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Design at Ground Zero
Peter Walker snagged the biggest fish his profession could float: the World Trade Center memorial. Now he has to reel it in.

| 25 February 2004

 



The Arad-Walker memorial design "Reflecting Absence," shown in the aerial view above, features a field of trees interrupted by two large voids marking the footprints of the Twin Towers.
Model photography: Jock Pottle/Esto

Coming out on top of 5,200 other design ideas for the World Trade Center memorial was the easy part for landscape architect Peter Walker. A cakewalk, really. A world-renowned landscape artist and the former chair of Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Walker entered the fray only at the 11th hour, when the design-competition jury selected “Reflecting Absence” as one of its finalists —but told its 34-year-old designer, Michael Arad, that he needed to collaborate with a landscape artist of high caliber to modify his design.

Arad contacted Walker at his West Berkeley design firm, Peter Walker and Partners (PWP), whose modest street frontage in a light-industrial area belies its stature as a collaborator in such public and private projects as Sydney’s Millennium Park (site of the 2000 Olympics), Sony Center in Berlin, Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center, Novartis headquarters in Switzerland, and (closer to home) the Chiron Corp. and the campuses of UC Merced and UCSF Mission Bay.
The two designers, who share a minimalist sensibility, had never met in person when they collaborated, long distance, on a final presentation to the jury. A few days later, on Jan. 6, Walker learned that he and Arad had been selected to create the most important memorial in decades — the “commission of my lifetime,” as he calls it.

Treacherous waters
Thus began a whirlwind — a “white-hot heat,” as Walker puts it — unique in his 40-plus years in the field. “It’s not the largest commission I’ve ever had, and in physical terms not the most difficult,” says Walker, 71. But it is, clearly, the highest-profile project of his career — and the most politically contentious.

Since winning the competition, Walker and Arad have met with dozens of stakeholders, each with strong opinions about how to appropriately honor those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of 2001 and 1993. The grieving families are hardest to deal with, says Walker. They think of the memorial “in very personal terms.” And they have fiercely held but widely divergent ideas about what the memorial should feature — everything from a contemplative flower garden to the 80-foot-tall structural-steel armature that remained standing after the Twin Towers collapsed.

Add to these the array of neighborhood groups, politicians, developers, landowners – not to mention design professionals — with vested interests in the memorial, the Ground Zero master plan, the surrounding buildings, and the neighborhood. Below ground, competing for space with elements of “Reflecting Absence,” are a transportation hub, an electrical substation, communications infrastructure, and parking. Somehow, Arad and Walker must navigate these physical challenges and treacherous political waters, yet bring their vision to life.

“It’s like The Old Man and the Sea,” Walker says. “You’ve caught this big fish. The problem is how to get it home with any meat left on it.”

One thing he’s sure of: Design by committee is unlikely to produce any work — and especially a memorial — of significance. Walker has designed memorials, judged memorial-design competitions, and thought about memorials with his students. (He chaired landscape architecture departments at both Harvard and Berkeley, the latter for two years in the late ’90s.) “Memorials have to have singularity to work,” he says — a central, easily graspable image: the “melancholy president” brooding in his chair atop the grand white steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or Thomas Jefferson’s Renaissance dome.

Continuity and change
Walker brings to the endeavor a design aesthetic rooted in geometry. “Every single one of his designs starts with geometric shapes,” notes Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Jennifer Brooke, who has worked at PWP. A typical Walker landscape eschews “a riot of plants” she says, in favor of broad plantings of a single, or at most a few, species. Journalist Carter Horsley has called Walker’s projects “brilliant integrations of the natural and man-made environments that are distinctly modern and abstract, at times mysterious and sometimes awesome.”

For “Reflecting Absence,” Walker has softened Arad’s plaza with a lush grove of deciduous trees spaced to produce varied effects depending on one’s direction of entry. “That’s the sort of thing I do,” Walker explains. “I try to make one move produce two or three different effects.”

His collaborator, as the project’s architect, “is dealing with the part of this problem that is about death,” he says. “I’m dealing with the part of the problem, symbolically, that is about continuation of life.” Walker wants natural changes in the vegetation — through the day, the year, the lifespan of an individual sycamore, for instance — to convey that sense of change and continuity.

He hopes to create, at Ground Zero, a mood of calm strong enough to affect even those who relate to the site as a neighborhood open space, rather than primarily a memorial. As with a church, he says, “You can keep the door open, but you don’t want people skateboarding inside. So there is a certain amount of restraint put on people by the nature of the design.”

Walker has faced, and met, such aesthetic challenges before; the political pressures, though, are without precedent in his long career. “I can’t imagine how difficult it’s going to be,” Jennifer Brooke says of the high-profile design assignment. But, she adds, Peter Walker has “been around the block many times before. If anyone can pull if off, he can. They got the right guy.”