Ground Zero Guy Demands Control, Readies A Battle
by Blair Golson
NY Observer, March 3, 2004
Ground Zero memorial designer Michael Arad is pushing to gain total control of the project’s $350 million budget, as well as the power to personally hire construction and engineering firms, determine the treatment of the western slurry wall that was a feature of architect Daniel Libeskind’s plan for the site, and make all long-term scheduling decisions, according to several sources close to the rebuilding effort.
The sources, who spoke to The Observer on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Arad’s (and his attorneys’) aggressive push has strained relations between the architect and authorities charged with rebuilding the 16-acre site.
But Mr. Arad told The Observer in a brief interview that he was only working to ensure that his original design for the memorial survives the famously tortuous political environment in which the new World Trade Center is taking shape.
As the lead architect on the World Trade Center memorial, Mr. Arad has final say over issues pertaining to the design of the project. But the ultimate authority for all non-design issues on the memorial lies with his client, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the public-private agency charged with rebuilding lower Manhattan.
"Michael wants unlimited control, without any checks on his responsibilities," said a source close to the situation. "He does not believe that anybody, including the LMDC, should have any control over how the memorial gets built. He wants the LMDC to give him $350 million and then tell them, ‘Come back in five years and see what I built.’"
While acknowledging that there had been some "difficulties" and "hiccups" along the way, Mr. Arad emphatically denied the allegation that he was trying to take near-absolute control over the memorial process. Instead, he suggested that others were misinterpreting his efforts to safeguard the integrity of his design.
"I have not been power-grabbing in any way," he said. "I’m trying to make sure that what I presented to the public is what gets built …. If people read other things into it, then that’s unfortunate."
This dispute is coming to a head as Mr. Arad and the LMDC are negotiating the terms of a long-term contract that will codify Mr. Arad’s responsibilities, pay and powers.
Sources close to the situation said Mr. Arad has been hinting that he might walk off the site if the LMDC does not cede to him the degree of authority he wants. In addition, two sources said that Mr. Arad implicitly threatened LMDC president Kevin Rampe by telling him that he might take his grievances to the public.
"I don’t want to embarrass you by going public—that I’m losing influence over the design," two rebuilding officials remembered Mr. Arad telling Mr. Rampe.
Mr. Rampe declined to comment on the alleged threat and said of his dealings with Mr. Arad, "The LMDC is committed to ensuring that the design by Michael Arad and Peter Walker that was selected by the jury is achieved." Mr. Arad, after a brief interview with The Observer, did not return repeated requests for an additional interview.
The Big Break
When Mr. Arad won his career-making commission from the 13-member jury panel composed of artists, architects, politicians and Sept. 11 family members who chose him out of a pool of 5,201 applicants, many in the internecine-gossip network of New York architects posited that the 34-year-old had been chosen because his design could be railroaded into something that answered more political questions than ethical, emotional or architectural ones.
Indeed, the 16-acre lot where Mr. Arad is carving out a sphere of influence is perhaps the most emotionally scarred and politically charged patch of real estate in the country—no less so when Mr. Arad was chosen in January, more than two years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
At the time, Mr. Arad had a $50,000-a-year job as an assistant architect with the City Housing Authority, where he was helping to design a police station.
Mr. Arad’s design, entitled Reflecting Absence, turns the footprints of the fallen Twin Towers into two sunken reflecting pools, fed by cascading streams of water. After becoming a finalist, and at the recommendation of the jury, Mr. Arad brought on a landscape architect, Peter Walker, to add trees and greenery to his barren concrete plaza.
Mr. Arad has said that he didn’t mind sharing credit with Mr. Walker, but as one memorial jury member told The Observer, he didn’t really have a choice.
"It’s quite clear that Walker and Arad together make the design," said juror James Young, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Neither by himself would have been chosen." (Mr. Young stressed that he did not observe in Mr. Arad any of the power-grabbing tendencies that are now being alleged.)
The Observer has learned, however, that even before Mr. Arad brought Mr. Walker on as a teammate, some members of Mr. Arad’s original team were already upset with him for not sharing credit on his design.
During a frantic two-week period before the deadline for memorial submissions in June, Mr. Arad sought out the help of three of his architect friends to help him develop his original idea of two sunken reflecting pools. Two of those friends, Bruno Caballé and Lihi Gerstner, who are married, hosted the late-night working party at their place. Together, the three friends—along with a fourth, Manhattan architect Eric Howeler—worked out many of proposal’s conceptual and technicalissues.
As the deadline neared, however, strains began to form in the group over creative differences on the design.
Ms. Gerstner said that she and Mr. Caballé disliked "the dryness of the direct environment around the pools." Nevertheless, they deferred to Mr. Arad as the leader of the group.
When Mr. Arad was selected as a finalist, however, and his design went up on display at the Winter Graden, there was no mention—in written form, or in the video that accompanied his display—of the help that he had received from any of his three friends.
Mr. Howeler said he didn’t take offense at the omission, but it angered Mr. Caballé and Ms. Gerstner to the point that they said they are no longer speaking to Mr. Arad.
"I don’t want to put Michael down," Mr. Caballé told The Observer from Paris. "I’m happy for him and, on the other hand, I don’t want to hear from him.
"The thing that most offended me," Mr. Caballé continued, "was when I saw that he mentioned the people who wrote the [presentation video’s] music, and he forgot to mention us. He had a detailed list of people who were involved, and he forgot us—and that was very offending."
Mr. Arad could not be reached for a response.
The dispute over Mr. Arad’s role at the memorial comes a few months after Ground Zero master planner Daniel Libeskind bitterly feuded with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architect David Childs over whose vision would prevail in the forging of the Freedom Tower, the signature skyscraper at Ground Zero.
But even before Mr. Arad emerged as the winner of the memorial competition, he had his own battles to face, as some members of the city’s fire and police departments criticized the design for listing the names of uniformed Sept. 11 victims alongside those of non–rescue workers. Mr. Arad came up with the compromise of leaving the listing of the names in random order, but putting an FDNY or NYPD shield insignia next to the names of the uniformed victims. Though the compromise didn’t satisfy everyone, the LMDC, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki, publicly backed Mr. Arad on his decision, saying that they would, in the end, defer to him on design issues.
Rebuilding sources are drawing a contrast between that dispute, along with that of Messrs. Libeskind and Childs—which were essentially disputes over design and vision—and the current conflict, in which they allege that Mr. Arad is trying to assert control over the bigger-picture issues like the selection of engineers, money allocations and scheduling issues, which are the domain of the LMDC.
Rebuilding sources said a check on Mr. Arad’s powers is especially necessary given his inexperience.
"You have a 34-year-old, without any experience whatsoever with respect to a project like this, going forward and trying to take on a project that architects with 20 years of experience don’t get the opportunity to undertake," said a source close to the matter. "It could cause cost overruns, delays and prevent the memorial ultimately from being built."
Delays or other snafus stemming from perceived mismanagement could be especially disastrous on this project, the source said, because the memorial will be funded by private donations.
"People are going to want to know that there’s somebody in charge of it who knows how to get a project done," said the source. "Someone with a proven track record."
Toward that end, the LMDC on March 1 sent out a request for proposals for an associate architectural firm to assume day-to-day responsibility of handling the bricks-and-mortar construction of the memorial. According to the R.F.P., the firm would work "with" the design team of Mr. Arad and Mr. Walker. Final decisions would still be subject to the LMDC’s approval.
"It reconciles the need for Michael to be in control of the vision with the LMDC’s government obligation to monitor the control of funds and make sure project deadlines are met," said a source close to the process.
Several officials said Mr. Arad chafed at the idea of handing off some of his authority to another firm—an allegation that Mr. Arad denies.
"The R.F.P. we issued [on Monday] is something we can all stand behind," Mr. Arad said, "and we have confidence that it will bring about the kind of association between my office and that of the associate architect’s to the benefit of the memorial."
Ever since becoming a finalist, Mr. Arad’s work for the LMDC has been bound by the terms of a preliminary contract. It has allowed him to make short-term and limited hires of engineering and architectural firms to help him shore up his blueprints. Mr. Arad and the LMDC are currently negotiating the terms of a permanent contract, which will spell out his duties, powers and pay in detail. Mr. Walker, the landscape architect, will likely be signing a similar contract.
Mr. Arad has retained construction lawyer Michael De Chiara to advise him on his negotiations. According to several sources close to the rebuilding effort, Mr. De Chiara’s aggressive positioning of his client has sent a chill through the memorial-building process.
If Mr. Arad is a relative stranger to the political machinations at the heart of a project like rebuilding Ground Zero, Mr. De Chiara is a veteran, having represented powerhouse firms like Tishman Speyer, Bovis and famed architect Richard Meier.
His attendance with Mr. Arad at LMDC planning meetings became so onerous that Mr. Rampe, the LMDC president, confirmed that he has asked Mr. Arad not to bring the lawyer to any future non-legal meetings.
One source close to the rebuilding effort said that it "wasn’t helpful" when Mr. De Chiara dropped in conversation the names of Mr. Pataki and his development czar, Charles Gargano, in what the official took as an implicit reminder of Mr. De Chiara’s political connections.
Mr. De Chiara, for his part, said that his discussions with the LMDC have been "professional" and devoid of any "serious disagreements whatsoever." Regarding the name-dropping, Mr. Chiara recalled the conversation in question, but said it was absolutely not his intention to imply that he was throwing around political muscle. Rather, in response to the LMDC’s repeated emphasis on bringing the project in on time and on budget, Mr. De Chiara said he was making reference to the fact that he understood the political realities, and therefore understood why budget and timing issues were so important.
"It was in that context that we said we understood the political process," he said. "Names might have been dropped to emphasize the point. They were never mentioned to say that I have political clout—because, frankly, I don’t have any."
Mr. De Chiara has been working pro bono for Mr. Arad up to this point, but he wants to begin charging when it comes time to hammer out Mr. Arad’s long-term contract.
Mr. De Chiara confirmed that Mr. Arad has asked the LMDC to pay for the eventual legal bill—a potentially odd arrangement in which Mr. De Chiara would essentially be maneuvering against his paymasters. Mr. De Chiara said that he didn’t expect the LMDC to agree to that arrangement, and would consider continuing to work pro bono.
You may reach Blair Golson via email at: email@example.com