WTC memorial architect describes creative process

Michael Arad reflected on his experience designing the World Trade Center Memorial in a Tuesday Master’s Tea.
Michael Arad reflected on his experience designing the World Trade Center Memorial in a Tuesday Master’s Tea. Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

In a project spanning eight years, Michael Arad designed one of the most important American memorials of the past decade.

Arad, the lead architect of the World Trade Center Memorial, which opened on the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, addressed a crowd of roughly 30 students and faculty at a Saybrook Master’s Tea Tuesday afternoon. The Israeli-American talked about bringing his idea from inception to completion — winning a design competition involving 5,201 participants in 2004 and overcoming challenges with each iteration of design to seeing the memorial’s opening in 2011. Speaking from his own personal experience, Arad urged the audience of roughly 30 students and faculty to know when to stand up for their ideas and when to compromise.

“Design is not fully formed,” Arad said. “You don’t hand it off to some person and say, ‘Go build it.’ It’s an entire process you go through.”

Despite winning the design competition for the World Trade Center Memorial, Arad said his original design had to undergo numerous substantial revisions before it was finally approved for construction. After Arad’s initial design — which was a multilevel structure with the names of each victim of the terrorist attacks beneath waterfalls — was rejected, he was forced to modify his plans to ultimately fit the requirements of the memorial jury responsible for the design competition.

Arad said the final product is a hybrid of the ideas he had from the onset and modifications he added based on feedback from the memorial jury.

“Where you once were the only critic of your work, now everyone’s a critic of your work,” Arad said.

Though Arad spent a significant amount of time revising his initial designs, he said he also struggled for years to decide how to arrange the victims’ names, which would adorn plaques throughout the memorial. He said he did not want to arrange the names alphabetically or by any other arbitrary system, adding that he wanted the names to be “purposefully adjacent.”

Arad eventually gained support from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks were offered the opportunity to request that their lost one’s name be placed next to another’s. Arad said he made sure that all 1,200 requests that were submitted were followed.

He added that he felt it was important to tell each victim’s personal story through the memorial. Arad told the story of a woman whose father was on Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower, where the woman’s best friend from college worked. Her father and best friend were placed next to each other on the memorial.

“The more simple things are, the harder you have to work because there is nothing to hide behind,” Arad said.

Four audience members interviewed had all visited the memorial but said that their perception of the project completely changed after hearing Arad describe his creative process.

Jeff Qiu ’16, who went to the memorial several weeks ago, said he was surprised by the meticulous approach Arad took to laying out the victims’ names on the memorial.

“I remember seeing a sign at the memorial talking about the links between the names, but the process they went through was a lot more intricate than I imagined it would be,” Qiu said.

The World Trade Center Memorial spans 16 acres in Manhattan.

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