Q+A – Michael Arad

When did you first begin sketching ideas for a memorial?

A few months after 9/11. My initial idea was to place a memorial out in the Hudson River, two voids that would be close by but inaccessible. Water would flow in both but they wouldn’t ever fill up. By October of 2002 I’d made a basic model of that design. Then, after seeing the master plans for the site begin to emerge, I started imagining a design for the site itself.

Your entry, like a couple of others favored by the jury, defied the basic guidelines of the Libeskind master plan by bringing the memorial out of the bathtub and up to the street.

I wanted to connect the memorial to the city, to the life of the city. Keeping the void there seemed to sever the site.

Peter Walker has said that in retrospect maybe he followed the guidelines too closely in his own entry, and that it took a younger, brasher designer to question the master plan as you did.

Well, I didn’t enter with any expectation of the design going anywhere, so that might explain my willingness to bend the rules. But I also think the differences between our plan and the master plan have been overplayed. Daniel Libeskind’s design for that part of the site was one large void. Ours has two smaller voids. And the process of walking down to the bedrock is part of both. There are real similarities in our approaches-they’re just not as exciting for the press to talk about.

Where were you when you found out that you’d been named a finalist?

I’d changed my cell phone from the one that I’d given the LMDC [Lower Manhattan Development Corporation], and so they called me and didn’t get an answer. Then they sent me an email, and because my son was six weeks old at the time I wasn’t checking my email all that often. So the news sat in my inbox for about three days. I came across it late one night.

You have been aggressive so far in defending your design. There have even been some news reports that the LMDC had to ask you to stop bringing your lawyer to planning meetings.

That hasn’t really been portrayed accurately. I believe strongly in the integrity of the design and I want to see it executed. And that’s not true of everybody in the process.

There has been a lot of discussion about what to do on the western edge of the site-whether it’s worthwhile to spend roughly $1 billion to put several blocks of West Street underground, so there’s not heavy traffic rushing right by the memorial.

I wish I were in more of a negotiating position on this issue than I am. It involves so many other entities. I think we need to find a way to maintain openness across the site but also keep the memorial protected from all kinds of traffic. What I really want to avoid at all costs is a large barrier between West Street and the site.

How will security be handled at the memorial? Will people have to wait in long lines when the crowds are big, or go through metal detectors?

It’s a major concern. I’m not really the right person to do that sort of analysis, but we’re going to hire an expert and begin working that out with the Port Authority and the LMDC. It’s early in the process, but we’re very aware of security and how it might affect the experience of visiting the memorial.

Some relatives of 9/11 victims have made a big push to include the relics from the attack-pieces of the towers, crushed fire trucks-in the memorial. Do you think a literal record of the attack will detract from the abstract nature of your design?

I was never against the inclusion of them. I just thought putting them above ground wasn’t the right way to treat them. The way we’ve decided to handle those objects, below ground, they’ll be protected. These pieces are very fragile. When I went out to the hangar to see them you could see huge flakes of rust falling off.

How tough has it been to reach a compromise about marking the names of uniformed personnel as opposed to other victims?

The issue of names is one of the most difficult I’ve had to deal with. Some of the firefighters want their [peers’] names segregated as a way to mark their sacrifice, that they lost their lives trying to save other lives. But the victims’ family members feel that would be putting a higher value on some names. I thought it was important to keep all the names together. But we’ll mark the police and firefighters with a small shield or other symbol.

What are the biggest misconceptions about your design? What has the press gotten wrong?

I wouldn’t say the press has really gotten anything wrong. But it’s been hard for people to understand the entirety of the design based on the handful of images that have been released so far. I hope in the coming months we’ll be able to share more renderings and models. But in the end, the experience of actually standing there and physically experiencing the magnitude of the space and seeing all the hundreds of names of people who perished there-well, no rendering can convey that.

Christopher Hawthorne is a freelance architecture and design writer based in the Bay Area. He contributes regularly to The New York Times, Metropolis, and Slate.

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