Daniel Libeskind: Architect at Ground Zero

From his Jewish Museum in Berlin to his proposal for the World Trade Center site, Daniel Libeskind designs buildings that reach out to history and humanity

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By all accounts, Nina Libeskind, despite a background in politics rather than architecture, has played a major role in her husband’s career. Libeskind calls her his inspiration, accomplice and partner in the creative process. While photographer Greg Miller took pictures of Libeskind for this article, I remarked to Nina how patient her husband seemed, cheerfully following Miller’s orders for almost an hour, complimenting the photographer on his ideas and continually asking questions about his work and equipment. Nina replied that her husband lacks the oversize ego of some architects. “He says that’s because of the way I keep him in line and make him laugh,” she added. “But I think it’s just his personality.”


Those who know the couple well say she is his contact with the real world—choosing competitions, negotiating contracts, running the office, driving the family car—so that he can keep conjuring architectural ideas. “There’s no such thing as Daniel without Nina and Nina without Daniel,” says his friend Kipnis, the OhioState professor. “He would never have done anything without her. She is the force behind Daniel. Daniel’s lazy. He would rather curl up and read a book. She’s not a slave driver, but she supplies the work energy that he is missing.”


Equipped with a master’s degree in the history and theory of architecture earned in 1971 from the University of Essex in England, Libeskind worked for several architectural firms (including that of Richard Meier, designer of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and a fellow competitor for the World Trade Center site design) and taught at universities in Kentucky, London and Toronto. Then, in 1978 at the age of 32, he became head of the school of architecture at the highly regarded Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In his seven years there, he attracted notice, but not as a successful designer of buildings—rather, as an advocate of buildings that are not only beautiful but also communicate a cultural and historical context. “I didn’t enter competitions,” he says. “I wasn’t that kind of architect. I committed myself to other things, writing, teaching, drawing. I published books. I never thought I was not doing architecture. But I was not actually building.”


New York architect Jesse Reiser recalls that when he graduated from Cooper Union, the late John Hejduk, dean of architecture and Libeskind’s mentor, told him that he could go on to Harvard or Yale—or to Cranbrook. At Harvard or Yale he would surely earn a distinguished degree. But if he chose Cranbrook, he would be challenged. “Daniel will give you an argument a day,” Hejduk told Reiser, “but you will come out of it with something different.”


Reiser, who is considered one of today’s most adventurous young architects, studied with Libeskind for three years. (Reiser is part of the team called United Architects that also presented a proposal for the WorldTradeCenter site, which the Washington Post called “entrancing, dramatic and quite pragmatic.”) “He was amazing,” Reiser says. “He would come in the room and launch into a monologue, and then we’d have a discussion that could last six hours at a stretch. He is just an encyclopedic individual.” Libeskind did not try to pressure his students into designing buildings just the way he might. Instead, says Reiser, “His most important teaching was to instill a certain sense of intellectual independence.”



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