As a result, his buildings always seem to tell a story. He designed unusually narrow galleries for the FelixNussbaumMuseum, for example, so that visitors would see the paintings in the same way that Nussbaum himself, a German-Jewish artist murdered during World War II, saw them as he painted in the cramped basement in which he hid from the Nazis. The shape of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in San Francisco, expected to be completed in 2005, is based on the two letters of the Hebrew word chai—life. For the TwinTowers project, he proposes placing a memorial at the point where rescue workers converged on the disaster. In Berlin’s Jewish Museum, every detail tells of the deep connection between Jewish and German cultures: the windows that slash across the facade, for example, follow imaginary lines drawn between the homes of Jews and non-Jews who lived around the site. Speaking about the museum to Metropolis magazine in 1999, Gehry said, “Libeskind expressed an emotion with a building, and that is the most difficult thing to do.”
Libeskind’s work is so dramatic, in fact, that his good friend Jeffrey Kipnis, a professor of architecture at OhioStateUniversity, worries that other architects may try to emulate Libeskind. “I am not sure I want all buildings to be so heavy with drama, so operatic,” Kipnis says. “There’s only one Daniel in the world of architecture. I’m glad there’s Daniel, and I’m glad there’s no other.”
Not surprisingly, given the complex ideas embodied in his buildings, Libeskind reads deeply in a host of subjects. In essays, lectures and architectural proposals, he cites and quotes the Austrian avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the Irish novelist James Joyce and many more. For the WorldTradeCenter project, he read Herman Melville and Walt Whitman and studied the Declaration of Independence. These references, and the familiarity with them that he appears to expect of his readers, make some of Libeskind’s writings tough going.
But all fears of intimidation dissipate on meeting the man, who is as open and friendly as a schoolboy. As we chatted in the back of a hired car in New York City recently, his black shirt and sweater and short, gray-flecked hair reminded the driver of a certain actor. “He looks like John Travolta,” the chauffeur said to Libeskind’s wife, Nina, in the front seat. “That may turn out to be one of the nicest things you have ever said,” she answered. Libeskind smiled shyly and thanked the driver.
His Berlin studio is as unpretentious as he is. Housing 40 or so architects and students, it’s a warren of crowded and busy workshops plastered with sketches and filled with building models on the second floor of a 19th-century, former factory building in the western section of the city. “Ever since I began working,” says Libeskind, “I have had an abhorrence of conventional, pristine architectural offices.”