dues for decades before building anything greater than a private residence. Libeskind was known for years as “a paper architect,” a builder of nothing but ideas. By the time architects get a crack at large public commissions, if they ever do, they’ve learned the hard necessity of adapting their artistic instincts to the larger purpose of getting something built.

Arad, however, never had the chance to absorb much of this. That stint at KPF hardly prepared him to deal with powerful people and institutions. “It’s like being in ninth grade and going to a new school and having no friends, no networks, no parents with influence,” says Van Valkenburgh, the jury member.

Arad chose to go on the offensive. If he was going to get things accomplished, he decided, he would have to push hard. One of his first moves was to get an aggressive attorney named Michael De Chiara, who demanded that Arad’s contract clearly define him as the lead architect and Walker as a subcontractor. Arad also told the LMDC he wanted the agency to fund a new firm called Arad Architects.

Initially, the LMDC had given Arad exactly what he asked for. In the weeks following the unveiling, he received checks for more than $400,000 to begin commissioning studies on the viability of his design. Arad’s own pay rate was set at $85 an hour, a nice raise from his $50,000 salary at the Housing Authority.

But when it came time to negotiate Arad’s role, the then-president of the LMDC, Kevin Rampe, a former state insurance commissioner and assistant counsel to Pataki, was taken aback by Arad’s hardball tactics. “We were very surprised that he had a lawyer,” he says, adding that De Chiara began dropping names of people he knew in Pataki’s office. Angered, Rampe walked out of the meeting.

The LMDC balked at subsidizing a whole firm. “From our perspective, there’s no way that we’re going to have a situation where somebody with his experience is going to lead the entire team,” says Rampe. “It was never intended!” Arad simply could not understand that—and still doesn’t. Of the eight finalists for the memorial, he argues, he was the only registered architect. “I was in a unique position,” he says.

Forced to rely on the resources of his former firm, KPF, Arad refused to sign the contract until the LMDC resolved his role, and over the next several weeks, LMDC officials hustled Arad from meeting to meeting with city agencies, which confronted him with an array of technical hurdles. Key elements of his memorial were imperiled by the needs of adjoining stakeholders, notably the Port Authority, which had already designed various utilities, including a service ramp and train tracks, around Libeskind’s master plan and didn’t want to go back to the drawing board. “In challenging the Libeskind plan, I upset a lot of carts that carried a lot of assumptions,” says Arad. “We were not a square peg fitting into a square hole.”

Walker knew better than to go around upsetting people’s carts. Skilled in the art of accommodating corporate clients and museum directors, he was startled by Arad’s tendency to erupt when he didn’t get his way. During one meeting with the Port Authority, says Walker’s partner, Doug Findlay, Arad stormed out after being told a service ramp could not be moved. Arad so offended Port Authority officials, according to Findlay, that he “was never invited to the meetings again.”

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