The widely publicized project was awarded in early 2004 to Michael Arad, an architect at the New York City Housing Authority, and Peter Walker, a Berkeley landscape architect and former chair of the CED Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department.
In February 2004, a mere month after the competition ended, I first spoke with Peter Walker at his office in Berkeley about the details of what could be considered the commission of a lifetime for most practitioners. The honeymoon glow of the design process was burning bright, and expectations for both the site plan and the memorial were riding high on a wave of media attention, public interest, and political clout.
Not all good things go exactly according to plan, however. While progress is indeed being made, it is largely invisible to those outside the circle of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Today, with the exception of the rebuilt PATH train station, Ground Zero remains largely unchanged since the cleanup ended in May 2003, with political interests, security concerns, design changes, and a less than robust market for new office space plaguing the project and testing the faith of even the most optimistic onlookers that the project will achieve the aspirations it laid out in 2001. Current estimates place the final build out for the site planned by Daniel Libeskind at about 2012 and include not just Arad and Walker’s memorial but a skyscraper dubbed the Freedom Tower, being designed by David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, a transit center by Santiago Calatrava, a cultural center by Norwegian firm Snohetta, and a theater by Frank Gehry.
Recently, after 18 eighteen months of design work for the memorial had been completed, and with likely enough negotiation skills to write a how-to book, I had the opportunity to speak to Walker again by phone (he currently spends at least half of his time in New York City) and revisit his thoughts on the project, the players, the politics, and the media coverage surrounding one of the best-known design projects in the world.
What follows are two interviews that present an interesting juxtaposition of viewpoints not just on a complicated, high-profile project upon which the expectations of a nation are hanging, but on the evolution of the design process itself. Here is Walker’s version of the ubiquitous roller-coaster ride that most designers are all too familiar with: the brief thrill of the conceptual design and its intoxicating potency, followed by the infinite endurance required to survive the critics, design changes, budget negotiations, and political roadblocks and to bring the project to fruition.
Jennifer Brooke: Could you explain how you came to be on this competition team and what it has been like to work with Michael Arad, a relatively young designer?
Peter Walker: One of the questions Michael was initially asked about was the plaza, which originally he had left completely open. The jury also insisted that he put in some cultural buildings. The other area they asked him about was the park, and they said, Why don’t you talk it over with some landscape architect. When I got the call from Michael, I did not really know which scheme he represented. I had seen the competition schemes in the paper, but none of the names looked familiar. Once we found out which one was Michael’s, I told him we would be interested. We started to live by the fax machine and telephone, and we were feeding information back to the jury by answering questions verbally about our intentions, accompanied by a few [faxed] sketches.
Shortly after that the jury wanted to have a meeting with the two of us. I flew back to New York on Saturday and called him up and asked, How are things going? He said that the jury wanted a meeting on Sunday at 9:00 a.m. So I said, Fine, let’s meet at 7:00. You and I need to know what each other looks like. So we had breakfast and he brought his boards, and there we were in the hotel and we were down on the floor with his drawings. So we gathered them all up and we went up to Gracie Mansion, and the focus was on the park––we had worked like you do at school — producing thumbnail sketches. Fortunately the jury could deal with it. So that was a good meeting, though very short — 30 minutes.
I came back to Berkeley, and on Tuesday we got a telephone call regarding questions about some things the jury was still worried about, and whether we would be willing to resolve these things. When you are a petitioner, what are you going to do, say no? So we said yes. They said, Fine, we will send you a letter of understanding. Will you sign it? I was a little apprehensive, because we really weren’t very keen about some of the things that they wanted us to look at. So they faxed it, I signed it and faxed it back. Michael did the same. They called back an hour later and said, You have it.
We had more meetings in Berkeley and in New York with Libeskind and the agency. The public presentation with the governor, the mayor, and press from everywhere was on Wednesday morning. So we negotiated through that weekend with Daniel and finally found a place for the cultural buildings, and I think about 3:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, not on paper but in sketches, we had our scheme. Michael did not have an office, not even a secretary. He was working out of his bedroom, and I was there without anybody from our office. If I had been smart about it, I would have taken someone. Late Sunday we got the model pretty well finished in terms of where the cultural buildings would go. All that afternoon and night I was working on the landscape plan at the scale of the model using yellow trace and rulers. The following morning they took my tracing, put it on the model, and drilled holes through the trace to show where the trees were. He destroyed the drawing while he was making the model. It was OK. It worked! It looked pretty good. Wednesday was the television day. We had our first TV show at about 7:30 AM and in between the jury, the governor, the mayor, and doing the presentation, we were wiped out.
JB: Why do you think the jury chose this particular entry? What about it do you think pushed them over the edge in your favor?
PW: I like to think they liked Michael’s idea because it is quite somber and tomb-like. Many of the others were very theatrical and required tremendous amounts of maintenance. Not that this one doesn’t. But they were very complex. One of the problems in doing the park was to not lose the ground plane, which is the key to the voids. If the voids were going down through shrubbery, it would not work.
The last thing that I think appealed to the jury was this idea of moving from somber darkness to light, which is really talking about death, mostly, but extending the dimension of the scheme to something that was also living. When you come up, you should feel that life can go on. You should have this sense of life. Through the use of plant materials we are going to do things to dramatize seasonal change like we did at Saitama, Japan, and make that cycle of the seasons apparent.
JB: So what role is landscape playing in the overall concept of the memorial?
PW: In the original scheme, Michael had used a few pines to make it seem sort of bereft of life, to make it seem very, very still. But I think the mood was not quite right because they all looked the same. Michael got that. In the Eastern climate, you might use sycamore trees, and add some locust or flowering trees in order to get a little variety in throughout the seasons.
At Saitama [a Petwer Walker & Partners project in Japan] project in Japan] we used just one species of tree and it is remarkable. But we needed something more complex here. We are going to use several different ground covers: some mosses, and 80 percent grass because it is going to take a beating. The parapets are stone, and we are using stone paving in very long, narrow pieces because we have different geometries moving across the site. If you enter one way, you see a natural form of planting that contrasts with the form of the memorial, and if you enter from the other way, you see an organization of tree-trunk colonnades playing against the voids. So there are two different effects depending on which way you turn. We are trying to get a lot out of a little. There is a grassed glade for the families, who meet twice a year, in the spring and on Sept. 11.
JB: In the minds of many design professionals, the World Trade Center is not just the commission of the decade but perhaps the commission of the century. How difficult has it been thus far working under the intense media glare – the eyes of the world?
PW: From our standpoint the numbers of different people who are involved and the media essentially make it a very open process. It’s like everyone is in the room all the time. All the information is gathered by these agencies, and it comes out through them. It’s a completely different way of working. It’s more like being a politician, where you are constantly making public presentations in one form or the other. We are only a month into this. It’s got to calm down.
The difficulty with all the media attention is that when I’m in Berkeley, I sometimes spend half a day on interviews. The World Trade Center Memorial is nice in that everyone wishes you well. The New York Times did a series of articles that are just terrific, posing questions about how the water features in the project can actually be managed. They have asked questions about safety (not security in the terrorist sense). Currently there is a big issue about whether these memorial spaces are precisely over the tower footprints. What has happened is that the infrastructure has moved into the footprints, which makes it difficult not to slip over on either side. The question of the footprint is a real issue to a certain number of people and by getting it out, it’s like a public meeting — you may take the heat out of that particular issue. In other words, it raises the question early enough so that you don’t get blindsided later on. The media is very sophisticated, very knowledgeable about politics.
We have an awful lot of masters on the project, plus two of the largest agencies in the United States, plus HUD at some point, in addition to the governor’s office and mayor’s office, which are gigantic. The families are a tremendously diverse group, with many different points of view. The thing that holds them together is their grief, which is very immediate when you are in the midst of it.
JB: The Vietnam Memorial changed the way people think about memorials. Do you think this memorial has the same potential to do that, or do you think it is at such a different scale that it is completely different?
PW: I don’t know. The Vietnam Memorial contrasts a sort of Olmstedian landscape against a minimal element. This memorial is really playing at a larger scale against a very urban landscape. So in this way they are very unlike each other. The WTC memorial spaces have a below-ground spiritual dimension that the Vietnam Memorial does not have. This memorial is entered by going down from light into darkness and out to the light again. It has a theatrical dimension. I think that lack of theatricality in the Vietnam Memorial is what is so great about it. The idea in the WTC Memorial is not like that. People are going to compare them, but they really are completely different.
JB: If a person could visit the memorial and walk away with one thing, what would you like that to be?
PW: I think it is like any memorial. You hope they retain some composite but distinctive image that will stay with them. You want to compete with the great monuments. You also want to have something that fits on a postcard so that you instantly know what it is. Something iconographic. I think that’s the strength of Michael’s initial scheme. I’m sure that’s what attracted the jury.
JB: Due to the significant role landscape plays in this memorial, do you think this will change the way the general public perceives landscape architecture as a profession. Do you think this project has the potential to do that?
PW: I think that there is a fair amount of lip service given to landscape architecture. People who live in cities really like their parks, but they are not seen as designed, even though they are. They are seen as historical expressions, like Bryant Park, or they are seen as expressions of nature, like Central Park. I think the artifice gets lost, and I think the proof of that is, when they cease to be maintained or cared for, no one complains. I don’t think they are seen in the sort of crystalline way architecture is seen, and I don’t think this is going to change much. It probably will change things for us as designers, because clients will show a willingness to do things that they would not have otherwise thought about. I can’t tell you how many times in this thing I have used Battery Park or Bryant Park as an example of what I was talking about and found that most people don’t think of them as specific artifacts. So I think this may add to the vocabulary. A vocabulary is obviously already there, but it’s not a vocabulary people are using to make policy.
JB: Given all the players involved and all the constituencies that have a vested interest in the project, how difficult is it going to be to get this built the way that you and Michael have sat down and talked about it?
PW: I think it is going to be difficult, but we have some power in the situation because the vision has been more or less accepted by everybody and if it is not realized, someone will object. I don’t believe there is anybody who really wants to get rid of the design idea. We have not heard of many who oppose the scheme. As I said, everybody has been really supportive. Even the people who have objections seem to understand the scheme.
JB: At the start you knew that this would be a difficult project to realize as it was conceived by Michael Arad and yourself. Has it been more difficult than you expected?
PW: What has been more difficult than I imagined was the amount of time it takes to deal with the composite problem the memorial has posed. We had always assumed that it would be a big design effort, construction effort, and a technical research effort, as every project is. But we’re doing it all under intense public scrutiny, and because of the public scrutiny, there is a tremendous amount of political direction which we never could have imagined.
Put all these things together and it has consumed the office, every waking moment. We now travel a full four days a month, taking these chunks of time away from the office. We originally assumed that we’d be traveling east every two weeks through schematic design, and then perhaps every three weeks, but we didn’t expect a conference call every day. It has put the office in the position of having to turn away work. We’ve had to increase our staff more than we’d like, and it’s taking our upper-level management away from the office. The time requirements and their continuation are more than we expected. We always knew of the highly public nature of the project but didn’t think we’d be trying to design while under investigation. It’s like having two jobs. You have your daily job with the project, and then you have this other job dealing with the larger political and media issues.
JB: Where are you now in the design process for the memorial? Is there an end in sight?
PW: We’re moving forward. The last year has not been unproductive. This is probably the most demanding design project I’ve ever had. We are just now finishing design development on the project. We’ve got more than a typical DD package done; we also have our trees tagged, the pool plumbing worked out, and coordination with Calatrava and Snohetta underway. Much of the coordination is coming to a head. Many of the consultants started after us but have had an easier time. We’re in the position of having to do coordination like this while we’re in design development. It would have been a lot easier to coordinate if we had been able to do it earlier.
JB: Significant design elements for the memorial, particularly the ceremonial procession from above ground to below ground have undergone significant changes. How is the design team dealing with decisions to alter such an important aspect of the original design?
PW: When we first started with the conceptual plans as they were laid out in the competition scheme, we did not have a solution to all the problems. Many of these decisions have improved the project. We expected to do design alternatives. Our task was to produce a memorial that worked according to the conceptual direction of Michael’s plan, but also produce a public open space that didn’t destroy the memorial. Michael has really kept his eye on the memorial part of the project, while I’ve kept an eye on the public open space. The plaza must be respectful of the memorial and not destroy the mood. The mood is what needs to be balanced with all the suggestions for things such as concerts in the plaza. The mood is very important. Like we’ve done on other program-sensitive projects like the Nasher Sculpture Center, we’ve had to take some things that we don’t want to see, but that are still necessary to the functioning of the project, and make them invisible. The design process is the same as other projects in that there are ideas and you have to fight for some and let others go, but in this case we’ve had to take on all comers from all directions.
There will be 5 million people a year visiting this site, but they don’t all come at once! Even so, it should be possible to maintain the solemnity of the place despite its public nature by controlling the number of people in any space at one time and carefully considering the devices to control their behavior. Things like signage, buying tickets, the numbers of people moving from one space to another are all being specifically considered. Too many people in one room or location could take away from the mood of the place, so it is important to control movement with careful manipulations in the landscape materials. For example, movements of people going to and from work can be handled with pavement choices and barriers. We considered putting a wall around the site at the beginning — a low parapet, or even a hedge with one or two access points — but we wanted to be more subtle than that. It is different than the Vietnam Memorial, which sits in the park and works in relationship to it. In our case there is no park. We are the park. Parks are prized in a city such as New York. Park space in the city is at a premium, and the parks are beloved. The difficulty here is that there will be use restrictions, and we have to design for them. This park will not be able to be used the way people are accustomed to using other parks, for Frisbee, dogs, and shortcuts for commuters.
JB: Have there been any pleasant surprises since you have begun? Things you didn’t expect?
PW: We’ve been able to accomplish things in the bureaucracies that we never expected. And the people! We have met people that have been extraordinarily helpful in cutting through the red tape, championing causes, addressing the more cruel questions that are constantly put to us. Some of these people will be friends for the rest of my life. These are people that are on the board, they are family members, they are agency members, and even one or two members of the press that have been very careful to tell the whole story and avoid looking for the most contentious bytes of information. The mayor and the governor of New York have also shown incredible support and dedicated interest in the project and that has been great.
JB: This isn’t really the kind of project you build, take photos of, and revisit a few years later. How does this project fit into the trajectory of your career?
PW: It might kill me! [Laughs] This project is different than most others I’ve worked on, because it is open to the public but is run by a foundation. It is also unlike many other projects I’ve worked on in that it is endowed. Unlike a project like a public college campus, where you finish and it gets turned over to the students and administration, a private group is running this. This will be a continuous operation, and I’m sure that we will continue to be involved. Our office will be on call in the horticultural sense but also with the people management. I’m sure there will be some revisiting of elements, and they won’t stay exactly the same. When you are dealing with landscape, plants deteriorate and need maintenance, and we will of course need to respond to things that happen that no one could anticipate.
I’ve never had a client like this, one that was both knowledgeable and eternal. I think about Le Notre and Olmsted and the skills they had in dealing with large institutions similar to this, and I just wish I had more years to work in this part of my career. I should have had clients like these years ago! Some landscape architects reach this point earlier in their life. Most landscape architects have to slog through the smaller and less interesting projects that it takes to get to something like this. Now, because of this project, we have more projects of this caliber in the office, not memorials necessarily but projects that I just wish that I had 20 more years to work on.