NEW YORK — Before he won the competition to design the memorial for the World Trade Center site, Michael Arad was one of a team of architects designing a 108-story skyscraper planned for Hong Kong. He worked on details of the soaring structure's pinnacle, including a sky deck and a restaurant, much like Windows on the World atop one of the ill-fated twin towers.
Arad's move from helping create one of the world's tallest buildings to memorializing those who perished in the destruction of two other claimants to that title is but one dramatic transformation he has recently undergone.
The 34-year-old architect had no public reputation before his project, "Reflecting Absence," triumphed in the international contest for the memorial at ground zero, beating out 5,201 other entries. His selection in January catapulted him into the ranks of stellar architects like Santiago Calatrava, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, David Childs, Fumihiko Maki and Daniel Libeskind, who are setting their mark on the closely watched parcel of downtown Manhattan.
It's taking time for Arad to adjust to the limelight. "Take a deep breath," a communications specialist for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. could be overheard advising him before a recent press interview.
Sitting in the spacious conference room of the LMDC headquarters -- next to the now-empty trade center plot that the government agency is developing -- Arad is reluctant to be too precise about what message his minimalist design should convey. That of course is the beauty of minimalism. Arad envisions a vast plaza interrupted by two large cubes or voids containing recessed pools that serve as reminders of the absence of what was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. "I hesitate to narrow the definition of the memorial," he says softly. "It will mean different things to different people."
A sign in the hallway outside points to the "Family Room," reserved for grieving relatives of the 2,749 people who died when terrorists destroyed the towers, a reminder of just how emotionally freighted is Arad's task. The son of a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, he struggles to find diplomatic skills of his own. Press him again to expand on his design's meaning and he'll respond, "I don't think I'm some sort of prophet or seer who has some sort of take on this which needs to be shared with the whole world."
With parents living in bomb-plagued Jerusalem -- where his father, diplomat Moshe Arad, most recently retired as vice president of Hebrew University -- and a sister in Tel Aviv, Arad is confronted with terrorism more regularly than most New Yorkers. "Whenever you hear about something on the radio," he says, "you worry about it."
Arad graduated with a government degree from Dartmouth College and studied architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology after serving his mandatory military duty with an Israeli army unit stationed in the West Bank. He now has an American wife and recently received a U.S. green card. Although he spent a good part of his life abroad as his father took up postings in London, Mexico City, New York and Washington, Arad identifies himself first and foremost as a citizen of the Jewish state.
Arad's former boss at the New York-based firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, where he worked on the Hong Kong tower, sees his national background as a direct influence on the memorial's design.
"An architect has only his own internal experience and emotion to draw upon," says Paul Katz, a partner at KPF. "His background of being an Israeli gave him a special understanding of a place like that. Israelis have had to deal with a history of loss of life. There are many memorials, monuments to the Holocaust. There's a long tradition of creating historical memorials with modern architecture."
Soon after Arad was awarded the coveted commission, an op-ed piece in the New York Daily News argued in a similar vein. "Israelis understand how to commemorate mass murder the way Eskimos know how to deal with snowstorms," commentator Zev Chafets wrote. "They are experts the hard way."
A gangly figure with a dark brown forelock poised above sleek chrome spectacle frames, Arad disputes any such theory. "You can never really know how it would be to see things from any other viewpoint from your own. You can imagine them. I'd like to think that what I'm suggesting here is not a product of being an Israeli. I don't think I'm that Eskimo."
The discussion of his nationality prompts Arad to tell about the Arab model maker who let him use his workshop for free when he was trying out ideas for the memorial competition. "I really would dislike characterizing this story as an issue of Moslems versus Jews or Israelis or Americans. I think this memorial should transcend those divisions. In this process, one of the most generous people I've dealt with is a Syrian," he explains.