He’s responded with a grand skyline gesture, a roof that swings upward and tapers to an airborne point. The three-level loft penthouse at the peak is not so much a statement of having arrived as it is an intimation of being launched into orbit. The building, relatively tame by Libeskind standards, is partly meant to prove to the world—and future clients—that financial constraints don’t have to stifle creativity. “It’s about knowing what’s the big idea,” Yama Karim, a principal in Libeskind’s firm, explains. “Instead of slanting all the walls, you slant just one. Besides, he added, “A swoop in the sky is an incredible way of maximizing penthouses. Poetics don’t have to come at a cost.”
Swoops, in Libeskind’s vocabulary, are both seductive forms and potent symbolic gestures. As I stood in the bare penthouse, with its 35-foot ceilings and its walls still open to the powerful midwestern heat, I recalled Libeskind’s discussing a building he had designed in his native Poland, a Warsaw skyscraper wrapped in a curving glass sheet that rises to an upswept peak. “It’s an ascending wing, right in front of the Palace of Culture, a building that I always identified with the oppressors. That building, I thought, is tall just to make us look small. So when I had a chance to do something there, I wanted it to be symbolic: a delicate, curvilinear wing, a response to the Stalinist domination of the city’s architecture. It’s an eagle’s wing”—a patriotic reference to the eagle that adorns the Polish flag.
So what to make of the fact that a swoop in Kentucky makes an appeal to local socialites and a similar swoop in Poland challenges the Soviet past? Or that in Berlin tilted walls and irregular shapes signify the fractured history of the Jewish people, while in Denver they reflect the openness of the Western soul? Is Libeskind just a huckster of architectural metaphor? I don’t think so. Context really does affect the significance of a gesture or a building’s form: A grain silo, a nuclear-power plant, a lighthouse, and a turret on a Victorian bed-and-breakfast all share the same cylindrical shape but not a common expressive thrust. To a certain extent, symbolism is what the symbolist says it is.
Libeskind’s buildings seem self-evident only in bursts. The high, hard-won void at the Jewish Museum, the canyonlike atrium of the Denver Art Museum—these are breathtaking spaces whose direct, theatrical drama depends on the garland of complexities around them. He is a magician in both the admiring and unflattering senses of the word: an artist capable of bewitching the senses and an illusionist who confuses people first in order to wow them with a puff of smoke. In his best work, he doles out revelations to the patient observer. And he is youthful enough—not to mention ambitious, self-critical, and lucky enough—to make me believe that he hasn’t peaked yet.