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The Architect's Architect

What’s it like to have Daniel Libeskind as a client? And for him to be one?


Client: The Libeskinds
Designers: Alexander Gorlin
Location: Tribeca
Space: 2,100 square feet

It may be a decade, or more, before the rebuilding of ground zero is complete. But as of next month, Daniel Libeskind will have a new perch from which to follow the progress of his master plan: a full-floor loft on Hudson Street, just five blocks north of where the Twin Towers stood. The apartment, for which Libeskind and his wife, Nina, paid the rather enviable price of just over $1 million last summer, after moving here from Berlin, is on the seventh floor of a ten-story triangular building.

It has been redesigned by Alexander Gorlin, a 44-year-old architect once known for high-end neo-Palladian villas who’s moved over to Modernism in recent years. Gorlin lives on the third floor of the same building. And while it’s unusual for one architect to hire another for this kind of residential work—an ego-driven blow-up would seem inevitable—both Libeskind and Gorlin insist they’ve fought about very little (save a certain marble table).

A couple of weeks ago, as work on the roughly $630,000 renovation neared completion, Christopher Hawthorne spoke with Libeskind and Gorlin about the experience—and the art of architectural compromise. As soon as the conversation was finished, Gorlin accompanied Daniel, Nina, and their 15-year-old daughter, Rachel, on a shopping trip to pick out a few last items for the apartment, which will be their main residence (they also have a small house in France). Daniel was particularly taken with the Container Store, Gorlin reported: “He was absolutely fascinated that there was this store devoted just to storage—aisle after aisle after aisle. He said to me, ‘It’s the apotheosis of functionalism! Like a museum of storage!’ Then he called back the next day and said, ‘Nina wants two more closets in the master bedroom.’ ”

Christopher Hawthorne: Daniel, how did you find the apartment in the first place?

Libeskind: It was Alex who told me that an apartment in his building, upstairs from his own, was available. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known it was there.

Gorlin: After he won the ground-zero competition, I was thrilled, and I called Nina to see if they needed any help in looking for apartments, to set them up with a broker. Just to say I was available to help.

CH: Alex, a cynic might say you were angling for this job.

Gorlin: Oh, I hardly think so! It’s just not something I could have even conceived of, getting the job.

Libeskind: When Nina and I started looking, the plan was simply to find a place where we could be immediately installed without much work at all. But, of course, the opposite happened—we wound up in a place that has no lobby, no concierge, and had to be completely gutted.

Gorlin: This wasn’t the kind of building that a broker would normally lead people to. It’s not a high-end building with all the services. But it has a spectacular plan: It is shaped like the Flatiron Building, only smaller.

Libeskind: Alex knew my weakness for triangular shapes—once I saw it, there was no way I was going to go see anything else.

CH: How did it look when you first walked through?

Libeskind: It was a warren of little rooms built by somebody with a large family. And I remember when we first came, Nina and Rachel were totally shocked. But I said, “Give me and Alex time, and let us try something here.”

CH: Why not do the design work yourself?

Libeskind: I did some early sketches and then discussed it with my wife, but you know—a barber doesn’t give himself a haircut.

CH: Still, it’s pretty rare for an architect to hire another architect for his own residence, isn’t it?

Libeskind: It’s true: I can’t think of another case similar to this one.

Gorlin: There are two kinds of architects, I think, when it comes to this question. There are some, like Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, who always designed the places where they lived. And then there’s somebody like Mies van der Rohe, who chose to live across the street from the Lake Shore Drive Apartments.

CH: So he could see them out his window.

Libeskind: That’s right. And if you do it yourself, and you have complaints, where do you go? Whenever Rachel or my sons or Nina had a problem, I said, “Talk to Alex!”

CH: How will the apartment be laid out?

Libeskind: The kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms are along one wall. That opens up the rest of the space to the views.

Gorlin: It’s a kind of deletion instead of—

Libeskind: Accretion.

Gorlin: Just the act of clearing everything out transformed the space. As you come off the elevator you’ll immediately have a magnificent view of the Municipal Building—and from there your eye is led through a series of planes, from the kitchen to the bedroom area, opening up to a window wall on the left that has a tremendous view of the towers of lower Manhattan.

Libeskind: The spirit of the apartment is really almost Tuscan or Florentine. The floor itself is this stone which is used throughout Florence. Brunelleschi used it.

Gorlin: Florence is the theme. A Mediterranean apartment.

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