The son of Polish immigrants and Holocaust survivors, the young Daniel Libeskind was a musical prodigy, playing his accordion on Polish national television before putting down his instrument in order to pursue architecture.
Now aged 70, Libeskind has not abandoned his love of art and music, and neither has he forgotten his humble beginnings. We meet a man who speaks with the enthusiasm and optimism of a young revolutionary, eager to change the world and heal communities with his work. Libeskind is unique in the way that he approaches projects, immersing himself in the history of a place and creating buildings made of memory and imagination, as much as they are made of raw materials. He wants the weight of time to be felt rather than stripped away and covered up, and it’s this quality that makes him the perfect person to take on the site of the World Trade Centre, both the highest honour and biggest challenge of his career.
Daniel you left Poland in the late 50s and went to Israel, and later ended up in New York. You must understand the plight that many destitute refugees are going through today.
Absolutely. My parents took me, they had no jobs, no particular skills that they could use in other places, no money. They had only a suitcase with some rags inside and that’s how we lived. That’s how I grew up and that’s why I’m so disgusted when people refuse entrance to refugees. We are all foreigners. We are all coming from somewhere else. There is no such thing as native people except those native people whose land was stolen. So yes, the world looks pretty bad to me when people turn against refugees and close their doors.
Your family’s association with the holocaust is well documented. Ironically you ended up building the renowned Jewish Museum in Berlin.
Well you know, life is a labyrinth. It’s like the travels of Ulysses. You travel all around and you are faced with dangers. The goal is not to get lost but to somehow get home, to discover who you really are, and to take on that history and that tradition. Not to forget it, but to deal with it.
"I create physical marvels."
Daniel Libeskind on the parallels between music and architecture
One thing that you said that I find fascinating relates to the emergence of high density housing, “How do we manage this high wire act between growing city dwellers and new architecture?” Do you think architects have a moral responsibility in terms of creating housing for displaced people?
I’m involved in probably the lowest cost housing in the world today. It’s not yet public but I’m working on it. And it’s not a theatrical project, it’s a real project that will demonstrate that with very meager resources, with almost nothing, you can create an environment that not only has a functional, but also an aesthetic and poetic sense for the people that dwell there. Architecture is the great cultural social profession of all professions because it’s the home of humanity. It’s where we live. We need to appreciate what democracy is. It’s not just voting, it’s the elimination of inequalities that exist in this world, and giving people an equal footing, and equal opportunities.
Architecture as a language is something that you talk about often, but wouldn’t you say that the language of architecture is only available to intellectuals and artists? Can the average Joe understand the language of architecture?
Yes I think everybody can. Anyone who walks into a place that has a poetic and intellectual idea, that communicates a thought. People respond to it and it enriches their life. I’m not a believer that because there are so many people in the world we must settle for mediocrity. I think architecture is a great art and that its responsibility is also to provide something that is not very fashionable today, a beautiful place. Not just a bunch of sustainable materials thrown together, but sustainability in a cultural sense that tells us something interesting and that inspires us.
In a former life you were a virtuoso musician, but I understand that you were 17 the last time you touched an instrument. What made you give music up?
Without playing the accordion I would never have become an architect. I grew up in Poland after the holocaust and there was terrible anti-Semitism. My parents were too scared even to bring a piano home because the neighbours would say, “oh you see the Jews, they are bringing in the piano.” So instead they bought me a piano in a suitcase, the accordion, and I became a virtuoso. I went to Israel and competed in the American Israel Prize for Music. I was the only person on the accordion. Everyone else had violins, or cellos, or clarinets. I entered the room with my accordion – my father brought it in because it was too heavy for me to carry – and the three people on the jury looked as if they were about to start laughing. They looked at me like, what is he doing here? I strapped on the accordion and with the first three chords of the Toccata In D minor by Bach, their smirks disappeared. When I finished the great Isaac Stern came over to me and said, “Daniel, you have already exhausted all the possibilities of this instrument, you must now play the piano.” That was easy to say, but it was hard to go from a vertical keyboard to a horizontal one.
By the way I won this competition, and according to Isaac Stern I was the only person who won it and did not go on to become famous in music. I played this instrument that was usually associated with gypsies, and immigrants, and poor people. But anyway I exhausted this instrument and there was nothing left remaining for me. But of course what remained was kind of architecture, the drawings which I always pursued, and somehow my interest in music, and drawing, and science got me by some strange accident into architecture.
Do you ever think that you could feel the same way about architecture, that you’ve exhausted it?
No because I continue to practise music in architecture, I just changed my instrument. I didn’t give up music at all. I no longer play the keyboard but I create physical marvels. I do things that connect me to music. Drawing the plans for something is like creating a musical score, which is then performed by musicians. To be able to conduct music you have to be very precise but you also have to give freedom for it to be performed by others. That is in many ways identical to architecture. So I don’t see much difference. The audience has changed of course. It’s no longer an audience in a concert hall but an audience in a city, but I’m still considering architecture as music.
You seem voracious in your lust for art, and history, and philosophy.
You have to be, because the world is such an incredible wonder. As the Chinese said – people don’t see the unicorns, but they are there. The world is wondrous and surprising, but if you don’t look for the surprise then you’ll miss it. That’s why I love art and the richness of humanity. I look at my library and think – how many pieces I have in this library which I will never be able to exhaust, it’s just a miracle.
Do you find a great affinity with other architects? Do you all share this kind of world view?
Architecture is a very wide field. It’s not just about creating buildings, or making plans, or writing books. It’s about architecture of the mind and how we structure the world. That’s why the word architecture has been appropriated for divinity. God created the world. In every philosophy and religion, architecture has taken place, and we are only a small part of that creation. Whether you are a scientist or a mystic it doesn’t matter.
The idea of memory is obviously very important in your work. You’ve called the reworking of the World Trade Centre “memory Foundations.” Can you talk a bit about memory and your relationship with it?
To me memory is the foundation of architecture and the foundation of us. Without memory we are lost, and we don’t know who we are or where we are going. Memory for me is not nostalgia, or repetition, or something we already know. It’s the new. It’s an encounter with something that sheds light on the moment in which we are alive. It’s the memory of something not yet encountered, which is in us. The mother of the muses, and all artists from Homer on, is memory. It’s an ancient tradition, and whether you’re a Jew, a Greek, or an Arab, memory is the key to understanding where we are and what is coming at us from an unexpected point in the future.
When I was in New York I stumbled upon the African Burial Ground National Monument and it really got me thinking about the layers of history, especially when a piece of architecture is built on top of a site. How do you feel about the issue of building on top of history and forgetting the past?
My approach is not to forget or to hide the traumas of history. On the contrary it’s to show them. I recently built a small house in Connecticut, in a beautiful green space, but I thought of the native people who used to live there and all of the things that we don’t really see. But if we want to see them we can also create forms that relate to them and expose us to a rich and fundamental history. At Ground Zero I didn’t hide the bedrock with parking as most people wanted. I wanted people to have access to the bedrock, not to hide it. It’s kind of a scared ground that no one has declared as a sacred ground.
Whether it’s a Jewish museum, or a hospital, or a school, everything has layers. There’s no such thing as an empty place. Architecture that doesn’t deal with the history may produce nice things but they are not things that are going to touch our hearts.
"Who cares if it’s the biggest or the tallest? Who cares how many projects you build? Who cares about the accolades you get?"
On being a well-known architect
You’re very good at making this sensitive dance between history and the politics of a place, between your own vision and what the community would like. Would you agree?
You’re right, too many see the city as just some concrete, and glass, and subway systems, and transportation networks. To me the city is a spiritual entity. Our connection to it is through memory and our love for others and our sense of being somehow part of a people. That’s what makes architecture such a close art to music. In music you can see the instrument but the music itself is invisible, it’s just vibrations. It’s the same in architecture. You can see the buildings but the atmosphere it creates, the power of those buildings, is what we feel emotionally.
It’s clear that you’re very thoughtful about how you approach your work. It’s not just about building the biggest or the tallest.
No, who cares if it’s the biggest or the tallest? Who cares how many projects you build? Who cares about the accolades you get? You have to take the risk and pursue your idea, whatever the consequences are. You are going be pulled to the left and the right, and criticized at every opportunity, but that’s what is demanded of you as an artist and also as human being, whoever you are.
You’ve had to deal with an immense amount of bureaucracy relating to the reworking of the World Trade Centre. Would you agree that the world of architecture is over politicised?
That’s the nature of this field. It’s a very peculiar art because you need so many resources and there is so much politics involved in getting things done. Look at great artists like Michelangelo, and others all across history, how difficult it is to build anything of value. I think that’s the nature and struggle of architecture because you can’t do it by yourself in an ivory tower with some drawings. You can’t just be a dreamer, you have to enter into the fray. And who said that’s easy? It’s one of the most difficult things in the world, for me or for anybody else; to talk to people with money, and power, and political agendas, and yet to somehow navigate this complexity and deliver something that you believe is true and good.
How do you go about having these discussions with moguls and landowners and other important people?
Quite frankly my personality alone would not allow me to do it. I’m not that kind of person. But Nina [Daniel’s wife] grew up with politics in her blood, in a political family in Canada. If I didn’t have a partner who I love and who shares my values I don’t think I could do it. I’m not afraid to say it. It’s a partnership. She brings a soberness and a practicality that I myself would never be able to deliver. No one can do it alone in my view. The most famous architects seldom give credit to how many people work even on a single little space. Architecture is a social profession and of course it has to have an artist leading it, but it also needs a team of creative people, which I am so lucky to have, with Nina at the helm.
Would you say the World Trade Centre is the hardest and most complex project you’ve worked on?
Oh by far. There is no plan for such a project. It’s truly a kind of ulyssian journey. There are all sorts of deserted islands and monsters, but at the end when he comes back to Ithaca, the first act he does is he kisses the ground. That’s kind of how I felt about it. At the end you can kiss the ground of New York and realise you’ve been through a journey and a lot of adventures. That’s not a cheap metaphor because it’s so difficult to work with thousands of people who lost their loved ones. It’s so difficult to work with the Port Authority, one of the biggest organisations in the world, and mayors of New York, and the different developers, and private architects. But at the end for me it’s about a child who will come to the site and will look around. That’s my client. That child who gets an inspired view of the city and learns about what happened here, and how things that are good and beautiful can still reaffirm themselves in the face of terrible evils.
You’ve often talked about religious intolerance, bigotry, immigration. Would you say that you’re somewhat of an activist architect, but instead of a picket sign you have building materials?
That’s quite true, although I have also gone out and protested. You have to when labour unions are being squashed by employers. You have to fight for justice wherever it is, but you have to fight with the means you have, and of course buildings depend on money. Unfortunately it is those who have the means who build the most, but we need to think of the 99 percent. For that architecture is not enough, it’s the political system we have to address. It is governments who have to provide social housing for people, and not call it social housing but just call it houses. Houses with gardens. If you want a good society you have to have people who feel good about the conditions they work in and where they live. For me this is a big challenge because the city is a model of possibility but it’s also today a model of inequality.
"There is no plan for such a project, it’s truly a kind of ulyssian journey."
On building the World Trade Center
But I’m a true optimist because I believe architecture can change the world. Not in the way politics wants to change it but by doing something very practical. Creating a beautiful street, or a public space, a beautiful vista that inspires you and makes you happy. Creating even a very modest little apartment in a big tower that has a different kind of view than most towers around. So yes, I think everything in architecture is part of that rejection of mediocrity and a glimpse into something better.
In the 70s the renowned radical artist Gordon Matta-Clark commented on the “architect as a utilitarian, behaving like a social engineering doctor.” What are you thoughts on this?
I kind of agree with Matta-Clark that it’s not a social engineering profession. Too many people think that buildings will impact people’s functions and make them behave in another way. I think what buildings can do even in a very modest way is communicate a story that is compelling, that gives us food for thought and space for thinking. It has been said that the most creative people should live in the smallest possible space. Basically, as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “I could live in a nutshell and be king of the world.” So I think social engineering is not architecture and architecture is not even fully a social profession, it’s kind of a poetic profession because without poetry it would devolve into something very needless. Poetry and memory are the fundamentals. Without these things even cities that are very big do not impress me.
When you approach a project how do you find that balance between poetry and practicality?
You have to take a huge risk. But it also requires good luck. It doesn’t just depend on you but the world on whether you can accomplish it. You need the resources in your soul and the idea, and the stamina. You need a lot of time to do these things. It’s a marathon.
Does it exhaust you?
No because I prepare for it very well. You don’t just start running a marathon without practicing for a long time. The Jewish museum took 12 years to build, Ground Zero 15 by the time it will be finished. Many of my projects are in the works and may take another 10 years, who knows. Projects that are complex may be finished many years after starting them. So that’s what I mean by a marathon. It’s not for quick glory or a photo op, it’s a long process which you have to stick with, and this is how you tell great architects from non-architects. Great architects just continue across adversities and somehow reach their goal, even those who never build anything. Piranesi only ever built one building, but my god, he’s one of the greatest architects. But he created the drawings, the ideas of Rome. The cartography, the history, the atmosphere of power. . . he created Rome for the future! He just didn’t have any luck with his commissions. Maybe he was just too delicate, and didn’t have a Nina with him.
We all need a Nina by our side.
Yes [laughing] indeed.
One of the best books ever written about revolution, the city, and the future of hope.
I recently played this choral piece on the BBC for the 15th anniversary of 9/11. An unbelievable cathedral in sound.
A Little Building I Saw In India
Somewhere near Mumbai. A small vernacular building that was so beautiful it left an impression on me greater than the Taj Mahal.