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In this episode, host Aaron Prinz speaks with Carla Swickerath, Partner at Studio Daniel Libeskind, about how she helped lead the development of the World Trade Center site, the impact of technology on the future of the profession, and what sets Studio Libeskind apart from other firms.
HIGHLIGHTED QUOTES & TIMESTAMPS
You are heading up the master plan for the World Trade Center redevelopment, I feel like it is a project that the entire country takes very personally. Throughout the design process how do you ensure that you get the design right? (2:17)
“Well that is a heavy and complicated question. I think what is important with a project like the World Trade Center is taking the time to listen and really understand the emotional, the technical, the political, the sentiment, the feelings, and the requirements and take that into our creative process. It is never a top down kind of design process, it’s usually more bottom up I would say. For the World Trade Center, which was of course one of the most challenging projects that I’ve worked on, like you said it wasn’t just about New York. It wasn’t just about the United States even, it was about the entire world, as we were all kind of attacked that day, or a lot of people felt very connected to that particular attack. For us, it was really about trying to understand what was important for the project, and knowing that there were many different voices and different sentiments about how to proceed. Some people said ‘Don’t build anything at all. This is sacred ground.’ And I think that is a powerful argument one could make. Other people were saying ‘Build it exactly like it was.’ Which is another type of response. We always thought that the success of the project would lie in balancing these competing forces to really be able to create a large commemorative, emotional, and meaningful space to honor those who were lost, but also allow New York City to move forward with a vibrant and living future. Which we think is also a kind of memorial in a way. So, I think through all of the discussions and all of the listening, and all the different points of view that were brought to the table, I think the result was that. It’s the balance of commemorating and letting life move forward…”
When you are hearing so many different points of view, and this can happen on a small project, but especially on a project like the World Trade Center, how do you go about deciding which direction to take the design when so many people have a say? (4:39)
“The job of the architect, especially on a project that large, but you’re right that it is similar on a small-scale project. I think the process could be similar on many projects, but it’s really, genuinely, listening and trying to distill what is important. Then trying to bring all of that input together and develop it into something better than any of the one perspective. There were many disagreements that were had, political agencies, land owners, the developer, the families and what you realize, certainly in retrospect, is that the project was better with all of those forces around the table and that everybody, even when they didn’t agree, knew that this project was bigger than any one perspective. And the ability to move forward in that debate, allowed the project to succeed in a way that I don’t think many projects get the opportunity to do. In an interesting way, the enormity of it, made it impossible to fail. We all knew that we needed to do the right thing, and we all came to the table everyday with a real sincere perspective on what was the right thing. That kind of negotiation and compromise even, that brought it forward and let it come to life, I think, is the success of the project. It’s the importance of democracy. The voices coming together…”
You went to school at the University of Michigan, a school that places a large emphasis on technology. How to do you think these advancements in technology are impacting the profession? (14:50)
“I think all of the advancements in technology make it possible to do the buildings that we do and to really have bigger visions and a different future. So, I think that these technologies are tools that are equally as valuable as the pen. We still do a lot of hand drawing and a lot of physical models, but we take advantage of every program, every technology that we can. I think it is allowing a new expression in architecture as well. The Jewish Museum was all drawn by hand, and projects like the Denver Art Museum, which we completed maybe ten years ago now, couldn’t have been built without 3D modeling. It’s an interesting shift in even what is possible within our own trajectory within the studio…”
Studio Libeskind is very well-known firm. What do you think you were doing specifically that caught the eye of Daniel and Nina that made them want you to come work with them? (16:48)
“I thought architecture was a profession where you get involved to make the world a better place, to contribute to communities and to inspire. By the time I finished architecture school, the economy was really good at that time, and I had a lot of different degrees at that time, and I kept saying that I was waiting for fate. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I knew I didn’t want to work at a corporate firm. That wasn’t really for me. So, I was sitting at my office working for this very nice firm, and I got a phone call. ‘This is Nina Libeskind.’ And I hung up on her because I thought it was someone patronizing me. She called me back and said ‘I hear you’re really talented, would you like to come work with us?’ I said sure. This was truly the conversation, just a few sentences. She asked ‘When can you get here?’ and I said I didn’t know, maybe a month. She responded with ‘Can you come Tuesday?’ I hung up the phone and gave away everything I owned and moved to Berlin. And the rest is history. She had been recommended by the chair of my department, but the moment I landed, kind of jetlagged, not sure what I’m doing in Berlin and not sure how this was going to go, I meet Daniel and Nina, of course. Daniel and I started to have a long debate about Henry James. I looked around and was like, ‘This is why I want to be an architect.’ So, I have been grateful and having fun ever since, and that was 20 years ago…”
With the level that Studio Libeskind is at, you are competing against some of the top firms in the world. Can you put our audience in the room when you are commissioning a project, and what is it that makes the client decide to go with Studio Libeskind? (19:40)
“So many times we do competitions, and we have so much respect for our colleagues that we are competing against, and we are dear friends with many of them, so it’s always interesting to see who is on a short list. We are just ourselves. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I think people selecting architects often are looking for a design, but they are also looking for who they want to work with. We bring a particular style that allows people to engage with us in a different way. We go above and beyond when we do our work. It’s almost like dating I would say. Building buildings is really hard, and it takes a long time, and a lot of money. I think its really about who fits the perspective of the clients that you are working with. Here is an example. We were doing a competition for the German Military History Museum in Dresden. It was creating an addition to a “U” shaped building. Obviously, Dresden was devastated during the war, but they gave rules for the competition. You had to do the extension in the courtyard of the “U” shape, behind the historical walls. We were debating how to approach the project etc. Daniel said ‘You have to change the face of this building. We have to cut through it, or do something to transform the historic façade.’ So, we literally cut a wedge through the building. We kind of knew that we were breaking the rules and expected to lose the competition, but we thought it was important to contribute to the architectural discussion. That is the risk we take. We break the rules when we think we need to. We presented the project and we won the job. I think it was a different way of thinking that captured the imagination of the client in that case. Also, in the way which we approach our work. We stay pretty small. We are all really involved in the buildings from the beginning until the end. There is a commitment and a passion that is conveyed and is communicated. I think people that work with us appreciate that…”