Daniel Libeskind, the high-spirited American architect who in early February was selected as a finalist in the much publicized competition to design the site of the WorldTradeCenter, was barely known outside the academic world until 1989. That year he was chosen to build what is now his most acclaimed work—the Jewish Museum in Berlin. He was 42 years old and had taught architecture for 16 years, but Libeskind had never actually built a building. He was not even sure that he would get to build this one. The Berlin Senate, which was to fund the project, was so uncertain about its plans that a nervous and pessimistic Libeskind described all talk about the project as “only a rumor.”
After many delays, the building was finally completed in 1999, but it still did not open as a museum. There were arguments about its purpose. Should it serve as a Holocaust memorial, as a gallery of Jewish art or as a catalog of history? While the politicians argued, half a million visitors toured the empty building, and word spread about the wondrous creation of Daniel Libeskind.
By the time the Jewish Museum opened in September 2001, the 5-foot-4 Libeskind was regarded as one of architecture’s giants. When critics rank the most exciting architectural innovations of the past decade, they put Libeskind’s museum alongside Frank Gehry’s GuggenheimMuseum in Bilbao, Spain. No survey of contemporary architecture is now complete without a discourse on Libeskind and his astonishing ability to translate meaning into structure. “Libes-kind’s greatest gift,” Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker architecture critic, wrote recently, “is for interweaving simple, commemorative concepts and abstract architectural ideas—there is no one alive who does this better.”
For all the accolades, Libeskind, now 56, does not have a lengthy list of buildings to show. He has completed only two besides Berlin’s Jewish Museum: the FelixNussbaumMuseum in Osnabrück, Germany, which was finished in 1998, before the Jewish Museum, and the ImperialWarMuseum of the North in Manchester, England, which opened last July. But projects keep mounting in his office in Berlin, and he now has a dozen works in progress, including his first buildings in North America: an imposing addition to the Denver Art Museum, a Jewish Museum in San Francisco that will be built within an abandoned power station, and an expansion made of interlocking prisms for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. All are slated for completion within the next five years.
Like California-based Gehry, Libeskind is usually described in architectural books as a “deconstructivist”—an architect who takes the basic rectangle of a building, breaks it up on the drawing board and then reassembles the pieces in a much different way. But Libeskind says he never much liked the label. “My work is about preconstruction as well as construction,” he says. “It’s about everything before the building, all the history of the site.” In a sort of architectural alchemy, Libeskind collects ideas about the social and historical context of a project, mixes in his own thoughts, and transforms it all into a physical structure. Architecture, he told me last year, “is a cultural discipline. It’s not just technical issues. It’s a humanistic discipline grounded in history and in tradition, and these histories and traditions have to be vital parts of design.”