NEW YORK — Before he won the competition to design the memorial for the World Trade Center site, Michael Arad was one of a team of architects designing a 108-story skyscraper planned for Hong Kong. He worked on details of the soaring structure’s pinnacle, including a sky deck and a restaurant, much like Windows on the World atop one of the ill fated twin towers.
Arad’s move from helping create one of the world’s tallest buildings to memorializing those who perished in the destruction of two other claimants to that title is but one dramatic transformation he has recently undergone.
The 34-year-old architect had no public reputation before his project “Reflecting Absence” triumphed in the international memorial contest, beating out 5,200 other entries. His selection last month catapulted him into the ranks of stellar architects like Santiago Calatrava, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, David Childs, Fumihiko Maki and Daniel Libeskind who are setting their mark on the closely watched parcel of downtown Manhattan.
It’s taking time for Arad to adjust to the limelight. “Take a deep breath,” a communications specialist for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. could be overheard advising him before a recent press interview.
Sitting in the spacious conference room of the LMDC headquarters — located next to the now empty trade center plot that government agency is developing — Arad is reluctant to be too precise about what message his minimalist design should convey. That of course is the beauty of minimalism. Arad envisions a vast plaza interrupted by two large cubes or voids containing recessed pools that serve as reminders of the absence of what was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. “I hesitate to narrow the definition of the memorial,” he says softly. “It will mean different things to different people.”
A sign in the hallway outside points to the “Family Room,” reserved for grieving relatives of the 2,749 people who died when terrorists destroyed the towers, a reminder of just how emotionally freighted is Arad’s task. The son of a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, he struggles to find diplomatic skills of his own. Press him again to expand on his design’s meaning, and he’ll respond, “I don’t think I’m some sort of prophet or seer who has some sort of take on this which needs to be shared with the whole world.”
With parents living in bomb-plagued Jerusalem — where his father, diplomat Moshe Arad, most recently retired as vice president of the Hebrew University — and a sister in Tel Aviv, Arad is confronted with terrorism on a more regular basis than most New Yorkers. “Whenever you hear about something on the radio,” he says, “you worry about it.”
Arad graduated with a government degree from Dartmouth College and studied architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology after serving his mandatory military duty with an Israeli army unit stationed in the West Bank. He now has an American wife and recently received a U.S. immigration Green Card. Although he spent a good part of his life abroad as his father took up postings in London, Mexico City, New York and Washington, Arad identifies himself first and foremost as a citizen of the Jewish state.
Arad’s former boss at the large New York-based firm of Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, where he worked on the Hong Kong tower, sees his national background as a direct influence on the memorial’s design. “An architect has only his own internal experience and emotion to draw upon,” says Paul Katz, a partner at KPF. “His background of being an Israeli gave him a special understanding of a place like that. Israelis have had to deal with a history of loss of life. There are many memorials, monuments to the Holocaust. There’s a long tradition of creating historical memorials with modern architecture.”
Soon after Arad was awarded the coveted commission, an op-ed piece in a New York newspaper argued in a similar vein. “Israelis understand how to commemorate mass murder the way Eskimos know how to deal with snowstorms,” commentator Zev Chafets wrote in The Daily News. “They are experts the hard way.”
A gangly figure with a dark brown forelock poised above sleek chrome spectacle frames, Arad disputes any such theory. “You can never really know how it would be to see things from any other viewpoint from your own. You can imagine them. I’d like to think that what I’m suggesting here is not a product of being an Israeli. I don’t think I’m that Eskimo.”
The discussion of his nationality prompts Arad to tell about the Arab model maker who let him use his workshop for free when he was trying out ideas for the memorial competition. “I really would dislike characterizing this story as an issue of Moslem vs. Jews or Israelis or Americans. I think this memorial should transcend those divisions. In this process, one of the most generous people I’ve dealt with is a Syrian,” he explains.
After the jury had narrowed the thousands of entries down to eight, Arad was asked to supply further sketches and a study model. “But I didn’t have any budget for it.” The model maker, whom Arad encountered through his work at KPF, and his crew of six other workers from Syria, Egypt, Ecuador and China stepped into the breach, spending three or four days with Arad to create the new mock-up without charge.
Just as Arad doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as an “Israeli architect,” he is loath to appear an epigone of Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin served on the selection jury, and many critics have likened Arad’s work to hers. While praising the now celebrated monument that she designed while still a Yale architecture student, Arad quickly adds, “Many people’s work has influenced me. I can trace influence from A to Z, from Ando to Zumthor, and probably half a dozen other names in between,” meaning the contemporary Japanese architect Tadao Ando and Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor.
When Arad entered the memorial competition, he was a fresh hire at the New York City Housing Authority as an assistant architect. Before that, he spent three years working at KPF. “He’s a very smart guy, focused and aggressive,” says Katz. “He’s going to live up to his promise. It’s quite a brilliant scheme.”
KPF is providing short-term assistance to Arad as he works to finalize the design. Arad left the firm two years ago in part because he lacked the requisite U.S. work permit at the time, but he also sought a different kind of challenge. “I wanted to explore working on public projects and something on a smaller scale.” At the Housing Authority, Arad embarked upon feasibility studies for police station designs, but he formally resigned from that public service job a few weeks ago since his responsibilities on the memorial project have become all consuming.
Recalling the impact of Sept. 11 on his own life, Arad says it pushed him and his wife, a tax attorney at the prestigious New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, to have a child earlier rather than they had planned. The couple live in lower Manhattan’s East Village and experienced the stench of the attack first hand. “It reshuffled priorities,” says Arad, whose son Nathaniel is now 6 months old. “Things like staying late at work every night seemed less important. Though now that I’m here, I don’t have any time. I got home last night at 11, the baby’s already sleeping and it’s not what I’d hoped to do. I had hoped I’d be more present in his life.”
For now, Arad is focused on refining his memorial design, on which he is collaborating with veteran landscape designer Peter Walker. That partnership arose when the jury was not fully satisfied with Arad’s original proposal, and urged him to consult with a landscape specialist. Arad chose Berkeley-based Walker, who has rendered the plan far less stark by filling in the plaza surrounding the two voids with rows of lush trees that will form clusters, clearings and groves.
“We bonded very closely and very quickly,” Arad says of his work so far with 71-year-old Walker, “just because of the pressures which we are under, which are quite tremendous.” Walker, who shares a minimalist aesthetic with the much younger Arad, concurs. He also resists the assertion of some critics that his own input was the key to Arad’s winning the competition. “I didn’t save the day. I have some skills, but Michael was in there hammer and tongs. He’s young and hasn’t had that much experience, but he’s plenty smart.”
Both Walker and Arad are trying to determine whether the memorial’s twin voids can have a direct and exact relationship to the footprints of the vanished towers. Arad’s design proposal implied such a tie, but the tangled infrastructure underlying the site may render that impossible. The architect brushes aside any suggestion that the lack of a direct link could undermine the authenticity of his concept. “I hear negative comments about this aspect or that aspect of the memorial daily,” Arad says. “I can’t let every eddy in the stream upset me.”