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

Daniel Libeskind
Daniel Libeskind Wikimedia Commons

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.”

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.”

An interview with Libeskind is more like a conversation, and his good humor and mischievous smile are so infectious that you cannot help liking him and wanting to be liked by him. His words come in torrents, his eager look matched by a youthful enthusiasm. Talking about his multilingual children, 25-year-old Lev Jacob, 22-year-old Noam and 13-yearold Rachel, Libeskind said, in his usual tumble of words, “They speak with us all the time in English. When the brothers speak to each other about life and girls, they speak Italian. And when they want to scold their sister—German.” He asked about my work and my background, and when he discovered that my father, like his, was born in eastern Poland, he got excited. “Is that true?” he asked. “Amazing!”

Daniel Libeskind was born in Lodz, Poland, on May 12, 1946. His parents, both Jews from Poland, had met and married in 1943 in Soviet Asia. Both had been arrested by Soviet officials when the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939 and had spent part of the war in Soviet prison camps. After the war, they moved to Lodz, his father’s hometown. There they learned that 85 members of their families, including most of their sisters and brothers, had died at the hands of the Nazis. Libeskind and his family, which included his older sister, Annette, immigrated to Tel Aviv in 1957 and then to New York City in 1959.

Had his childhood gone a little differently, Libeskind might well have become a pianist instead of an architect. “My parents,” he says, “were afraid to bring a piano through the courtyard of our apartment building in Lodz.” Poland was still gripped by an ugly anti-Jewish feeling after World War II, and his parents did not want to call attention to themselves. “Anti-Semitism is the only memory I still have of Poland,” he says. “In school. On the streets. It wasn’t what most people think happened after the war was over. It was horrible.” So instead of a piano, his father brought home an accordion to the 7-year-old Daniel.

Libeskind became so adept at the instrument that after the family moved to Israel, he won the coveted America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship at age 12. It is the same prize that helped launch the careers of violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. But even as Libeskind won on the accordion, American violinist Isaac Stern, who was one of the judges, urged him to switch to the piano. “By the time I switched,” says Libeskind, “it was too late.” Virtuosos must begin their training earlier. His chance to become a great pianist had died in the anti-Semitism of Poland. After a few years of concert performances in New York (including at Town Hall), his enthusiasm for musical performance waned. He gradually turned instead to the world of art and architecture.

In 1965, Libeskind began to study architecture at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan. The summer after his freshman year, he met his future wife, Nina Lewis, at a camp for Yiddish-speaking young people near Woodstock, New York. Her father, David Lewis, a Russian-born immigrant, had founded the New Democratic Party in Canada—a party with labor union support and social democratic ideals. Her brother, Stephen, was Canadian ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988 and is now a U.N. special envoy to Africa working on the AIDS issue. She and Libeskind were married in 1969, just before he entered his senior year at Cooper Union.

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.”

During these years, Libeskind made a series of sketches vaguely related to the plans that architects create. But Libeskind’s drawings could not be used to construct anything; they look more like sketches of piles of sticks, and floor plans of destroyed buildings. Libeskind says they are, among other things, about “exploring space.” Some of these works—the pencil drawings that he calls “Micromegas” and the ink sketches that he calls “Chamber Works”—are so highly prized they toured American museums from January 2001 to October 2002 in an exhibition sponsored by the Wexner Center of the Arts at Ohio State University and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1985, a peripatetic Libeskind left the CranbrookAcademy in Michigan and founded a school called the Architecture Intermundium in Milan, Italy, where he was the sole instructor of 12 or 15 students at a time. “I gave no degrees,” he says. “The institute was founded as an alternative to traditional school or to the traditional way to work in an office. That’s the meaning of the word ‘intermundium,’ a word that I discovered in [the works of 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor] Coleridge. The school was between two worlds, neither the world of practice nor of academia.”

The transformation of Libeskind from teacher, philosopher and artist into a builder came swiftly. A1987 exhibition of his drawings in Berlin prompted city officials to commission him to design a housing project there. That project was soon abandoned, but his Berlin contacts encouraged him to enter the competition for the far more important Jewish Museum.

After submitting his entry, Libeskind telephoned his friend Kipnis to say he had given up any hope of winning but believed his proposal “would surely make an impact on the jury.” It did. At the age of 42, he had won his first major architectural commission. “I honestly think he was as surprised as anyone,” says Kipnis.

At the time, Libeskind had just accepted an appointment as a senior scholar at the GettyCenter in Los Angeles. The family’s belongings were on a freighter making its way from Italy to California as the architect and his wife collected the award in Germany. The pair were crossing a busy Berlin street when his wife admonished him, “Libeskind, if you want to build this building, we have to stay here.” The family moved to Berlin. Libeskind, who once preferred teaching to building, then became, in the words of Kipnis, “a consummate competition architect.” In a span of about 15 years, he won commissions for the dozen or so projects now in progress. In addition to the North American works, they include a concert hall in Bremen, a university building in Guadalajara, a university convention center in Tel Aviv, an artist’s studio in Majorca, a shopping center in Switzerland and a controversial addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum of London.

the jewish museum of berlin is a stunning, zinc-clad structure that zigs and zags alongside an 18th-century former Prussian courthouse that now houses the museum’s visitor center. Libeskind says its thunderbolt shape alludes to “a compressed and distorted” Star of David.

The zinc building has no public entrance. A visitor enters through the old courthouse, descends a staircase and walks along an underground passageway where wall displays tell 19 Holocaust stories of German Jews. Branching off the passage are two corridors. One goes to the “HolocaustTower,” a cold, dark, empty concrete chamber with an iron door that clangs shut, briefly trapping visitors in isolation. The second corridor leads to a tilted outdoor garden made of rows of 20-foot-high concrete columns, each with vegetation spilling from its top. Forty-eight of the columns are filled with earth from Berlin and symbolize 1948, the year the State of Israel was born. A 49th column in the center is filled with earth from Jerusalem. This unsettling “Garden of Exile” honors those German Jews who fled their country during the Nazi years and made their home in strange lands.

Back on the main passageway, “The Stairs of Continuity” climb to the exhibition floors, where displays recount the centuries of Jewish life and death in Germany and other German-speaking areas. (The officials finally agreed the museum would be a catalog of German-Jewish history.) Among the displays are the eyeglasses of Moses Mendelssohn, a 17th-century philosopher and grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn, and futile letters from German Jews seeking visas from other countries. One powerful theme emerges: before the rise of Hitler, Jews were a vital and integral part of German life. They were so assimilated that some celebrated Hanukkah with Christmas trees and they called the season Weihnukkah—from Weihnacht, the German word for Christmas.

But the displays are only part of the experience, says Ken Gorbey, a consultant who served as project director of the museum from 2000 to 2002. Libeskind, he says, has designed the interior to mimic the feelings of a disrupted culture. “It’s architecture of emotions, especially disorientation and discomfort,” says Gorbey. Visitors navigate sharp corners, climb into alcoves and slip into half-hidden, isolated areas.

These intentionally confusing spaces are created in part by a long void that cuts through the length and height of the museum. Sixty walkways cross this empty space and connect the cramped exhibition areas. Libeskind describes the void in the building’s heart as “the embodiment of absence,” a continual reminder that the Jews of Germany, who numbered more than half a million in 1933, were reduced to 20,000 by 1949.

Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and AlbertMuseum, says it is these dramatic interiors that set Libeskind apart from other architects. “People think, for example, that Gehry and Libeskind are alike because they both design unusual buildings,” Jones says. “But with Gehry’s Bilbao, for example, the exterior is an envelope for the interior. With Daniel’s buildings, there is a complete integration between the interior and the exterior.”

Like the Jewish Museum, the ImperialWarMuseum of the North in Manchester, England, is designed both inside and out. To create the English museum, Libeskind imagined our planet shattered into pieces by the violence of the 20th century. In his mind, he then picked up three of these shards, clad them in aluminum and put them together to create the building.

He calls the interlocking pieces the Air, Earth and Water Shards, symbolizing the air, land and sea where wars are fought. The Earth Shard, which contains the main exhibitions, looks like a piece of the curved rind of the Earth. This building—including the floor inside—curves six feet downward from its highest point, which is, in Libeskind’s imagination, the North Pole. The Water Shard, a block whose concave shape suggests the trough of a wave, houses a restaurant that peers out onto the Manchester Ship Canal. The Air Shard is a 184-foot-high, tilted, aluminum-covered structure that features a viewing platform.

The museum, a branch of the ImperialWarMuseum in London, displays machines of war, such as a Harrier jump jet and a T-34 Russian tank, against a visual and sound show that overwhelms the senses while narrating war’s grimness. But Libeskind’s design tells the dreadful story as well, from the unnerving fragmented shapes to the disorientation caused by walking across the curved floor. “The whole message of the museum is in the building itself,” says Jim Forrester, the museum’s enthusiastic director. “The principle is that war shapes lives. War and conflict shatter the world; often the fragments can be brought together again but in a different way.”

Libeskind’s design for an addition to the venerable Victoria and AlbertMuseum in London, known for decorative arts, has not been as enthusiastically received. The project won the unanimous approval of the museum’s trustees in 1996, but it provoked irate protests from some critics. William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times of London, denounced the proposed building, known as the Spiral, as “a disaster for the Victoria and Albert in particular and for civilization in general.” Rees-Mogg and other critics insist that Libeskind’s design simply does not fit with the Victorian buildings that currently make up the museum.

In actuality, Libeskind’s so-called Spiral does not look like a spiral at all. Instead, he envisions a series of ascending cubes, all covered in ceramic tile and glass, that fit together and provide access through six passageways to all the floors of the adjacent museum buildings. The Spiral would serve as a second entrance to the Victoria and Albert and would house the collections of contemporary decorative art that are now scattered throughout the old buildings.

The Spiral’s defenders are just as determined as its detractors, and Libeskind’s design has won approval from all the required planning and art boards in London. But the museum must come up with $121 million for the project, which Libeskind hopes will be completed in 2006. Mark Jones, director of the museum, seems confident about raising the money. “The Spiral is a building of outstanding genius,” he says. “I choose these words carefully. I think not to build it would be a shame. It’s a rare opportunity to make a building of this distinction come into existence.”

Libeskind’s design for the WorldTradeCenter site has so far suffered no such controversy. His studio was among the seven teams of architects chosen by New York’s Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to submit designs for the site of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. When the proposals were unveiled in December, Libeskind’s drew rave reviews.

“If you are looking for the marvelous,” wrote Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times, “here’s where you will find it.” Benjamin Forgey, architecture critic of the Washington Post, pronounced Libes-kind’s design his favorite: “Every piece of his surprising, visually compelling puzzle seems somehow to relate to the difficult meaning of the site.” Paul Goldberger, of the New Yorker, called the design “brilliant and powerful.”

On February 4, Libeskind’s plan was selected as a finalist in the competition, along with that of the team Think, led by New York City-based architects Rafael Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz. Muschamp of the Times had endorsed the Think team’s design in January, calling it “a work of genius.” A final decision was to be made by the end of February.

Libeskind says his design attempted to resolve two contradictory viewpoints. He wanted to mark the site, he says, as “a place of mourning, a place of sadness, where so many people were murdered and died.” At the same time, he felt the design should be “something that is outward, forward-looking, optimistic, exciting.”

His proposal would leave Ground Zero and the bedrock foundations of the TwinTowers uncovered as, he says, “sacred ground.” An elevated walkway would encircle the 70-foot-deep hole. Libeskind would also create two public spaces as memorials: the “Park of Heroes,” in honor of the more than 2,500 people who died there, and an unusual outdoor space called the “Wedge of Light.” To create this wedge of light, Libeskind would configure the buildings on the eastern side of the complex so that, on September 11 of every year, no shadows would fall on the area between 8:46 a.m., the moment when the first plane struck, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed.

The main building of Libeskind’s creation would be a thin tower that would climb higher than the TwinTowers and would, in fact, become the tallest building in the world. “But what does that mean?” says Libeskind. “You can have the tallest building one day but find someone else has built a taller one the next. So I picked a height that has meaning.” He set it at 1776 feet. This tower would have 70 stories of offices, shops and cafés. But its spire—perhaps another 30 stories high—would house gardens. The tower would stand alongside a 70-story office building and connect to it with walkways.

Libeskind calls this iconic building the “Gardens of the World.” “Why gardens?” he asks in his proposal. “Because gardens are a constant affirmation of life.” For Libeskind, the tower rises triumphant from the terror of Ground Zero as the New York skyline rose before his 13-year-old eyes when he arrived by ship after his childhood in war-embittered Poland. The spire would be, he says, “an affirmation of the sky of New York, an affirmation of vitality in the face of danger, an affirmation of life in the aftermath of tragedy.” It would demonstrate, he says, “life victorious.”

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