Studio Daniel Libeskind: Memorial and Monument United

Known for designing the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Daniel Libeskind uses architectural forms to reveal and express contradictions in historical moments and creates a participatory space for the visitor. Unlike Norman Foster, the architect pondered over the problem of the dichotomy of memorial and architectural monument from the outset. In his mission statement, he wrote:

“When I first began this project, New Yorkers were divided as to whether to keep the site of the World Trade Center empty or to fill the site completely and build upon it. I meditated many days on this seemingly impossible dichotomy. To acknowledge the terrible deaths which occurred on this site, while looking to the future with hope, seemed like two moments which could not be joined. I sought to find a solution which would bring these seemingly contradictory viewpoints into an unexpected unity.”

Libeskind found the solution on a visit to Ground Zero, concluding that the surviving concrete foundation walls were the most dramatic element of the attacks. He wrote, “The foundations withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction and stand as eloquent as the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and the value of individual life.” He has chosen to retain the concrete bedrock as the focal point of his plan, relating all subsequent elements to the hallowed space.


He memorializes not just the location of death, but also the heroic actions of the attacks by charting out the path of rescue teams. The result of these “Heroes Lines” is a radiating pattern, centered on Ground Zero. These paths will be marked on the pavement at ground level, making the site a “latticework of commemoration” and a constant affirmation of hope for mankind. In his concept plan, Libeskind demonstrates that the unification of monument and memorial is possible. I assert that such a fusion also begets a design that is well integrated and satisfies the conditions of New Urbanism in the process.

To comprehend the World Trade Center, Libeskind believes we need to deliberately journey down to the foundation, seventy feet below, which he retains as the memoria. The symbolic architectural link between the world above and Ground Zero is the museum. From Ground Zero, the buildings seem to unfold from the center, connected by an elevated circular memorial promenade. The “Wedge of Light” is a large area of public garden space along the extended Fulton Street. He has designed the buildings so that on September 11th of every year, between 8:46 am and 10:28 am, the moments when the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the sun will shine without shadow to commemorate the lives lost. Libeskind has thus created both an experiential memorial—the descending museum to Ground Zero—and a living one that perpetuates in time with the Wedge of Light.

Public space is abundant but also evenly distributed throughout the site plan. This is in sharp contrast to Norman Foster’s twenty-acre park, which is guilty of Jane Jacob’s criticism of meaningless park space: “there is no point in bringing parks to where the people are, if in the process the reasons that the people are there are wiped out and the park substituted for them.” The museum and buildings surround the Wedge of Light and the Park of Heroes, ensuring constant travel within the open spaces. By situating the public spaces amidst the buildings, Libeskind takes into account the path of the human in his plan.

Akin to the Foster and Partners plan, the vertical gardens uniquely address the New Urbanist demand for well integrated public space. Foster’s parks in the sky primarily serve a technical function, improving air quality and circulation within the towers. In contrast, Libeskind uses his vertical “Gardens of the World” for a social purpose: to celebrate the different climates of the globe. Contained within the tallest building, the Gardens of the World signify vitality and optimism. In addition, rows of trees will line the new West Street, Fulton Street, Greenwich Street, Church Street, the Memorial Promenade and the periphery of the plan.

Libeskind has fully extended Fulton Street and Greenwich Street, thereby eliminating the superblock and permitting both pedestrian and automobile traffic. Now oriented towards the street, the buildings are given a sense of location. Combining the shopping concourse with transit increases accessibility to public transportation. In addition, locating the station in the southeastern corner of the site enhances transit accessibility for residents of Battery Park. Direct transit entrances at ground level will be located on Greenwich Street, Church Street and Broadway. The World Financial Center is also connected to the transit station via an underground concourse.

Libeskind also honors the idea of a mixed-use neighborhood on the pedestrian scale, combining culture buildings, shops, cinemas and offices in walking distance of each other. An underground mall supplements street-level shops and cafes. The edges of the area are clearly defined with buildings that are oriented inwards as if also on the Heroic Lines. In addition, the extended streets provide connection between periphery buildings and the central memorial. All in all, the importance of the edge and for diverse, well-integrated neighborhoods in New Urbanist principles is honored.

While Libeskind also calls for the tallest building in the world to be built at the World Trade Center, his skyline element soars to a symbolic height of 1776 feet, but it is not disruptive (Plate VIII). Instead, the tallest tower tapers into a spire. His multifaceted buildings defy traditional shape, neither rational nor geometric. The upper half contains the Gardens of the World, “a series of landscapes inside open trusswork.” In the lower half, garden and office space alternate per floor.

By uniting memorial and monument, Daniel Libeskind is able to architecturally represent the discourse between remembrance and reassertion. Muschamp writes that Daniel Libeskind’s project “attains a perfect balance between aggression and desire…freedom and intimidation.” Further praise is elicited from Goldberger who asserts, “Libeskind’s greatest gift is for interweaving simple, commemorative concepts and abstract architectural ideas…He is the most likely figure to pull together the conflicting constituencies.”  By reconciling this dichotomy, the architect has produced a plan that is well integrated and satisfies many of the principles of New Urbanism: pedestrian scale, mixed-use neighborhoods, an even distribution of park space, accessible transit and integration with Lower Manhattan.

The programmatic demands for the new World Trade Center were a reaction to the CIAM principles that imbued the original site. Yamasaki’s design was widely criticized for its unabashed embrace of technology, its dehumanization of the urban fabric and the destruction of the neighborhood. The principles of New Urbanism, originally conceived in response to the CIAM principles, pervaded the new program.

A critical element of the new World Trade Center is the incorporation of monument and memorial amidst the site. The Foster and Partners plan, though superficially containing the structural elements of New Urbanism, fails to integrate the individual components within the site itself or to Lower Manhattan. For Foster, monument and memorial are mutually exclusive. Daniel Libeskind however, unites monument and memorial within an ideological framework. He represents architecturally the dialectic between tragedy and national strength and the need for its ultimate reconciliation at the World Trade Center. Through this unification, Libeskind is also able to fulfill the principles of New Urbanism in an architecturally contemporary form.

Looking back, architecturally, anything would have been more interesting than the building that was finally built for 1 WTC. As harshly as I criticized the Foster and Partners plan from an urban planning perspective, the building was at least making an architectural statement and served visually as a referent to the past. As history has foretold, Daniel Liebeskind won the competition but was pushed out from the continuing developments of the World Trade Center site, his theories and hopes for the contentious site overrun by the needs of real estate. In the end we have a building that is simply there, that asserts towards only a perceived sense of greater security in America, and reflects the continuing dominance of real estate interest in this city . There was once a time where real estate and architecture worked in tandem to build some of the city’s most glorious icons–Empire State, The Woolworth Building, just to name a few–but we can only hope that today we have hit the pinnacle of the latter’s dominance. 

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