Jewish Journal

The Grand Design of Daniel Libeskind

by Sandee Brawarsky

Posted on Oct. 19, 2004 at 8:00 pm

It was in Poland's primeval forests, where bison roamed amidst labyrinths of poplar and maple trees that Daniel Libeskind first began to understand concepts of land, space, shelter and natural resources, themes that would be the underpinnings of his career as an architect.

In his new book, "Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture" (Riverhead), the world-renowned architect who designed the master plan for the World Trade Center site, describes his early life in Poland, Israel and the Bronx, and he speaks with eloquence and passion about the ideas behind his "overtly expressive" work.

"There are many worlds in my head," he writes, "and I bring them all of them to the projects I work on."

Although the 58-year-old Libeskind has now built three museums and has 35 projects underway around the world, he didn't actually build anything until he was 52. Until then, as he writes, he was mostly interested in abstract concepts rather than the utilitarian aspects of architecture.

In Studio Daniel Libeskind's conference room in lower Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson, the back wall is covered with architectural renderings of the World Trade Center project, and a windowsill is filled with three-dimensional models along with a scaled-down Statue of Liberty. Dressed in all black but for a lapel pin -- an American flag draped over a New York apple -- with his signature glasses framing his blue eyes, Libeskind is cheerful and well-spoken, his Polish Yiddish roots evident in the sound of his English, his New York present in his hard-to-keep-up-with pace.

"My first introduction to America," he says, "was through my father giving an old pair of shoes on a train platform in Russia."

Nachman Libeskind, who spent the war years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, noticed a young refugee sobbing after he had been released from the gulag. It was bitter winter and the man's shoes had been stolen while he slept; Libeskind gave him his spare pair. The man got to America first, and every year sent a package of chocolates, toys and comic books from Macy's to Poland. Through copying the comics, Daniel Libeskind learned to draw.

In 1957, when Libeskind was 11, his family moved from Lodz to Israel, from the overall grayness of the Polish city to "the natural splendor of the cornfields and orange groves of Kibbutz Gvat" in the Jezreel Valley. He loved kibbutz life "even if the work was sometimes enervating and dull," shifting swiftly from "city kid to serious participant in a real agrarian experiment." For his mother though, who also survived life in the Soviet gulag as well as communist Poland, the collective lifestyle was less appealing, and she soon moved the family to Tel Aviv, reestablishing the corsetry business she had in Lodz.

From the first days, Libeskind was struck by the light in Israel, a quality he has never experienced elsewhere.

"Even now, when I visit Israel," he writes, "as others kiss the earth, I stand in awe of the light. Some days I suspect that's what people are really fighting over -- not territory, but the light."

As a young child, he showed advanced talent as a musician and was considered a child prodigy on the accordion. Awarded a scholarship by the America-Israel Culture Foundation, he played in recital in Tel Aviv alongside a young Itzhak Perlman, winner of the same award. One of the judges, Isaac Stern, told him that it was a shame that he hadn't learn to play piano as he had gone as far as possible with the accordion. Libeskind thought it was too late to switch instruments -- "my hands were used to playing vertically" -- and switched to drawing.

The book is hardly a chronological memoir. Biographical details are revealed as Libeskind muses about design, building elements, sacred space, light and sound, a distinct sense of place and other ideas.

"The book reflects how I think," he says. "An independent network with a unity. The hardest part of writing was to be able to weave the stories in a meaningful way, to have a spirit."

He explains that he decided a write a book, amidst his many projects, because he was approached frequently by people who asked about his inspiration.

For many readers, the book will provide an "inside baseball" look at the competitive world of architecture. Libeskind doesn't hold back on harsh views of some colleagues, and writes openly of his "forced marriage" to architect David Childs in working on the World Trade Center site.

Often the story comes back to his parents. The Libeskinds moved to the United States in 1959, arriving by ship, and he recalls his first sight of the Statue of Liberty, already feeling the great promise of America. He spent his teen years living in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union housing cooperative in the Bronx, on the Western end of the Grand Concourse -- where a street was recently named in his honor. His mother, a direct descendent of Rabbi Loew of Prague, conjurer of the Golem, worked in the garment industry. In the evenings, she would tackle the live carp they kept in the bathtub until dinnertime and bake her husband's favorite honey cake, all the while debating literature, history and philosophy with her son. It was his mother who pushed him toward architecture.

"You can always do art in architecture, but you can't do architecture in art. You get two fish with the same hook," she said.

His father, who worked in the printing business, guided him to "trust the invisible." Some of the stories he retells about his father read like Chasidic tales, like when a thief in Israel returns their stolen belongings, remembering Nachman's name from their time together in the gulag.

About his process he writes, "Sometimes my thoughts are triggered by a piece of music or a poem, or simply by the way light falls on a wall. Sometimes an idea comes to me from a light deep in my heart."

He listens to the stones, as he understands that every public site is a place of history and memory. For Libeskind, memory is not nostalgia, but what drives the future, orienting people in space and time: "I try to build bridges into the future by staring clear-eyed into the past."

After 12 years in Berlin, Libeskind is delighted to be back in New York City, living downtown with his wife and daughter; they also have two grown sons. He loves the city best at dawn, "the most mysterious part of the day. The romantics prefer sunset. I like the dawn."

Libeskind is very much at ease in his Judaism, at home with Jewish culture and tradition. He says that he would be very interested in designing a synagogue.

"There's something Jewish about committing yourself to something, to the ethics and deeper meaning of it, putting yourself completely into the heart and soul of it. That's what we're doing at Ground Zero and at other projects, and in this book too."

'Portrait' Gets Fiction Award

The Jewish Book Council announced its 2004 Jewish Book Award for fiction, Marjorie Sandor for "Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime" (Sarabande Books), a collection of linked stories. The finalists are Jonathan Wilson for "A Palestine Affair" (Pantheon) and Joan Leegant for "An Hour in Paradise" (Norton).

The Men Who Built the World

"The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930" by Fredric Bedoire (Ktav) is an insightful work of history and culture. The book focuses on the Jewish industrialists, bankers, merchants and philanthropists who pursued modern culture, and in collaboration with their architects -- such figures as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier -- built significant buildings in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and other cities, including New York and Chicago. Bedoire provides historical background and then offers descriptions by city; he refers to Paris as the capital of the 19th century and Budapest as "Judapest." For the author, Jewishness is an energizer of modern architecture, and he probes attitudes toward architecture and building.

He writes: "My intention is not to demonstrate a Jewish architecture, should any such thing exist, but to underscore the presence of Jewishness in European and American architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to show that the Western world would have looked completely different without the Jews, and that many of the most intensified and complex formal manifestations of the age are directly related to the Jewish clientele."

The book is also an interesting history of European Jews of the period. The author, a Swedish scholar, is a professor of the history of architecture in the Royal University of Fine Arts, Stockholm. Originally published in Swedish, this edition is published in translation in collaboration with Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden.

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