Daniel Libeskind Doesn’t Hear No
Daniel Libeskind believes that architecture is, fundamentally, an act of optimism and selflessness.
Daniel Libeskind is an esteemed architect and professor best known for his design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the master plan for the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946. He moved with his parents—Jewish Holocaust survivors—to Israel in 1957 and New York in 1959. He studied architecture at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and at the University of Essex in England. He spent the first decades of his career as an architectural theorist and professor, teaching at Yale, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. He only completed his first building, a museum for painter Feliz Nussbaum, in 1998, at the age of 52.
Libeskind’s breakthrough came when his geometrically intricate concept won a competition to become the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the first museum dedicated to the Holocaust (opened 2001). Other major works include the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, the Danish Jewish Museum, and an extension to the Denver Art Museum. He designed the master plan for the rebuilt plaza and memorials at the World Trade Center in New York.
The architect, Daniel Libeskind believes that his craft is fundamentally a form of storytelling, a reflection of memory. He has designed centers of culture, sights of memorial, and elaborate homes for priceless art collections. But until age 52, he hadn’t built anything. For more than 20 years, he was a theorist teaching at Ivy League schools, including Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Daniel Libeskind: I lived my life in reverse, you know. According to the Greeks, you should have an active part of your life, you should do things, you act. And then in the second part of your life, you should reflect it, you should think about what was it? And I had all the reflection at the beginning. I had reflected on nothing, and then suddenly I fell into reality, into building, into work, into 24 hours a day engagement.
Despite his real-world experiences, Libeskind’s ideas about his field have remained rather lofty. For instance, he says architecture can have a complete life without ever leaving the page, without ever putting a shovel in the ground.
Libeskind: It’s kind of a mystical belief that by drawing, by continuing on a certain path which most people would have called esoteric or unrealistic, or even stupid, I really believed if you draw a line on a piece of paper, you draw a possibility. If you draw a different line, you draw a different possibility. So, whatever can be drawn can also be built, and it was sort of a faith. I certainly didn’t consider myself an academic when I was doing those drawings. I didn’t consider myself a paper architect who’s going to be happy if the drawings hang in a museum. I considered this a constructive aspect of building something, and how lucky is it that I was able to build something?
In practical terms, bringing any piece of architecture to fruition is messy. Indeed, Libeskind credits and wife and partner, Nina, with being the quiet force that has propelled many of his projects. Commissions usually begin with a formal competition. A client issues a request for proposals, and architects, sometimes thousands of them, respond by submitting their best ideas. But in 1989, Libeskind transgressed tradition and won his first major commission by rejecting a key part of the brief.
Libeskind: The name of the competition was the Berlin Museum, with a Jewish department. Participants from all over the world, Israel, the United States, had all made a big Berlin museum, and then some space called the Jewish department. When I saw those come in I said this is all wrong. You can’t have a department of the Jews. They’re not like in a department of history. They were successful citizens who were part of the success of that city, so I’ll do something that completely denies that idea. And I created different kind of structure, and of course it was controversial, but over time, I think people understood that it’s right. That it’s not a department, it’s a museum, it’s a Jewish museum.
Libeskind’s conviction was deeply rooted. He’s the son of two strong-willed Holocaust survivors who boldly spoke Yiddish in public in communist Poland after the war.
Libeskind: They were proud of that, they were not afraid. Although they were threatened. My father was called by the UB, the secret police, several times to report at night. It was scary, because anybody could be jailed at any point and disappear, but my parents were not to be terrorized. Definitely not. They were people hardened by their experience, but retained their hopes. They were different from other survivors that I know who were very depressed, or who had turned away from the world inwardly, but my parents were very much of their time and into the future.
When Libeskind’s father visited the finished Jewish museum at age 90 he was taken aback by what his son had accomplished. There were no right angles, endless exposed beams, and passageways to nowhere.
Libeskind: It’s an experience, and some of it is foreboding. Some of it is inspiring, some of it is full of light. Some of it is dark. Some of it is disorienting. Some of it is orienting, so yes, that was my intent, in creating a building that tells a story, and that was my idea. It wasn’t just that you build an abstract set of walls and windows, but I wanted to tell a narrative, a complex narrative. And, by the way, I was highly criticized. People said this is ridiculous. Architecture shouldn’t be telling a story. It should give us walls and windows and doors. But I said no, architecture, just like any art, whether it’s painting, or a piece of music, or film, should tell you a story.
AJC: And who was this story being told to?
Libeskind: I was speaking to the young person who was just born and that’s just coming of age and able to enter a building and think about what the city around and what the country what Europe looks like today. I was speaking to the new audience, an audience that didn’t pre-exist in museum because there was no such museum before in any case, so I had to invent the imaginary quote, user and what was that user? It was somebody who wasn’t even around me at that time. Somebody who will be coming later.
Libeskind thrives on projects that both reflect on the past, and look to the future. In 2003, he was commissioned to create a master plan for the National September 11th Memorial Museum where the twin towers once stood. It was after his first site visit that he understood that, once again, he wouldn’t be abiding by the provided brief.
Libeskind: That’s when I suddenly realized, don’t build anything here. Now I was the only one who suggested not to build, it seems obvious in retrospect. Why could you build? Why should you build where people perished? No one declared it sacred ground. It was just a piece of real estate in New York. But I said no, I said something’s not right. This has to be preserved as a space for people to understand, to get in touch with this bedrock which is now in the museum.
20 years ago, it would have been reasonable to assume that Daniel Libeskind would never build anything at all, but he was loyal to his path, confident in his own potential, and steadfast in his ideas.
Libeskind: You have to be a believer in something that is more than just yourself and your own ego. You have to believe in something that’s far more important, and without that it’d be useless, and I always say that the only criteria to be an architect is to be a believer of that sort, an optimist, because as opposed to a composer, a writer, a thinker, a general, a politician, an economist, who can be depressed, because you’re an architect, you’re laying foundations for the future. Every building, you have to dig to lay a foundation for something that’s not yet there, so it is the art of optimism.