An Interview With WTC Memorial Designer Michael Arad
March 2, 2004
Architect Michael Arad was selected in January to design the World Trade Center Memorial. Arad, who lives in New York, has worked for the New York City Housing Authority and for New York-based Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF). He is working on the memorial project with a team that consists mostly of designers from KPF.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: Can you describe your reaction when your design was chosen for the memorial?
MICHAEL ARAD: It didn't feel quite real. It took me a few hours to understand it, and I still have that "reality check" experience every once in a while. It's astounding to find myself in this position, and it's very daunting. Really, all I can do is not focus on that aspect, but focus on what I would like to accomplish.
AR: Can you describe the design process for Reflecting Absence?
MA: I started thinking about the idea a few months after September 11. I envisioned a memorial that would be on the Hudson River, close to the site. You would walk up to the river's edge and you'd see these two voids which would be sort of inexplicable-how do you have voids in the river? Then I became very curious about how it could work, and I tested it time and time again. I went to the model shop that I used to go to when I worked at KPF. I spent a few days there with [model builders] Edison Morales and Jamil Awad, and we built this functioning model together. I bought one of those little desktop fountains from Bed Bath & Beyond and broke it open and tore the pump out. It was a fairly complicated little fountain and it worked, which amazed me, because I drew it and drew it, but when you actually poured water into it and plugged it in and it started flowing, it was an amazing moment to see it. At that point I put it aside for a few months and focused on going back to work. Then came the competition. I thought, how would I take this idea that I've been working on for a long time and apply it to the site? I had the idea of creating these two voids, with water flowing away from you and into this void that never fills. The space needed to be a procession: You're moving from space to space focusing on each area. The space also needed to be intimate enough for each person to have their own experience, an understanding of that day.
AR: What does the design symbolize to you?
MA: I don't want to be too literal about the interpretation of the design. I think it should be something that is open to different readings, so different people can bring their own understanding to the memorial. But one idea that was important to me was reflecting the continued absence in our lives brought upon by these deaths. So the void remains empty though water flows into it.
AR: Can you describe your working relationship with [master planner] Daniel Libeskind?
MA: Daniel's been really supportive, and he's been very generous in his praise. I'm very grateful. He understands that there's a basic premise to this site very much in sync with his idea. While he envisioned a single, large void, this is about the creation of two. If he was upset [with my design], I'm not aware of that.
AR: How did you choose Peter Walker as a design partner?
MA: I've known and admired Peter's work for years. I thought we could find a solution together that would reinforce my intentions of minimalism and an architecture experience. I haven't seen many landscapes like his that aremodern and minimal without being cold and reductive.
AR: Why did you choose to arrange the names of victims in random order?
MA: I thought that listing the names alphabetically would impose an order upon the haphazard brutality of that day. I wanted the names as they were listed to reflect the events of the day. I wanted each location to be unique and distinct, belonging to that person alone. Not a reflection of where that name is in the continuum of the alphabet. Many people don't have a grave they can go to. I though this would give people the ability to go to a place that was uniquely theirs. There will be a directory to help people find their loved ones, and there will be staff on hand to assist people.
AR: Many family members have expressed an interest in leaving some artifacts from September 11 above ground. Do you plan to do this?
MA: When I saw the artifacts I was struck by how moving they are, but also by how fragile they are. They're decomposing, rusting away at this hanger at JFK airport. So I wanted to find a way in which I could bring them back to the site and preserve them from the elements. I also didn't want to leave the artifacts as an open-ended experience. I think in the memorial center there's an opportunity to talk about the history of that day and to have different curators involved in that effort. To exhibit them in a way in which their significance is explained. We don't want them to sit there without anything to accompany them. I want to exhibit themin an environment in which their history can be told in a more didactic manner.
AR: What kind of timeline do you have?
MA: The timelines are fluid. One thing I heard was to finish construction by 2008. Any estimate at this point is a guess because of the complexity of everything that's going on. It's intense right now because we're playing catch up with the other projects which have been planned for a long time.
AR: What parts of the design are the most essential?
MA: I think one of them is to have the plaza be as unencumbered as possible so that it really reads as a single, flat, level plain on which these two voids are in sight. The moment that plain starts being eroded or pushed upon then the sense of those two voids disappears. They're enormous spaces, but they also need a large plain for their absence to be noticed.
AR: Do you think the trees can distract from that?
MA: Yes. There's a very deliberate strategy as to how we will approach the trees to really emphasize the void and the totality of the field that you're standing on. It's very much about shaping the trees in a way that will emphasize the horizontality, and a canopy condition overhead. The tree trunks would be a sort of very healthy, very critical element which create a screen in effect, but they can't create visual obstructions with low branches.
AR: How has this assignment affected your life?
MA: One thing I really liked about working for the Housing Authority is that in addition to working on great design and public projects, it was also a great job for balancing family and work. With many other New York it's extremely time intensive, working late every night is very common. So this was a job which I was happy with the type of work I was doing and the amount of time I that I had to spend at home with my family. But I doubt that I will have that much time for the next few years to spend at home with my family. Lately I've been working very, very long hours. It's all consuming - it's every waking hour of the day and then waking a few times during the night with 'oh, I need to do this, need to do that' - making lists and you don't get to do half of the things that are on your list. But I think it's settling to a sort of more structured framework, it will be easier to handle this process.