Daniel Libeskind's Perspective
ArchWeek How heavily does the responsibility sit, for such emotionally-loaded projects?
Libeskind It's an absolutely gigantic responsibility, not just to the client but to the public at large and as a legacy — so it is ethical as well as architectural. It's not that I choose these projects, I kind of "feel" into them.
Of course I compete for [them] with sometimes hundreds or thousands of other people, like for the WTC site. But I am lucky to be selected often because those viewing see not only something practical that can be built, but virtue in the spaces, light and temperature; in the humanistic environment.
Often architecture is described in terms of infrastructure and technology, which is true as a means to an end, but it is a humanistic art to me like music, like jazz. It is a struggle too, if you don't just repeat the formula — a nice facade and a building behind it. But it's a creative struggle.
ArchWeek How do you perceive the controversy that surrounds your work?
Libeskind There is no precedent for some of these projects, whether Dresden [Military History Museum] or Ground Zero. When you do something that's never been done, of course people raise their eyebrows. But then, I've been asked to come back by many of my clients.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin was my first building, and with it I discovered that while it's relatively easy to win a competition with a design, it takes certain stamina to persevere through an often difficult project.
It's a marathon: capturing the spirit of a building and doing something beyond the average. But now, just across the street from the Jewish Museum I'm doing an additional educational facility [for the same client], for example, so what is great is that the clients see the virtue, too.
One and a half million people have been to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto after what was initially a controversial addition: its crystalline form. These are staggering figures compared to before.
And anyway, look at great composers. When Beethoven's Fifth was first performed it got miserable reviews. Great painters were considered to be doing ridiculous things; great books were often parodied. I think that in every creative art there is that need to express something and do it against the odds.
Good is always difficult, whether in art, politics or economics.
ArchWeek Is there anything about the industry that you are less than enamored with?
Libeskind I'm lucky to work with my wife and creative partner, Nina. She does many of the things I would not be happy doing. This gives me the chance to concentrate on the cultural aspect of the civic spaces that I'm asked to do, rather than the negotiations that are often tedious and at the same time very important. But the credit has to go to many others. There's a lot of prosaic stuff in architecture.
Burnout is a danger; there are tough schedules and responsibilities. But I listen to music, I meditate, and there are books by my bedside. I draw on the go, so even in the busy schedules, I find it necessary to find spaces that are really open, and that give you a chance to do or think about something totally different. Architecture is that kind of space; it brings together the unexpected.
And how could I do the work without listening to the music of Elizabethan England, to Tallis or Byrd, or to Nono, an Italian contemporary composer who's a great inspiration? Or reading a wonderful book? I consider myself lucky enough to move with my projects around the world, and it's always self-inspiring.
ArchWeek You have designed a number of educational buildings, the latest of which is a project in Hong Kong. Why favor these kinds of projects?
Libeskind University is that realm of free inquiry where everything can be asked, everything can be challenged, and that's why I still teach and lecture. It's great to debate, pose questions.
I'm also inspired by young people. They are the key to developing a whole new set of possibilities around the issues that we're facing: how to sustain a humanistic architecture in an expanding world, deal with shrinking resources, with our density of living.
Hong Kong is a fantastic city, and the Creative Media Centre [at the City University of Hong Kong] is exploring an industry that's emerging here. I liked the challenge of creating a building for very creative people, quite literally thinking outside of boxes of formulas.
The building harnesses that energy in its technical spaces and the interaction between artists and creative technologies. It had to be a fundamental place of encounter, a building that gives you inspired perspectives on Hong Kong, the harbor, the mountains, but that gives the range, too, of intimacy and publicness. That's the drama of the building, and its process.
ArchWeek Which project type have you had the most fun with, and what do you still look forward to trying out?
Libeskind I recently designed a small house in Connecticut [the 18.36.54 House]. It was refreshing; I've never done a project that didn't have to go through community boards and please thousands of people. Most involve large-scale participation.
The [home's] clients are highly educated artists, and interesting people. They said, "We know art, we own it, and want our house to be art as well as filled with it." I made a very small house and they like it very much. It has a beautiful, special stainless steel exterior and a completely wooden interior.
It was really incredible doing something so tiny in such a beautiful landscape. And I discovered that it's no easier doing something small; you use the same intensity on things like putting a doorknob into a door.
But I guess I'm trying to say that I'm not one of those architects that just picks project out of the air. Often people come with difficult projects with almost no money, and it may be years later that people do manage to gather the resources and the building can go on.
But architecture is not about immediate gratification and it's not a self-serving discipline; it must respond to others. We need more good housing, beautiful neighborhoods, places for people to work, and it's a horizon of so many challenges that I'm ready to take on. It's a social responsibility.
Daniel Libeskind is renowned for his treatment of soaring and controversial themes with equally soaring, controversial silhouettes. The Polish-born American virtuoso musician turned radical architect was a theorist and professor for decades before completing his first building at age 52. In the decade and a half since, he has created a series of striking international monuments to peace, conflict, and the human spirit.
These include the Jewish Museum Berlin in Germany, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, United Kingdom, and the master plan for reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, as well as a host of other civic, educational, and commercial institutions. In 2001 Libeskind became the first architect to receive the Hiroshima Art Prize, which recognizes work that promotes international understanding. He currently runs Studio Daniel Libeskind alongside his wife and business partner, Nina Libeskind.
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Jo Baker is an independent writer and researcher based in Hong Kong and London, with an interest in design and social development. Publications she writes for include Time, the South China Morning Post, and Hospitality Design. More by Jo Baker