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The Breaking of Michael Arad


Gretchen Dystra, the embattled head of the WTC Memorial Foundation, has raised just $131.4 million for the memorial, a tiny fraction of the current estimate.  

What happened next ignited the all-out war that has embroiled the memorial project ever since. Davis Brody Bond suggested what appeared to be a minor change to the memorial: The firm wanted to center Arad’s two fountains over the original footprints of the Twin Towers. Arad’s initial design had the pools set off within the footprints, positioned slightly south, primarily as a way to accommodate four access ramps—an entrance and an exit for each pool. Centering the pools, according to Bond, “had meaning to many of the families. They didn’t even know the pools weren’t centered on the footprints.”

Then again, it had meaning to families only after they were told about it. Arad thought that having the pools on the exact center of the footprints was of no real significance—the total area of the pools, the galleries, and the ramps covered the combined footprints anyway.

“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.”

The effect of Davis Brody Bond’s alteration was that Arad’s scheme for four ramps was now untenable, forcing the northern ramp’s entrance directly onto Fulton Street. The LMDC embraced the change and requested alternative designs for the ramps to see how the change could be accommodated. In response, Davis Brody Bond proposed a two-ramp scheme—one entrance, one exit—to be placed in the center of the plaza, directly between the two voids, both extending 400 feet underground to a large central room the firm had also proposed be placed between the two recessed pools. This middle antechamber would have bathrooms and other facilities that Arad hadn’t included in his original design.

To casual observers, the ramps might appear to be no big deal, glorified subway entrances. But to Arad, the change represented everything he had feared about losing control of the project. Although he didn’t object to the central hall per se, having the ramp entrance there destroyed his notion of drawing visitors through a distinct walking narrative that focused on the experience of the pools, especially the initial breathtaking view at the bottom. Now that experience was marred by the tourist facility.

Learning that Davis Brody Bond was about to redesign the ramps, Handel stepped in to defend Arad. Over breakfast with Davis Brody Bond partner Carl Krebs, he said it was unethical, not to mention discourteous, for Davis Brody Bond to draw up alternative designs that conflicted with the designer’s. “What are you doing? This is not really your place,” he said. “Well,” responded Krebs, “they asked us to do it, and they’re our client.”

Handel and Arad suspected the firm had changed the alignment of the pools for a reason that had nothing to do with the families: to better accommodate design elements of another project, the $160 million Memorial Museum that Davis Brody Bond was bidding to take over. Moving the pools changed the shape of the underground areas, allowing more of the original towers’ sheared-off column remnants and exposed slurry wall to be seen in the museum. Handel considered it a conflict of interest for Davis Brody Bond to take the job.

Arad grew wildly frustrated. He blew up during meetings, especially at Krebs, with whom he most closely worked. “Michael or his staff would go to all these meetings, but if Michael didn’t hear what he wanted to hear, he would either challenge it or sometimes he would just walk out of the meeting,” says Krebs. “But ultimately it didn’t change the facts of the job and the problems we had to solve.”

The LMDC asked Arad and Davis Brody Bond to present their competing ramp designs to the board. When Arad and Handel arrived, they were surprised to discover a memo drawn up by a Davis Brody Bond–hired engineer calculating that the two-ramp design would be more structurally sound and less expensive. The memo included bulleted points from a crowd-flow study showing that the two-ramp scheme was easier to navigate and required less staff.

Arad and Handel believed they were being sidelined and feared Davis Brody Bond could manipulate the data to support its concept. Says Handel, “The way you ask the questions on a lot of these studies can determine the answers. We never got to be involved in fashioning the questions.”

Handel had a longstanding relationship with the engineering firm Davis Brody Bond had used for the structural analysis, WSP Cantor Seinuk. That day, he called the company’s chief executive, Silvian Marcus, to ask how he could allow his engineers to support the conclusions in Davis Brody Bond’s memo, according to a person familiar with the events. He learned that a junior engineer had created the memo with architects from Davis Brody Bond over the previous weekend. Marcus was deeply uncomfortable having his data used in a design turf war, says the person.

When the LMDC questioned Marcus in a subsequent meeting that week, he was nervous and evasive, say witnesses, hoping to avoid coming down one way or the other on the ramps. Davis Brody Bond partners suspected he had been pressured by Handel to disavow his conclusions, say people close to the firm. Finally, an exasperated Rampe asked Marcus point-blank whether the two-ramp design was cheaper. Marcus conceded it was.

That effectively ended Arad’s stay at Davis Brody Bond, though he was hardly done fighting. In violation of his contract, he appealed directly to LMDC board members to gain a final hearing on the ramps. In early 2005, he appeared before a group of board members from the LMDC and the newly formed World Trade Center Foundation. At the presentation, Arad selectively culled data from David Brody Bond’s own reports to defuse its arguments and support his own. It didn’t work. Afterward, then–Disney chief Michael Eisner, a foundation board member and a longtime architecture patron, gave Arad some fatherly advice. “If I were you, at this stage of my life,” he said, according to two witnesses, “I would get behind this thing and claim victory at the end. Let things move the way they need to move, and don’t obstruct things.”

The LMDC went for two ramps.

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