Out of Monumental Loss, a Park Like No Other
By ROBIN FINN
Published: January 21, 2004
What made him stop feeling like an outsider and start feeling like a bona fide New Yorker was, he says, the horror of Sept. 11: he watched the second plane hit from his rooftop, raced downtown to find his wife and, from Fulton Street, experienced the collapse of the first tower. Even before the memorial contest, he began work on a memorial. "I was thinking about what type of a memorial would feel right, what I would find meaningful," he says. "The idea of absence was a very tangible thing to me." Mr. Arad's first concept involved a pair of inaccessible voids, representative of the ruined towers, set in the Hudson River. He made a model of his idea, put it aside, but revisited it when the World Trade Center competition was announced.
He also entered the contest for the Pentagon memorial, but spent just a few hurried days on it; in contrast, the World Trade Center design became a 24/7 obsession. He shuttled between his day job with the New York City Housing Authority, late-night brainstorming sessions at a fellow architect's apartment, and the Kinko's on Astor Place, where all the copying was done. The project took over his life to the point where his wife, Melanie, then pregnant, issued an ultimatum: "At one point she told me, 'That's the last competition you're gonna enter!' "
Pale-skinned and boyish, with the slightly stooped shoulders common to tall, thin men for whom self-aggrandizement is anathema, Mr. Arad, 34, is no showboat. He lives on the small scale, in an apartment where space is scarce and divided between himself, his spouse, their 5-month-old son, and two strapping Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Because a sister-in-law is visiting and the baby is down with the sniffles, there is no rational way, he apologizes, to conduct this chat on his home turf. Hence our relocation to this unsung Moroccan cafe. Besides, he likes its coffee; after an upbringing spent ricocheting around the globe for his father's postings - London, Washington, Jerusalem, New York, back to Jerusalem, and Mexico City - he has a worldly palate.
He chose Peter Walker, a celebrated San Francisco landscape architect whose minimalist ethos mirrors his own: restrained, but not reductive. "I don't feel like I've lost anything by collaborating with Peter; I'm happy to share the credit," he says, eyes unblinking behind their trendy silver specs. The greening of "Reflecting Absence" solves the starkness of the plaza without losing the effect he sought of "a large central plain in which two voids have been cut out. It's not a park like any other park."
What about those insinuations that he was unduly influenced by Maya Lin's presence on the jury, and by an out-of-competition memorial design she published? "There is a resemblance on some level, but I think it's a superficial resemblance: no, strike the word 'superficial,' " he clarifies. "What I took from her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, what I understand from it, is that it's about the experience of the people walking through it and what they bring to it; what they take away is a product of what they bring to it."