On one of his rare full days around the office, Libeskind’s staff members are waiting like supplicants for him to come by and bestow quick decisions on projects that have been occupying their days and nights for weeks. The first priority is an update on the largest of the studio’s undertakings, a gathering of giant skyscrapers in Busan, South Korea. The developers have already made plans for a $2 million temporary building, complete with fake pond and marina, to house the sales office and an exhibition of Libeskind’s work. “We could send them all the models we’ve done for this project,” he suggests. An associate crouches under a drafting table and pulls out an enormous cardboard box brimming with little paper buildings.
Carla Swickerath, a principal and CEO of the firm who towers over her diminutive employer, brings up another issue: the lighting system topping the towers. “There’s a lot of particulate matter in the atmosphere, so we could really light the air,” she says.
Libeskind seems puzzled. “‘Particulate matter’? You mean pollution?”
“Pollution, yeah. We might as well make it beautiful.”
Next up is Las Vegas, a retail center with public spaces that is the centerpiece of MGM Mirage CityCenter, a huge new development on the Strip involving half a dozen architectural teams. Swickerath has just come back from Nevada with photos of a full-scale mock-up of the entrance canopy, a scaly metal skin like a dragon’s hide. The diagonally pitched titanium panels aren’t behaving as they had on paper. Seams aren’t aligning properly, and one side has developed an unsightly crimp.
“Instead of trying to get them to build something they can’t build, let’s make a design change,” Swickerath suggests. Libeskind is willing to change the angle of the panels, but he wonders how visible the problem will be from 100 feet below. “This is a handmade object, like a woven basket. I’d almost be willing to accept it the way it is.”
“Don’t,” says Swickerath. “I won’t let you.”
Whenever the subject of ground zero comes up, Libeskind seems to melt into his own persona. Suddenly, he’s the Cheshire Architect.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Libeskind taught at the bucolic architecture school at Cranbrook Academy, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. There, he took his graduate students into the woods, gave them a hammer and some wood, and instructed them to build something wonderful with their hands. “We were trying to get away from just theoretical drawings and retrieve a sense of the wonder of construction using medieval methods, using simple means to get very complex results,” he says. “That was in another lifetime.”
When I press Libeskind on how he can reconcile the idealism of the Cranbrook days with the task of building a luxury Las Vegas mall, he says that the restrictions have changed, but the goal is still the same: to give a world of simulacra something original and real. Just down the street from his site is the Venetian, where visitors can cross fake canals to pseudo-piazzas beneath programmable sunset skies. Libeskind describes his own contribution as a “rich, urbane, cosmopolitan scheme, one you could find in New York or in Paris.” Rather than sit far back from the street in the manner of other local pleasure domes, such as the Bellagio, this mall hugs the sidewalk the way buildings do in Manhattan. His gallery is high and topped with glass, letting in natural light, which casino developers generally treat as if it were a poisonous substance.
To Libeskind, the project signals Las Vegas’s evolution from a desert encampment of vice into a modern metropolis. The old Vegas of gaudy billboards and cinder-block shacks was “just the beginning,” he says. “That’s how Rome looked when it was just a few settlers: a wall, some signs, and a couple of brothels.”
Whether Libeskind can help coax Las Vegas, or any city, into another Rome will depend in part on how many projects he takes on. An architect who wants to leave his mark needs developers just as much as they need him. But Libeskind says he has the luxury of selecting his projects according to his conscience, and he claims he regularly refuses to work in oppressive dictatorships such as China, Russia, and those of the Arab world—which are to architects what Texas was to oilmen. “Give me a democracy!” he says, then pauses to refine his position. “I’d do a museum of dissidence in China, or a Jewish project in Russia,” he offers. I ask how he feels about Singapore, where he has designed part one of a vast development and is now working on the next phase. “Singapore is democratic,” he says. “Sort of,” Nina interjects. “Besides,” he continues, “we had done one project there already, and when a client comes back to you for more, if you don’t take the job, you’re a schmuck.”
That slip-sliding between principle and pragmatism, that constant nudging of belief and circumstance so that they more or less align, runs deep in both Libeskind’s personality and his work. Accommodating ideals to circumstance is an abidingly human habit, of course, and we rarely acknowledge that we’re doing so. But because he begins from such extreme positions, the seams in his compromises show. In another architect’s work, a high-rise with a curved façade and a single tilting side might seem like a bold sculptural gesture. In the context of Libeskind’s plethora of angles, corners, points, and cantilevers, the same design looks watered down. Few people can forgive a successful idealist—certainly less-successful idealists can’t. But part of what makes Libeskind’s architecture so powerful is the relentless struggle between the extraordinary and the acceptable.