David Childs

October 01, 2011 12:05PM

David Childs is chairman emeritus and consulting design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He’s designed the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, Worldwide Plaza and the New York Mercantile Exchange. He also worked on the National Mall master plan and Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C. Childs has served as the chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal agency charged with overseeing development projects in the nation’s capital, and as the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts in Washington, both Presidential appointments. But he is perhaps most known for designing the 1,776-foot-tall One World Trade Center, which is slated to be topped off in 2012.

What is your full name?
David Magie Childs.

What is your date of birth?
April Fools’ Day, 1941. My mother always said she did everything to try and not to have it, but I always thought it was great because people remembered it. Seventy is old. … [But] actually it’s kinda nice.

Did you have a party for your 70th birthday?
No, but for many, many years I’ve been involved with the American Academy in Rome, a great institution for scholars, artists, sculptors and architects to study in Rome. One of the things I always wanted to do was go over there [for a longer visit] — rather than race over there for a meeting and come back, since architects’ travel schedule is usually you go to China for an afternoon. One of my fellow [academy] trustees had actually renovated an old abbey in Tuscany, so I took his place for a week and took our [three] children and our [six] grandchildren.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Princeton, N.J. My father was a professor of classics and he was drafted, so to speak, in the second World War because people who spoke ancient Latin and Greek were deemed to be good at cryptology. So I grew up in Princeton for a little bit and then in Washington. … I pretty much grew up outside New York City, in Bedford Village, N.Y., from fifth grade on.

You majored in zoology at Yale University before switching to architecture. Why zoology?
I came from a family of scientists, medical mostly. I’ve always loved the sciences and I went away to an all-boys school in New England for high school. In this school you were suspect if you were interested in the arts, if you know what I mean. I say that with a smile, so be careful how you say that.

How’d you and your wife of 49 years meet?
I was asked to be one of her escorts at a party. Girls in those days had to have two escorts to take them to a party.

Where do you live?
I’m on 86th Street, right near the park and the Egyptian [art] collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Do you have any other homes?

My children [all in their 40s] have a small place in the Adirondacks. We’d been going up there since they were born, renting a place, but there was a small little piece of land — well, “small” up there is 60 acres — for sale [in 1984] for nothing. And with some savings that they had gotten from their grandparents, they bought this piece of land. And then over time they built [sleeping] cabins. The nine buildings combined is 2,000 feet. But the property is unbelievable. You go up there to the top of the mountain, and you see these 6 million acres in the Adirondack Park, and you suddenly realize that all these things we do every day are not really that important.

What do you do in your free time?
Lots of things. I’m a great climber. When I was young, I used to do technical climbing of mountains. Now I do long Adirondacks hikes. I travel a lot. I’m a pretty diverse reader.

What’s your favorite restaurant in New York City?
The Gotham Bar and Grill. The chef is still doing his thing there. He hasn’t gone and opened an empire, flying around.

Who’s been the toughest developer to work with?
It’d be hard for me to say, and if I could say, I wouldn’t tell you.

What year did you start at SOM?
I began with SOM in 1971. But right before that, I went to work in Washington, [D.C.] — my first job — for Nat Owings, founder of the firm, and [Senator Daniel] Pat Moynihan, who were heads of the Pennsylvania Avenue Commission in Washington, to redesign Pennsylvania Avenue.

I read that you’ve said that you and architect Daniel Libeskind had a blowup at one point over your design for One WTC, but Libeskind denied it. How did you work it out and what’s your relationship like now?
It is excellent and it’s always been excellent. [For] the press, the story is much more interesting if there is a to-do. There really wasn’t.

There were reports that some schematics went missing when Libeskind’s employees were working in your offices. [The Libeskind employees allegedly wanted to bring the design to then-Governor Pataki to show him that Childs was ignoring his design.]
I wasn’t there. It was 2 o’clock in the morning. I don’t know what happened. There was a fuss the next morning. By noon it was all over. And, of course, it’s been talked about for 10 years.

Does One World Trade Center achieve what you hoped it would?
It does achieve many of the very largest goals originally set for it, which have to do with being in the New York tradition, a marker in the sky for the most important building down there, which is the memorial. It’s interesting, the void is the most important matter there. … It gives form to Downtown again. It’s also the answering gesture to the other great Downtown of this city, which is Midtown. … And, of course, being two or three blocks away from the site here, we watched it and were very affected by it. We lost an employee. It was very meaningful to us, and cathartic in a way, to be working on a project that we saw destroyed.

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