After years in which planning and political vagaries and misspent fortunes have yielded increasingly dilute plans and little visible construction, Libeskind’s optimism sounds positively delusional. It’s hard to know whether he really means it, or whether he figures that since the World Trade Center master plan was his passport to global stardom, it would be unwise of him to bitch about it. Either way, whenever the subject comes up, he seems to melt into his own persona. Suddenly, he’s the Cheshire Architect. The details fade, leaving only a vapor of passionately uttered principles and his doggedly cheery grin.
Libeskind’s buildings are never just buildings; they are metaphors. “I’m not an architect who’s into architecture,” he says. “A writer’s not interested in writing, he just wants to tell a story. Architecture is a medium to communicate the beauty of a place, of light and shadows. I have a repertoire of forms, but I don’t think about them. I think of the meaning of the project.”
He arrived on the scene at ground zero well equipped to present himself as an architect of meaning. With the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which he finished in 1999, he appointed himself Germany’s unofficial interpreter of Jewish history. The building contains three interpenetrating corridors: the Axis of Emigration, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity. Long, thin windows resemble wounds in the museum’s skin, letting light pour in at unexpected places. One pathway leads to a bunkerlike concrete tower with windows only near the top, an interior space that can feel meditative or terrifying, depending on your mood.
Dislocation, destruction, and survival are powerful elements of his life—a story he has buffed into a personal mythology. Born to Holocaust survivors in Lodz, Poland, in 1946, Libeskind emigrated with his family to Israel and later to New York, where he lived in the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx.
Daniel and Nina met in 1966, when they were both counselors at a camp for the children of Holocaust survivors, though she is not one herself. They barely saw each other during the next three years until Nina received a virtually indecipherable postcard from Daniel which turned out to be a marriage proposal. He won a fellowship to spend a summer traveling around the United States and visiting Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, so the newlyweds took that excursion together and called it a honeymoon. Since neither of the two city kids knew how to drive, they teamed up with two male students, a Jehovah’s Witness and a Swedish Lutheran. “We had our four sleeping bags lined up in the back of the station wagon, and that’s where we’d spend the night,” Nina recalls. “It sounds kinky, but I assure you it wasn’t.” During Daniel’s final year at the Cooper Union, the couple lived briefly at the Amalgamated Houses, where Nina remembers her new husband spending entire afternoons sitting on a stoop discussing Proust with his friends. These days, Libeskind uses the frequent and enforced isolation of an airplane cabin to read poetry; his current passion is the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.
In both their families, such refined pursuits of the mind were tempered by a certain tough pragmatism. Nina’s father, David Lewis, was one of Canada’s preeminent socialists. Daniel’s mother was a seamstress who opened a tiny shop in Lodz after the war, where she made custom bras and girdles, a venture just successful enough to attract the scrutiny of the Communist regime. “The police were there every day checking the books,” Libeskind recalls. “They said she was an enemy of the people because she had private initiative. That was the worst thing you could say about someone. When they moved to New York, my father worked in the same printing factory for 27 years. He had no private initiative.”
In Berlin, Nina and Daniel muscled the Jewish Museum into existence past a phalanx of dissenters. The result is thrilling, not just because of their backgrounds as Jews and idealists but also because the design distills a set of collective emotions: Shame and pride, tragedy and exuberance, decorativeness and darkness—all weave their way through the building as complementary forces, like the intricately engineered play of gravity and tension. Complex content requires complex architecture.
It’s harder to know what sort of philosophical underpinning Libeskind has in mind when he’s dealing with a luxury condominium or a Las Vegas shopping mall. “I don’t look at an apartment building and think, How can I subvert it?” Libeskind says. “With a shopping center, I can’t touch the machinery of shopping, but I do want to make it more successful.” His demonstrated ability to steer crowds through an awesome interior landscape can of course be very useful when the subject is shopping rather than the history of German Jews. But meaning is something else.