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The Liberation of Daniel Libeskind

Not Your Average Country Home
Most architects do houses early in their careers. Libeskind is only getting around to it now—and among his clients is a man who commissioned him to design a 2,000-square-foot weekend home near New York City. The client, who is happy to give his architect some publicity but doesn’t want his own name used, says the place is modest, quiet, and secluded, a gem but not a showcase.

“I was interested in exploring the idea of fractal shapes in a natural environment,” the client says, referring to the complex geometries displayed in clouds, lightning bolts, and snowflakes. “It was a conscious wish for something other than a rational, Euclidean machine for living. There’s a small group of architects who are doing this now, and Daniel is one of the leading minds.”  

Conspicuously absent from the poster-size renderings on the walls, and spoken of only in elliptical references, is Libeskind’s first Manhattan project. If the developer, Elad Properties, can obtain all the necessary permissions—a gigantic if—the tower will rise above the fourteen-story base of the Metropolitan Life Building on Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets, looming over the landmark Clock Tower. Libeskind and Elad are offering no design details and only the vaguest response when asked if the tower is even in the works. “I grew up in New York, so this is my city, and I love the challenge of working in this marketplace, where every square inch costs money, and still creating something forward-looking and new,” is all that Libeskind will say.

Elad has good reason to tread cautiously, and not just because any skyscraping condo at that location would disrupt a historic slice of the skyline and foment outrage among some preservationists. It’s also that Libeskind’s designs have a way of stirring admirers to ecstasy and prodding critics into colorful fulminations. When Libeskind’s initial World Trade Center plan was unveiled, Steve Cuozzo, then the New York Post’s fire-breathing real-estate columnist, called it “the Pit and Pendulum of design horrors, dominated by a morbid trench and a scepter-edged spire suggestive of a medieval instrument of torture.” Libeskind professes to be puzzled by the polarizing effect he has. “I didn’t come to architecture in a conventional way, and I’m not a conventional architect, so I might grate on the nerves of some critics,” he says mildly.

When people refer to Daniel Libeskind, they are really talking about two individuals: the public man, girded by a moat of charm, and Nina, his spouse, fixer, and gatekeeper. With her square frame and short gray hair, she looks more like his twin than his wife. She is not an architect, and she keeps clear of the design work, but she decides what phone calls he will take and which he will return. She meets clients, journalists, and mayors. Every minute he spends sketching in solitude is a minute he owes to her.

To be around the couple is to be drawn into the embrace of their enthusiasm and to witness the routine they have honed: the genial artist and his resident realist. They love their work, they love each other, they love their family, and they love their apartment, a cool modernist nest with gray stone floors and white walls, furnished with a Barcelona couch and other classics of modern design. A treadmill sits imperiously opposite the front door. An enormous TV dominates the living room to slake Nina’s appetite for sports and Daniel’s for movies. The evening I visit, their daughter Rachel, who has just started her freshman year at Harvard, calls several times. Libeskind wants to know whether, when, and what she has eaten.

Both Daniel and Nina are at pains to distance themselves from the mutual-back-scratching society that governs architecture in New York (and everywhere else). “I’m not part of the mafia,” he says. “I don’t get on the phone for two hours before going to work every morning, calling everyone I know.” He is as passionate about his enemies as he is about his friends, and they constitute a cast of nefarious characters scattered around the world: the obstructionist city planner, the anti-Semitic bureaucrat, the Machiavellian architect, the small-minded magnate. Libeskind thinks of himself as a perpetual outsider in the clannish world of contemporary architecture, a printer’s son at a party of trust-fund kids.

“It’s funny to me that people think Daniel is a networker,” Nina adds. “He’s pathetic at it.”

Libeskind stokes disdain in the same way that he collects adorers, through bottomless delight in his own inventions. He’s so fervent about selling his vision that he strikes skeptics as a slippery rhetorician, and his relentlessly serene perspective on the World Trade Center seems disconnected from the dispiriting, fractious process that the public has seen only in spurts. The media portrayed him as a sacrificial architect, trotted out at press conferences to apply an idealistic veneer to what was essentially a vast and ugly real-estate deal. People who acknowledge having little sense of what will actually be built at ground zero nevertheless remember that Libeskind lost that nasty fight with developer Larry Silverstein and architect David Childs over the design of the Freedom Tower.

Yet Libeskind regards the rebuilding of lower Manhattan, and his role in it, as a grand success. “In the end, the public will see the symbolism of the site,” he insists. “Of course, compromises had to be made, but a master plan is not about a few lines drawn on paper. It’s about an idea, and how to express that idea through the turmoil of politics and the creativity of all the other architects. In the end, the result will be pretty close to my original rendering.”