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The Liberation of Daniel Libeskind

The architect who lost the battle over the Freedom Tower (though not, in his opinion, the war) may now build Manhattan’s tallest residential building. And he’s built a whole new career for himself by carefully mining the line between idealism and concession.


You remember Daniel Libeskind: the architect with the perpetual smile who wooed New York with images of a crystalline city rising from the rubble of ground zero. He tossed metaphorical titles like confetti—Wedge of Light, Freedom Tower, Memory Foundations, Park of Heroes. He spoke with such articulate sincerity that he seemed almost able to conjure architecture into existence by sheer force of enthusiasm. He kept grinning as politicians and rivals and real-estate men whittled away at his plan. Eventually, you recall, he was pushed off the Freedom Tower’s design team. You could be excused for believing that he had slunk back to Europe to design an avant-garde gallery or two.

But Libeskind, who graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and the Cooper Union before migrating to Michigan, Italy, and Germany, has become a New Yorker again. Every morning, he sits in the comfortably austere living room of his Tribeca apartment, devoting a ritual hour to listening to classical music. After breakfast, he walks with his wife, Nina, to his studio on Rector Street, where, with undimmed smile and untempered zeal, he presides over a minor architectural empire.

He is at last designing his first Manhattan building—not a 1,776-foot-high office skyscraper at ground zero but a 70-odd-story colossus that could wind up being New York’s tallest residential tower. This poetic bit of vindication must vie for his attention with a 6.5 million–square–foot complex in South Korea, another megadevelopment in Singapore, a competition for a new district of Monte Carlo floating in the Mediterranean, a skyscraper in Warsaw, a shopping center in Las Vegas, and a scattering of condominium towers. When Libeskind won the competition for the World Trade Center master plan in 2003, he had a reputation as a brilliant but abstruse theoretician with one weirdly magical masterpiece in his portfolio: the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Four years later, ground zero still looks pretty much the way it did then, but the exposure there has helped transform his practice into a worldwide commercial enterprise. Studio Daniel Libeskind employs 120 staffers in New York, Zurich, and Milan and has 45 projects on the boards.

So how did an intellectual purist become a developer’s pet? Has the real-estate business found enlightenment? Or has Libeskind refashioned himself as a high-class hack, peddling a facsimile of the avant-garde to developers who wish to disguise their rapaciousness with a few aesthetic fripperies? Libeskind naturally prefers the first explanation. “People think that developers are stupid and they’re only interested in money,” he says. “But there’s an intelligence about money, because it’s very concrete. It’s not abstract or theoretical. If you want to angle a wall, they want to know exactly why. But if you explain it, they say, ‘Okay, I understand.’ The developers have become more avant-garde than the schools.”

Nina, Daniel, and I are in a Vietnamese restaurant across the street from their apartment, and she’s pouring the evening’s third bottle of wine. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Libeskind,” Nina says, “but 99 percent of developers are stupid. You’ve been very fortunate to work with those who aren’t. The commercial world goes in cycles, and the shelf life of these projects is short. Right now, what they want is what you do.”

He smiles indulgently. “You see? Mrs. Libeskind, always the socialist. She thinks anything having to do with money is bad.”

She smiles back. “Libeskind, you’re my favorite capitalist.” She offers him a noodle dish to try.

In his studio a couple of blocks from ground zero, Libeskind is perched on the edge of a chair, twisting toward his desk like one of those leaning structures he designs. He’s drawing as he talks, doing both at high speed. He has on the same uniform New Yorkers first saw him wearing on television: black T-shirt, black pants, black jacket, black cowboy boots, and heavy black-framed glasses, a costume so consistent that he can sometimes seem less like the real Daniel Libeskind than like an actor playing the role.

“In the beginning, an idea has to germinate, and there’s no telling how it’s going to come out,” he says. His black marker flicks across his pad, and a new riverfront for the city of Newry, in Northern Ireland, takes shape in a matter of seconds. He tears off the sheet and starts drawing the same site again.

“Then it comes out all at once in a three-dimensional sketch. It’s not linear: I sketch, we make models, and we deal with technical aspects, all at the same time. But there has to be an intuitive germ. Most of the time, the final result looks pretty close to my original hand drawing.” An associate sticks his head in the door. Libeskind pops up. “We’ve got to look at Korea now, right?” Over the next several hours, Libeskind will trot through his domain, which is littered with paper and wooden miniatures of buildings that list, torque, swoop, and zigzag. Windows and light strips slash across surfaces in patterns reminiscent of pick-up sticks. Shapes come to precipitous points.

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