The Sure Thing

Whatever else may happen at the World Trade Center site, Anita Contini’s job—overseeing the memorial design competition—is on solid ground.

Even with Daniel Libeskind’s selection as World Trade Center site planner, the future of those 16 acres remains unclear. Will leaseholder Larry Silverstein take his insurance money and go home, or become the prime decision maker? Can the city gain control of the site from the Port Authority? How will the rest of the project be financed? Amid all this uncertainty there is one guarantee: there will be a memorial at Ground Zero honoring the 2,792 lives lost there.

The woman responsible for overseeing that process is Anita Contini, vice president and director for Memorial, Cultural, and Civic Programs for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). Contini’s background strikes a balance between the arts and corporate worlds. She founded the arts organization Creative Time, was artistic director at the World Financial Center, and was vice president of events marketing for Merrill Lynch. Although she is also responsible for developing programs to nurture the cultural community downtown, her immediate work is the competition for the memorial design. Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked to Contini about the competition, its expedited time frame, and the lessons learned from other memorials.

Why do you feel it’s important that the memorial be designed now?
Now that the LMDC has selected the Libeskind plan, we know what the context of the memorial will be. With that and our mission statement and program, we can start creating guidelines. We have hired two consulting firms, Planning and Design Institute and Landair. PDI will develop the competition guidelines; Landair will implement them. The request for proposals will probably go out later in the spring. We hope to have a design concept for the memorial by September 2003. At that time, whoever is the designer or designers (we’re not sure if we’re doing one or two stages yet) will have an opportunity to work with Studio Daniel Libeskind in developing the memorial on the site.

There are some who would argue that it’s too soon: we don’t really know what that site means yet. Decades usually pass before a president or war is memorialized on the National Mall, for example. Do you think there’s some danger in such a short timetable?
You can’t look at other memorials and compare them a hundred percent. New York is a different place. We also need to understand the issue of getting this community back and functioning for those who live and work down here. The site is going to be developed. The transportation infrastructure is under construction. So it makes sense for the memorial not to be an afterthought—to move the process forward so it can have an important place in the development of the site.

How does the process make room for a miracle—for a brilliant design from unexpected quarters? What do you build into the process to make it flexible enough so that the next Maya Lin can come up with something amazing?
By not being too descriptive or prescriptive in your program, by leaving it open for interpretation. Some remarkable ideas have come out of the site-planning effort. Every single one of those designs was amazing, and that’s a small group of architects and designers when you start looking at the total landscape out there internationally. People have been thinking about the memorial for a long time. So I think there’s a chance to find [that unknown person], and I also believe there’s an opportunity for multidisciplinary approaches.

Why are the footprints of the buildings so sacred? It’s one of those things we’ve heard over and over again. Do we believe it now because we’ve heard it so many times, or does their importance run deeper than that?
The site is unique because the incident took place there. For a lot of memorials, that’s not the case. Because the site and the event memorialized are the same, it creates a different tone to the place. Those towers were where the planes came in, where people worked and lost their lives. The footprints add to this whole sense of authenticity. When you look at great memorials, or significant pieces of public art, the artists and designers often use elements that are authentic to the event. That’s why the footprints are special.

People are talking about the memorial as a tourist attraction that might draw five million visitors a year. Does that conflict with the ultimate role of the memorial as a place of remembrance?
People are visiting the site now, and there’s nothing there. Most are coming for healing. People visit places because they want to experience or remember something, want to feel part of it. Does that mean those places are tourist attractions? Maybe. But there has been such an outpouring of people from around the world who’ve come to pay their respects. They will continue to do that. It will bring a lot of visitors down here.

Right now the site is in some flux. How do you think the memorial process will be affected if control or ownership of the land changes?
I can’t answer that question. I don’t know all the details of how it could affect us. All I know is that all of the parties—the governor, the mayor, the Port Authority, Larry Silverstein—are in agreement that there should be a memorial created.

What happens to your role if control of the site shifts to the city?
The LMDC will still play a role in the memorial process.

How do you reconcile the need for a contemplative place for the memorial with the highly commercial considerations being planned?
Artists and designers can solve that problem. A lot of memorials in Europe and the United States have created quiet, contemplative spaces in the middle of active cities. There are a number of them in Berlin. At the Arc de Triomph, in Paris, there’s a wonderful Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Even in Oklahoma City there are residential buildings going up all around the memorial—new office towers are under construction too—and [the memorial] is functioning extremely well because of the way it was designed. We have to trust the design, whatever it turns out to be.

Is the LMDC still planning an open international competition?
Yes. We’re working with our consultants right now. They just started to develop the competition guidelines, and what’s on the table is an open competition. It was an international incident; there were 91 countries that lost people at the World Trade Center. So why would we not want to invite the international community?

When you move forward with the selection process will you pick semifinalists or choose a single winning design?
That’s something we’re still talking about. Other issues are unsolved, such as, should we go straight to concept or make a short list and have the designers make models? I know we’re going to start out with conceptual drawings.

Once you narrow the applications—say from eight thousand to eight—would you then submit them to the same type of public-comment process that the site plans went through?
None of that has been worked out. We’ve had our advisory councils and the public involved in a lot of what we’ve been doing all along. We want an open, transparent process. But I want to be careful how we go through this because the jury process has to be protected. When you get into a competition like this, with a professional jury, you want to ensure the integrity of that process.

For competition information visit

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