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'Frontline' details battle for 9/11's sacred ground

At its best, "Frontline" fuses taut narrative with behind-the-scenes reconstruction of an event to tell a good story and amplify our understanding of the subject. (At its worst -- well, that's another story.) With "Sacred Ground," which opens the new season for the PBS documentary series tonight, "Frontline" returns in fine form.

"Sacred Ground" is about the nasty street fight between two architects over the design of the Freedom Tower, the skyscraper meant to anchor the resurrection of New York City's Ground Zero after 9/11. It is fascinating in the way a train wreck is fascinating. We may have been vaguely aware from media reports of this slugfest, but few of us had any idea of its brutality. It is a cautionary tale without winners, and a primer in how not to design an American icon.

The players include Polish-born Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, who as a young immigrant arrived in America by ship, sailing past the Statue of Liberty. His design was chosen from almost 500 competitors to be the master plan for Ground Zero. The centerpiece was a tower, 1,776 feet high, with a spire to echo Liberty's torch.

His nemesis is David Childs, a major player at the firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill and a veteran designer of skyscrapers. His offering was a twisted tower, without a spire, which at one point was to be 2,100 feet high.

Childs was hired by Larry Silverstein, who paid $3.2 billion for a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center weeks before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Silverstein believed that, as the businessman who must rebuild the towers, he alone should make command decisions: "It's my absolute right to choose the architects."

Libeskind's master plan was not reconciled early in the game with Silverstein's ownership. Thanks to hindsight and "Frontline," we now know this led to mayhem.

Others in the cast include New York Governor George Pataki; developer Roland Betts, chairman of the Ground Zero Site Committee of the Lower Manhattan Development Council; veteran New York lawyer Ed Hayes, who represents Libeskind; and New Yorker magazine architectural critic Paul Goldberger, among others.

It would be hard to find stranger bedfellows than Libeskind and Childs. Libeskind is a bizarre-looking Euro clad in black; Childs is a portrait in corporate button-down collar. Childs, according to Goldberger, maintains that architecture follows structure. Libeskind holds the opposite view. Childs is the rationalist, Libeskind the poet who begins with an idea and, says Goldberger, "figures it's the role of the engineer to make the idea of the architect possible."

Libeskind assumes his design will be built. Childs proceeds with his own plan. Each belittles the other's work. It soon becomes clear the two are working in separate galaxies. Politicians swear publicly that everything is copacetic and wonder privately how on earth the pair will reconcile their differences into a single vision.

Libeskind retains Hayes to protect him in the New York jungle. "Silverstein is a traditional New York real estate operator," says Hayes. "They don't want to give you snow in a blizzard."

"Frontline" access to Libeskind yields juicy stuff. Consider Libeskind's wife, Nina, on a meeting between Childs and her husband: "David said, `I have no intention of working with you. I have no intention of doing your building. I have no intention of doing the Freedom Tower. I couldn't care less about the Statue of Liberty.' "

And so forth. Yet each side could push only so far, notes Goldberger: "Nobody fully controlled it. . . . It's a total mess."

Betts sees Childs's 2,100-foot offering and says, "It looked ridiculous." He calls Pataki, who appointed him to make sure everyone plays by the rules. Eventually, with oceans of blood on the floor, Pataki hammers out a compromise.

There will be a tower, 1,776 feet high, with a spire. But as Goldberger notes, the building is the worst of both worlds: "a sad compromise" neither as good as Libeskind's original vision nor as strong as that of Childs. "Really it's like that old cliche about a camel being a horse designed by a committee," he says. "We now have the camel of skyscrapers."

The heavies in this drama appear to be Childs and Silverstein, who never accepted the master plan. To be fair, though, Silverstein ponied up $3.2 billion to make money, not to create a memorial. Betts rues that he never got more deeply involved in the process, that he never told Childs, "Grow up." But, he adds, no one looks good: "I thought people would behave better, too, but they've behaved like (expletive)."

The very idea of collaboration between Libeskind and Childs now seems delusional. "Do you ask Matisse and Dali to collaborate on painting a picture together?" asks Goldberger. "No."

Sacred Ground
On: WGBH, Channel 2, as part of ‘‘Frontline’’
Time: Today, 9-10 p.m.

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