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Rebuilding WTC 'like conducting an orchestra'

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Architect Daniel Libeskind talks about rebuilding the World Trade Center site in New York and the politics and emotions involved with the project.

CNN: How did you first hear about the competition to design Ground Zero?

Libeskind: I first heard about it in a very unexpected way. I was called by the head if the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to ask if I would be on the jury to judge the designs and I was truly thrilled. I turned and I said to (his wife) Nina, "This is the most incredible thing, to be able to be part of judging the best entry."

Then there was a conflict of time, which meant I couldn't be there for the judging. I was sort of crestfallen. Then when I phoned to explain, the voice on the other side of the telephone said, "Well, if you can't be on the jury, Mr. Libeskind you can perhaps participate in the competition." That's when I first got the idea that I should compete.

CNN: What were the inspirations for your original design?

Libeskind: The inspiration for this design, and I called it the Memory Foundation, was first of all, to address at the center the memory of those who perished that day, that tragic day. And at the same time to create a foundation for 21st century New York. Out of the tragedy, to create an inspiring, emblematic, symbolic picture of the skyline and of all the activities that New York is so famous for.

CNN: Explain the idea to keep some of the original World Trade Center towers that survived the attacks in the new plan.

Libeskind: When I was one of the competing architects I was given a chance -- and took it -- to go with the Port Authority. They said "Does anybody want to go down to the pit?" All the architects said, "No, we can see it," but I told them I wanted to go down. Really, it changed my view of the world. As I descended that 75-foot (22-meter) descent, I understood what happened. As I got closer to where people died, I understood this was sacred ground. I touched that wall, the slurry wall, that huge foundation. I suddenly realized that this was not just about the past; this was about the future.

I felt like a diver in an ocean. You know when you dive deep down, you suddenly feel the pressure of the atmosphere, of the water making your head explode, as you get close to the reality of history. And that's where my design came from. At that point I saw myself arriving as an immigrant. I saw people standing up high on the streets, and saw that light would have to be the major element of design here.

When I was arriving in New York by ship I looked at that skyline. I couldn't believe human beings could build such a thing. I couldn't believe human beings could build buildings that actually look like this, because you know, even with all the pictures I had, I couldn't believe what reality of New York is really like. And to be able to contribute to it, creatively, is really a privilege.

CNN: Do you think it is fair to take into account the emotions and tensions?

Libeskind: I think it is. I think perhaps because of my own background, I started with those who fell and perished. That was the center of the plan. I didn't put buildings where buildings stood.

Out of the 16-acre (65,000 square meter) site, almost half of it I devoted to public space, which is not an easy thing to do when you have almost 10 million square feet (930,000 square meters) of office spaces, cultural activities, transportation on the site, but I felt that that was critical. The spirituality of the site, the sacred ground here should be really at the center. And then, of course, embracing that ground would be dramatic buildings that are shaped like the torch in Lady Liberty's hand around the central flame of the memorial and create an optimistic and forward-looking picture of New York.

At the center of my proposal was to leave almost five acres for the memorial, which would go down beneath street level at the footprints. It would have waterfalls to screen out the lively New York street noise. It would have the slurry wall exposed -- that great foundation that was revealed on that day and continues to be the foundation of the site. And to anchor the site with a Freedom Tower, which is 1,776-feet high -- a symbolic, emblematic number, the date of the Declaration of Independence in the skies of New York. And then descending from that Freedom Tower, the other towers forming that embrace in a spiral shape -- not in the grid -- but in a spiral shape so that this neighborhood is really visible from the entire metropolitan area as something very special, very new here. And then at the center, I proposed museums, cultural places, a performing arts center, and, of course, very dramatically, a civic station for the transportation for the millions of people who will come to work here and to the site.

CNN: The wedge of light is another important feature, isn't it?

Libeskind: The wedge of light is really at the entrance to the memorial. It's right between Church Street and the memorial entrance. And it is a space, which I shaped in light so that at 8:46 a.m., when the first tower was struck, and 10:28 when the second tower collapsed, from the edges of the plaza so that light from every September 11 will be eternally inscribed in the light of New York.

CNN: Tell me about the amazing reception when you unveiled it.

Libeskind: I didn't approach it as just a project. I approached it from an emotional point of view, that this should not be business as usual, this should not be just a piece of real estate. I think, as an immigrant to New York, as someone who was touched by the Statue of Liberty, quite physically, you know we were woken up, I was one of the last immigrants by ship. We stood with our jaws dropping looking at the Statue of Liberty, which is not a rhetorical symbol for a key chain, but a true welcoming to New York. And then the amazing skyline of New York, which is unbelievable for somebody who has never seen such a thing. And I thought the Statue of Liberty, the flame of liberty, New York and its history should be really part of that plan. And I think I communicated that to those who didn't see this as just something for private investors to develop.

CNN: Your original plan is not going to be built, but will you still have a big say in the overall design?

Libeskind: It's been very much a part of the public process. Of course there are stakeholders. You know, there is the developer with his architects, there is the authority that owns the land, the governor, the mayor, various organizations, a huge number of interests and agendas. So, of course, to create this master plan, it has to go through, to test the fire, and, of course, that is part of the plan of the art of master planning. It's about how to retain that vitality, that vision, but, of course, there are many different hands in it.

CNN: What is it like working with all those stakeholders you mention?

Libeskind: It is more than a work of coordination; it's more like writing a score, which has to be very accurate -- where every building goes, what is the relationship, how do they look? Of course, it's not about the aesthetics of the window here and there, but the big idea, the memorial, the streets going through, creating a neighborhood that has light, that has, doesn't have the shadows, and is not the disconnected mega block that the World Trade Center represented. But is a neighborhood that is woven in, and in that sense, the master plan is a very accurate instrument. It has to evolve, there are many others who have to work on it, but my role is to conduct it, and conduct it as best as I can given that the circumstances are often very difficult.

CNN: Does your substantial role as master planner compensate for the fact that the plan was changed?

Libeskind: The master plan actually is keeping its truth. It is exactly, what you see here, will be built. The fact that you have a Frank Gehry and a Norman Foster and and many architects, it doesn't detract from a master plan. I think Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg were very much involved in making sure the public isn't cheated, isn't just going to be given something else. But of course there are inevitable transformations of the project on the way, and yet I think in the end, the memorial, the slurry wall, the footprints, the Freedom Tower, the civic nature of that station, the wedge of light plaza will be there, and the public will see it, and I think will enjoy both the new and the memory of 9/11.

CNN: How does it feel that you will make an impact beyond your lifetime?

Libeskind: It's kind of unfathomable. As an 13-year-old when I was coming by ship, I was just overwhelmed by the skyline. And to be able to contribute more than just a skyline but to the substance and vitality of this city, and to assert that this city is about freedom, it's about democracy. Often we dream if there were a dictator or a king this would be done exactly this way. But in a democracy, you have to be able to negotiate with various parties, and I actually enjoy this process. I think I don't long for dictators. The governor was very clear that this was going to be a to and fro, and I think that will make the project very clear. It will sing with the vibrancy of life in New York.


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Libeskind says being able to contribute to New York's skyline "is really a privilege."

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