If planners at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation aimed to generate excitement about the latest design study to rebuild the area destroyed on Sept. 11, they were wise to put Daniel Libeskind at the top of the line-up.
A small man with gray hair and rectangular glasses, Libeskind was a dynamo dressed completely in black at the recent ceremony where seven proposals were presented, with his shirt buttoned up to the collar. At one point the former Bronx resident raised his fist in the air as he described a 1,776-foot skyscraper that would “reassert the pre-eminence of freedom and beauty.”
Libeskind spoke with rushed excitement as he outlined his plan for a business, transportation and cultural complex that would “create a dense and exhilarating affirmation of New York.” It seemed he was squeezing every second of airtime he could grasp to describe the Park of Heroes or the Wedge of Light, through which unobstructed sunlight would shine each year on the morning of Sept. 11.
First known solely as a conceptual architect, Libeskind is now most famous for his first commission, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, housed in a building punctured by symbolic voids. The museum opened in 1999 and had attracted a quarter of a million visitors even before the exhibition on the history of Berlin’s Jews was installed.
“He has considered before exactly what it means to fill a space in with life and memory as a way to represent destruction,” said James Young, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert on memorial architecture. “That was one” of the architects’ “mandates.”
At the recent unveiling of porposals in New York, Libeskind was followed by several other architects who have grappled in recent work with issues of destruction and memory. The British firm of Foster and Partners designed the new Reichstag in Berlin.
Home to the German Parliament since 2000, the building that had been the seat of the Third Reich is now topped by a transparent dome. Another architect, Peter Eisenmann, designed the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, officially titled “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Eisenmann joined up with Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl as the self-styled “New York team” for the World Trade Center design study.
Libeskind 55, currently lives in Berlin, but he was born in Poland and spent his teens and early 20s in New York. He first glimpsed of the Statue of Liberty through early morning mist from the boat that brought his family to America. “I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for. This is what this project is all about,” he said, reading from a prepared statement that ended with the words “Life victorious.”
That simple phrase captures Libeskind’s philosophy of architecture, which he has called “an optimistic profession.” In person, Libeskind is passionate, thoughtful and infectiously joyful. Still his attitude toward his work is surprising, given that many of his major projects so far have embodied one of the darkest chapters in modern history, and one with personal resonance for the architect.
Even before the Jewish Museum was completed, Libeskind had built a museum in Osnabruck, Germany, dedicated to the painter Felix Nussbaum, who was executed in Auschwitz in 1944. Just this summer, doors opened at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester England, an aluminum-clad structure that has been described as “an exploding globe.”
The son of Holocaust survivors who met in a displaced persons camp, Libeskind has said he sees beauty everywhere, “even those places abandoned by hope.”
Thinking about rebuilding at the World Trade Center site, he stressed the importance of translating “memory and hope into physical materials and into architecture.”
Libeskind was clearly moved by his experience standing in the chasm left by the fallen towers. “Really you have a revelation when you go down there,” he told The Jewish Week in a voice that hints of his Eastern European origins.
“It’s the bedrock level, where New York was built from.”
The 9/11 explosions revealed the walls that reinforced the World Trade Center’s foundations. “They are the silent heroes of the attack,” Libeskind said. “They survived it, the whole trauma, and they continue to protect the site and keep the Hudson River from flooding Manhattan. It’s an amazing thing.” Access to the buildings’ footprints 70 feet below ground is an integral part of Libeskind’s design for the site.
“Libeskind’s been pushing the edge a long, long time,” said Young, who suggested that by including Libeskind in the current design study the Development Corporation was embracing cutting-edge architecture.
A published poet with a mystical bent, for many years Libeskind worked on designs that could never be built, and could be publicly viewed only in museums and gallery exhibitions.
That all changed with the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Libeskind titled the project “Between the Lines,” a reference to one of a constellation of ideas that shaped his design. On a map of Berlin, he plotted out the actual addressed of Jewish and gentile writers, artists and thinkers who had lived in Berlin up to 1933. From these points he constructed what he called “an irrational matrix,” which became the basis for the crisscrossing lines that cut through the building’s walls.
His World Trade Center plan employs a similar conceit: a “Matrix of Heroes” that would radiate outward from a central plaza. Its lines would trace the routes taken by firemen, policemen and rescue workers as they entered the site on Sept. 11. But they would also extend upwards and out toward the horizon to include all citizens in “the matrix of life.”
“I wanted to make invisible lines visible and permanent,” he said. Libeskind’s designs are powered by the belief that buildings convey hidden meanings. His concept for the Jewish Museum San Francisco, for example, is based on the Hebrew letters of the word “chai,” meaning life. His plan for the extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a ceramic-clad spiral, representing the uncoiling of history.
Libeskind’s current project list includes a convention center at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, extensions to museums in Denver and Toronto, the interior of Copenhagen’s Jewish museum, the largest shopping center in Europe, and, his smallest project, a private studio in Mallorca, Spain. He said has just won a competition to design a media center at the University of Hong Kong.
In the past three years alone, he’s been recognized with numerous awards including the German Architecture Prize, the Goethe Medal and the Hiroshima Art Prize, given to artists who promote peace. He’s garnered criticism, too.
He met with mayoral objection in Berlin and Osnabruck. A London editorial reportedly denounced his projected “Spiral” design for an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum as “a disaster for the V&A in particular and for civilization in general.”
Libeskind was en route to becoming the first architect appointed a senior scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles when he learned he won the Jewish Museum competition in Berlin. Once there, he and his wife and business partner, Nina, realized they had to stay.
It was more than destiny, Libeskind has said.
Still, he laughs as he mentions that he is sometimes labeled “a German architect.” He is said to have gotten by at first in Berlin by speaking Yiddish. He and Nina met at a summer camp for the children of Holocaust survivors in New York, where Yiddish was the common language.
Asked if he considers himself a “Jewish architect,” he said, “There is a Jewish dimension to my life in general. It’s in my life, how can I do something foreign to that?” His Jewish background, he said, is such that “you could put me at a table with chasidim on one side and virulent atheists on the other. And I could speak to all of them.”
Libeskind’s family left Lodz for Israel in 1957 and moved on to New York to be with his father’s sister and only surviving sibling of 10.
A keyboard prodigy, Libeskind was a virtuoso performer, first on the accordion, when his family did not have a piano, and then as a concert pianist. He studied at the Lodz Conservatory and in 1959, at age 13, a jury that reportedly included Isaac Stern awarded him the America-Israeli Cultural Foundation prize. By 1960 he was performing at Carnegie Hall.
But Libeskind gave up performing in 1965 to pursue architecture and a drive to create his own work. At Cooper Union, he studied under Peter Eisenmann, among other influential teachers, and completed a master of arts in architectural history and theory at Essex University in 1972. Libeskind was head of the architecture department at Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan from 1978 to 1985. From the mid-1980s until his abortive move to California, the Libeskinds and their three children lived in Milan, where he had founded Architecture Intermundium, a kind of laboratory for living architecture, free from the constraints of office bureaucracies.
Libeskind has called himself the “quintessential wandering Jew,” but he still identifies as a New Yorker and cites the writing of Walt Whitman, Emma Lazarus and Herman Melville as inspirations for elements of his World Trade Center design.
As one of the last of millions of immigrants to approach the city by ship, he remembers the buildings as having “unbelievable power when seen from the water,” as the incarnation of immigrants’ “aspirations, dreams and desires.” For Libeskind, that vision of a “magical” Lower Manhattan is more than an image. “It is what America really is.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.