Daniel Libeskind (b. 1946, Lodz, Poland) studied architecture at Cooper Union in New York, graduating in 1970, and received his post-graduate degree from Essex University in England in 1972. While pursuing a teaching career he won the 1989 international competition to design the Jewish Museum in Berlin before ever realizing a single building. He then moved his family there to establish a practice with his wife Nina and devoted the next decade to the completion of the museum that opened in 2001. The project led to a series of other museum commissions that explored such notions as memory and history in architecture.
In 2003, following his victory in an international competition to redesign the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in Manhattan, Libeskind moved his Berlin studio to New York. Although the now-finished complex was designed by other international architects, it was Libeskind who oversaw the realization of his master plan and the rebuilding process. Ever since coming to New York where his first building—Atrium at Sumner affordable housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant—is now under construction, his practice grew into a busy global firm with such prestigious commissions as Denver Art Museum in Colorado, Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany, and towers from Busan, Seoul, Manila, and Singapore to Warsaw, Milan, Toronto, and São Paulo. I spoke with the architect over the phone about the role of a contemporary architect, what makes buildings architecture, symbolism, the need for architecture to be memorable and tell stories, and his desire to look at places in a new three-dimensional way.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: What do you think should be the role of a contemporary architect?
Daniel Libeskind: Architects should never forget that they are producing architecture for people to live in. They need to create a beautiful environment for all people, not just for one percent. Big ideas about megacities are not going to change the world as much as the real environment created for the average person by building projects that are responsive and responsible. We, architects, should all have a responsibility to create a new memorable city of our time. We need to work on transforming issues into architecture, and increasingly, on a city scale.
VB: You once told a story of how you shifted a typical rectangular window on an angle for the first time. What was your initial intention for that shift?
DL: That was while working on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I started shifting regular windows because I wanted to look at places in a new three-dimensional way. This was in the city where the places I was looking for were no longer there. When I first did it, everyone was against it—the local authorities, historians, preservationists, and critics. They all said—this is insane, crazy! A window is a window. But to me it was not about a window, it was about the idea of how you look at the world. And when you look at the Holocaust, destruction, and catastrophe that came from Berlin and Germany to the world, you must look at it from another angle, quite literally, because where could you possibly find a precedent for that?
VB: What is the most effective way for you to present your ideas to clients?
DL: I think the most effective arguments are the drawings. Words alone will fail you. People need to see something that would inspire them and give them a sense of direction. For me, it is just showing a rough sketch that would open people’s minds. And the fact that so many architects now rely on words and statistics results in the situation where our built environment is becoming more banal than ever. Architecture is becoming a transaction, an expectation. But let’s face it, starting from times immemorial architecture made up a very small percentage of the built environment. Is it even one percent? The rest are just buildings. Just because you build something doesn’t mean it is architecture. And you can create architecture that doesn’t need to be built.
VB: You said that every building should have a story. What is it that compels you to turn your buildings into stories?
DL: The language of architecture is not words. It is about ideas, light, material, proportions, environment, and landscape. Without a story, there is no reason to build. Architecture provides hope. Hope is a story. Architecture must provide a sense of continuity of who we are. Why do we need to build in the first place? Why are we here and not somewhere else? Our architecture should relate to what we need, not something very abstract and irrelevant. Every building should tell a story.
VB: Your architecture is very experimental. Yet, you said: “If an architect treats a building like an experiment it will be a bad building.” What did you mean by that?
DL: You know, I would compare architecture to surgery. As a patient, you don’t want to have an experimental surgery because you may not live. Likewise, architects cannot experiment with people’s lives. In that sense, it is not like a performative art. Architecture is at the center of life. Architecture cannot afford to fail. We know from history how many housing blocks tried to introduce experimental living and had to be turned down a short while later because people could not live there. Look, now our public housing project in Brooklyn is under construction. What I am trying to show there is that even with the most limited budget you can create an environment that is dignified and not just a container but works as an interesting social space. And everyone living inside can have a slightly different place and unique views, which is very important.
VB: If not experimental, what kind of architecture do we need?
DL: What we need is the architecture of our time. We need an architecture that’s relevant, that’s contemporary, meaning not nostalgic and not futuristic. It should be about its place, culture, and our own time. I am against fantasies and I am against references to the past.
VB: Your architecture is symbolic. Your Jewish Museum in Berlin is based on the Star of David and the height of the Freedom Tower in New York is 1,776 feet tall, referring to the year of the United States Declaration of Independence. Where does this idea of bringing symbolism into architecture come from?
DL: First, you must realize that everything is symbolic. Even a blank piece of paper is symbolic. Looking at a cloud is symbolic. What isn’t? It is a part of our being, part of our language. That’s what we are as human beings. That’s what makes us different from dogs and cats. We live in a symbolic world. I think my contribution lies in thematizing this symbolic meaning, to make every one of my buildings a symbolic gesture that can communicate a particular message beyond words. Today this may be unusual, but if you look at such historical buildings as the Parthenon in Athens—what was its need? It was not built because there was a need for it. It was a symbolic structure that was more intricate, more subtle, and more beautiful than anything the Greeks have ever built. It became the most refined symbol of democracy. Imagine if buildings were all about the obvious—just structurally sound shelters. Then there would be no architecture.
VB: Your architecture is also based on memory and hope. You said, “Architecture is an instrument to create a better life. To create something memorable.” Could you talk about the importance of memory and hope in your work?
DL: Well, memory is the ground of architecture. It helps us to orient ourselves. Architecture expresses the act of being alive. It helps us to remember who we are and not to forget where we come from. Architecture is a collective human memory that connects people across the world and time. When we build buildings today, we need to express all the signs and traces of our own time. It is important to leave these traces for people who live now and in the future. So, architecture needs to be memorable. If something is not memorable it will vanish from history. The ground has memories and every building is rooted in the ground and in the memory of its place. Every foundation touches the memory of the place in a very direct, physical way. That’s how we know that we are a part of it.
VB: What do you think about the notion of authorship in architecture? There is so much talk about teamwork. How do you develop projects in your firm?
DL: Well, you must have an amazing team to develop a project. But a project is not a camel. You can’t assign one person to work on its head, another on its hump, and so on. There must be a unified vision and it has to come from someone. It can never come from a committee. And when I look out of my window here in Lower Manhattan, I can tell right away which buildings were done by authors and which ones were done by committees. [Laughs.] Almost everything was done by teams. No, I think projects must have authorships. We can’t hide the authorship. That’s why we call architecture art. Look at the orchestra performing Beethoven symphonies—120 musicians and a conductor. They all must be virtuosos to perform a great piece of music, but you still need the authorship of the composer. You cannot hide behind the team.
VB: What are some of the most memorable encounters that were important revelations for you early on?
DL: For that, I would have to go to my childhood. When I was six or seven, my parents took me to Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow in southern Poland. Those underground chapels and statues carved out of the rock salt left an incredible impression on me. I had so many questions—Why? How? It was such an extraordinary effort, sacrifice, sacredness, and spirituality. Another experience was the Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv. There was such cohesiveness on an urban scale. To see an entire modern city— even if on a modest scale was very impressive. Today there are many new buildings there but at that point, in the 1950s, the impression was very strong on me. And then coming to New York, seeing the skyline of Manhattan, a towering city on an island. And I have always liked to travel. Anything can be an inspiration, particularly something vernacular.