From The Issue: A Conversation With Daniel Libeskind
Written by Bwog Staff
The new issue of the Blue and White is on a Butler desk or newstand near you! Daniel Libeskind is one of the world’s most famous architects, having designed some of the most striking buildings of the past two decades, including Berlin’s Jewish Museum, the extension to the Denver Art Museum, and Toronto’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, which Condé Nast Traveler has called one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” Libeskind is also the master architect behind the new World Trade Center, a massive project that stands to revitalize lower Manhattan when its first stages are completed in the coming few years. Blue and White senior editor Jon Hill visited Libeskind at his Financial District studio to talk about the project, his career, and the future of modern architecture.
The Blue and White: What first sparked your interest in architecture?
Daniel Libeskind: It was not at first. I was a professional musician, in fact. But, I got interested in mathematics and the sciences, and I was always painting and drawing. I think I fell into architecture because, in a way, architecture combined all my interests. It’s visual music. It’s about proportions; it’s about geometries; it’s about precision and emotion. But it’s not as if I started at the beginning saying, “I want to be an architect.” I hardly even knew what an architect was. I had never met an architect until when I was in school.
B&W: And has that influenced your designs today?
DL: Oh yes, absolutely. I think for many years I didn’t build not because I was averse to building or because I was a theorist, but because I took a different path to architecture. I didn’t apprentice myself to architects because I didn’t like what they were doing. And I didn’t like the whole idea of the office, this kind of nine-to-five idea. So, I thought, “I’ll do architecture in another way,” and to support myself, I taught. Students are very creative, very different from the commercial world where people have a narrow view of what is good and what is not good.
B&W: When you are designing a building, what is your driving force? Are you looking for beauty, efficiency?
DL: That’s a very profound question. You know, architecture’s kind of a humanistic discipline, as I see it. Of course, there’s a lot of science in it and you have to be able to calculate, but it’s primarily a liberal art. It’s a spiritual art; it’s part of culture. It’s a way to communicate. So, what drives architecture, I believe, is its communicative aspect—the desire to tell a story about something that might not be available through any other building in the city. It’s not so different from poetry, filmmaking, being a composer, or being a storyteller—it’s partly all of those, but it’s such a grand art because it’s not spoken with words.
B&W: How did those goals shape your design for the World Trade Center complex? What was the story you were trying to tell?
DL: I called the project “Memory Foundations,” the memory of that fateful day in which our world changed for the worse. We’re in a different era, and I wanted to memorialize that day not just abstractly, but because this was a place where thousands of people lost their lives. It’s a huge responsibility, creating such a “spiritual site.” At the same time, I called it “Memory Foundations” because I wanted to make it a foundation for a 21st century New York and a New York that will never be cowed by these attacks, that will never retreat, that will always be a city of liberty, a symbolic place, as well as a functioning place. I wanted to tell this story because the attacks were not against just this single site in New York just by coincidence.
It was not some anti-capitalist protest; it was a statement about America and about the future of the world. So, I did everything in my power to shape the site in a meaningful way, not to build, for example, where the towers stood. It’s not an easy project to decide that, by the way, because if you have to put 60 million square feet of density on a 16-acre site—there’s 10 million square feet just of offices—it’s very hard to leave such a large portion of the site unbuilt.
B&W: Right, there is a lot of open space in the designs.
DL: Exactly. One should never build where people perished. One should expose the slurry wall [concrete retaining walls from the original foundation], as I have done, because you see the true experience of what happened when you look down to the bedrock through the tragedy. But, you also see arising from the dead something amazing, which is the towers, the cultural spirit, and the new streets. It’s a neighborhood, really. And I shaped the towers to echo the torch in Lady Liberty’s hand… Of course, it’s very practical still. There’s a lot of density and a lot of infrastructure. There’s subway trains and PATH trains, and all of that is a part of the complexity of organizing a site that isn’t “business as usual” even though it’s been conducted as “business as usual.”
B&W: How do you balance the technical and political problems in a project such as this?
DL: There are a lot of architects who would prefer to build for totalitarian regimes. Some totalitarian gives them a free site and says, “Build us something beautiful, something tall,” and everybody loves it. But, I’ve always thought it’s better to work in the murky and difficult waters of democracy than to have a tabula rasa declared by the central committee of some country. I believe in democracy. Of course, I also believe it’s very difficult. Nobody said democracy is easy. This site is fraught politically: it’s controversial with the victims, with the families of the victims, and with the Port Authority, which owns the site and is leasing it through an investor with its own architects. It’s a huge constellation of forces. And yet, I don’t think an architect has the luxury to say, “I’m not doing it,” you know? You don’t win every battle. Sometimes you have to compromise. But that’s… the nature of living in a democratic society.
B&W: So that’s what keeps you going when you have to wrangle with these stakeholders?
DL: It is. It’s very difficult. But I was brought up in the Bronx. We were not taught to be escapists–you fight for what you believe in.
B&W: One of those fights now is about what to name the main tower. It was originally going to be called “Freedom Tower,” but now it’s been decided that just “One World Trade Center” will be the name. What’s your reaction to that?
DL: Look, people have all sorts of agendas, but for architecture, it doesn’t matter. I positioned the tower toward the Hudson River. I made it 1,776 feet high, which is the date of the Declaration of Independence. That’s a date that belongs to all people because it declares freedom for all. 1,776, standing where it’s standing at the apogee of the spiral crescendo of the towers. People can change the building’s name, but that’s the great thing about architecture: The architecture is what it is.
B&W: Speaking of changes, New York is seeing a lot of them as a result of the downturn in the economy. How do you think this will affect architecture in the city?
DL: I think it will affect those whose business was luxury. That’s never been architecture. I think it will bring people back to the sense that architecture is far more than some lavish, garish, or “innovative” buildings. It’s about creating buildings that withstand the test of time and buildings that are culturally sustainable, which means they are not just fashions of the week. The economic crisis will bring back a new responsibility that architecture is a social art. It’s a field for the real world, which is what makes it so difficult and challenging.
B&W: Do you think anything will change in the World Trade Center design as a result of the economy?
DL: It’s always changing. The design is dynamic. Even though my role is to make sure the master plan is implemented—it’s very close, actually, to what I drew—the project still evolves. And we’re struggling, of course, because we’re aware how vulnerable the site is at all times. You have to be an optimist that even the changes that you can influence can be very, very important on the large scale for the future viability, beauty, and meaning of the city.
B&W: Take me along your design process. Where do you start?
DL: It’s almost an impossible question to answer because it’s not a linear process. You have to know the needs of the client, of course, but that’s only one aspect of it. The other aspect is how do you take all of those things and connect them with what you want to do. It has to be inspired, something that is interesting for me to do. And it’s also very personal. Some architects practice architecture as if it’s some sort of abstract machine that produces buildings, but I like it because it’s an art.
B&W: Of the buildings you’ve designed, which do you find particularly personal?
DL: Many. I think almost every building I design I find personal, whether it’s the Jewish Museum in Berlin, whether it’s the Imperial War Museum, or whether it’s the Tower I designed for New York. People usually recognize that, even though I don’t try to be in the limelight. People always see the design as having a particular character that’s sometimes really against the grain.
B&W: How would you describe that character?
DL: It’s doing something that you believe in that might even be controversial and might, to some people, be the wrong thing. It might reawaken all sorts of emotions. But I do think that architecture is a field not only of the intellect, but its primary goal is an emotional resonance to the soul, to the heart. It’s not just a theory in the mind; it’s how we see the city as having human characteristics.
B&W: How do you tap into these emotions?
DL: You can read a book, you can listen to any incredible concert, you can look at the dirt on the subway wall. I mean, it comes from anywhere—anywhere you can see something inspiring, something fantastic. And it all goes together, actually. It’s probably not one or the other; it’s a cosmic constellation of things that, if you’re lucky to plop yourself into it, yields fire.
B&W: People are becoming more and more focused on designing environmentally friendly, sustainable buildings. How has that influenced your designs?
DL: Tremendously. Sustainability has always been a word in the architect’s vocabulary. It’s not something new. The Egyptians knew it, the old Hebrews knew it, the Assyrians, the Chinese—the ancient architects knew sustainability. How do you orient the building? How do you avoid wasting money? They knew how not just to build marble facades and gilded buildings of gold, but how to build buildings that sustain themselves, that are well-built, that are easy to maintain, take advantage of nature, and at the same time, give human beings something more to think about than before.
B&W: So we’re returning to these old traditions?
DL: We’re in an interesting era as human beings have exploited the world and ruined it almost: a new thought has arisen. Where are we? Why are we doing these things? Can we do something better than this? And I think in many ways people have returned to the old ways for inspiration—now, I’m not for the nostalgic return because I don’t believe in “Mother Nature.” Man has taken nature himself and has transformed it so thoroughly that I can hardly speak of nature as a mother, but we have to cooperate with what we’ve done to nature in order to create something that will sustain future generations in a world that is hopefully better and more just.
B&W: Is that the biggest challenge architects are facing now?
DL: I think it is. As the world is becoming small through globalization, as people are exposed to the same things, we need the uniqueness of places to assert themselves again. Otherwise, everything’s going to be the same. And I think what is emerging is that people all over the world, because they are in the same world economically, want to celebrate their uniqueness, their culture, and their spot of earth that is not replaceable. I think that’s almost a spiritual rebirth because people see there’s something else besides economics and money that drives human development. It’s the human imagination and creativity, whatever the challenge is.