The Liberation of Daniel Libeskind

Photo: Christian Witkin

You remember Daniel Libeskind: the architect with the perpetual smile who wooed New York with images of a crystalline city rising from the rubble of ground zero. He tossed metaphorical titles like confetti—Wedge of Light, Freedom Tower, Memory Foundations, Park of Heroes. He spoke with such articulate sincerity that he seemed almost able to conjure architecture into existence by sheer force of enthusiasm. He kept grinning as politicians and rivals and real-estate men whittled away at his plan. Eventually, you recall, he was pushed off the Freedom Tower’s design team. You could be excused for believing that he had slunk back to Europe to design an avant-garde gallery or two.

But Libeskind, who graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and the Cooper Union before migrating to Michigan, Italy, and Germany, has become a New Yorker again. Every morning, he sits in the comfortably austere living room of his Tribeca apartment, devoting a ritual hour to listening to classical music. After breakfast, he walks with his wife, Nina, to his studio on Rector Street, where, with undimmed smile and untempered zeal, he presides over a minor architectural empire.

He is at last designing his first Manhattan building—not a 1,776-foot-high office skyscraper at ground zero but a 70-odd-story colossus that could wind up being New York’s tallest residential tower. This poetic bit of vindication must vie for his attention with a 6.5 million–square–foot complex in South Korea, another megadevelopment in Singapore, a competition for a new district of Monte Carlo floating in the Mediterranean, a skyscraper in Warsaw, a shopping center in Las Vegas, and a scattering of condominium towers. When Libeskind won the competition for the World Trade Center master plan in 2003, he had a reputation as a brilliant but abstruse theoretician with one weirdly magical masterpiece in his portfolio: the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Four years later, ground zero still looks pretty much the way it did then, but the exposure there has helped transform his practice into a worldwide commercial enterprise. Studio Daniel Libeskind employs 120 staffers in New York, Zurich, and Milan and has 45 projects on the boards.

So how did an intellectual purist become a developer’s pet? Has the real-estate business found enlightenment? Or has Libeskind refashioned himself as a high-class hack, peddling a facsimile of the avant-garde to developers who wish to disguise their rapaciousness with a few aesthetic fripperies? Libeskind naturally prefers the first explanation. “People think that developers are stupid and they’re only interested in money,” he says. “But there’s an intelligence about money, because it’s very concrete. It’s not abstract or theoretical. If you want to angle a wall, they want to know exactly why. But if you explain it, they say, ‘Okay, I understand.’ The developers have become more avant-garde than the schools.”

Nina, Daniel, and I are in a Vietnamese restaurant across the street from their apartment, and she’s pouring the evening’s third bottle of wine. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Libeskind,” Nina says, “but 99 percent of developers are stupid. You’ve been very fortunate to work with those who aren’t. The commercial world goes in cycles, and the shelf life of these projects is short. Right now, what they want is what you do.”

He smiles indulgently. “You see? Mrs. Libeskind, always the socialist. She thinks anything having to do with money is bad.”

She smiles back. “Libeskind, you’re my favorite capitalist.” She offers him a noodle dish to try.

In his studio a couple of blocks from ground zero, Libeskind is perched on the edge of a chair, twisting toward his desk like one of those leaning structures he designs. He’s drawing as he talks, doing both at high speed. He has on the same uniform New Yorkers first saw him wearing on television: black T-shirt, black pants, black jacket, black cowboy boots, and heavy black-framed glasses, a costume so consistent that he can sometimes seem less like the real Daniel Libeskind than like an actor playing the role.

“In the beginning, an idea has to germinate, and there’s no telling how it’s going to come out,” he says. His black marker flicks across his pad, and a new riverfront for the city of Newry, in Northern Ireland, takes shape in a matter of seconds. He tears off the sheet and starts drawing the same site again.

“Then it comes out all at once in a three-dimensional sketch. It’s not linear: I sketch, we make models, and we deal with technical aspects, all at the same time. But there has to be an intuitive germ. Most of the time, the final result looks pretty close to my original hand drawing.” An associate sticks his head in the door. Libeskind pops up. “We’ve got to look at Korea now, right?” Over the next several hours, Libeskind will trot through his domain, which is littered with paper and wooden miniatures of buildings that list, torque, swoop, and zigzag. Windows and light strips slash across surfaces in patterns reminiscent of pick-up sticks. Shapes come to precipitous points.

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.”
Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Libeskind

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.”

Daniel and Nina LibeskindPhoto: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

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.

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.

In 1997, Lewis Sharp, the director of the Denver Art Museum, attended the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which turned its architect, Frank Gehry, into a celebrity and jolted museum directors all over the world into paroxysms of envy. Sharp decided that he, too, wanted the sort of building that launches a million postcards. He held a competition, which Libeskind, who was still based in Berlin at the time, entered and won. The new museum opened last year—his first completed commission in the United States.

The proper way to start studying it is to wait for a break in traffic and stand in the middle of the street, looking straight up. The building comes to a quivering point cantilevered clear across the street, as if it were about to spear the original museum, a tiled fortress designed by Gio Ponti in 1971. In its wake is a quartzlike assemblage of faceted shapes, coated in titanium panels that change color depending on the light, from a dull slate gray to a pale, diaphanous gold. “I was inspired by the light and the geology of the Rockies,” Libeskind has said, “but most of all by the wide-open faces of the people of Denver.” He has been criticized for producing a show-off museum that upstages its contents, but Sharp sees spectacle as a form of promotion for the cause of art: “The main thing I want is for anyone who approaches this building to say, ‘Wow, I want to know what’s going on in there.’”

Inside, a fantastically irregular atrium pulls visitors up the stairs toward a hidden skylight and the bright Colorado sunlight ricocheting against angled walls. It’s like hiking up through a gorge, past sedimentary layers, outcroppings, and hoodoos. Libeskind is a genius of staircases—so much so that visitors tend to bypass the gift shop, strategically positioned opposite the elevators. “We’ll have to do something about that,” Sharp says.

As I climbed, trying to make sense of the welter of diagonals, it occurred to me that Libeskind thrives on finding the most complex possible solution to a problem. “The simple glass box—these things don’t move me,” Libeskind once told me. “If a building is good, then surprise is part of the building, even if you walk into it hundreds of times.”

The galleries of the Denver Art Museum don’t attempt to hide the angled walls or the corners scrunched like those dusty, unusable places where eaves meet an attic floor. The Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight called the interior “an array of the least congenial galleries for art that I’ve seen in twenty years.” And yet I found it fitfully exciting. In the tip of the building’s prow stands Quantum Cloud XXXIII, by the British sculptor Antony Gormley. A humanoid figure, lit from the side by a single vertical slash of a window, appears to be vaporizing into a brilliant haze of metal filings. This museum has two modes: frustration and exhilaration, with little in between.

Such an extravaganza in Colorado doesn’t help much in trying to divine what a Libeskind on Madison might look like. Although New York has lately managed to lure flamboyant designers, it still shackles them with strict zoning codes, merciless dollars-per-square-foot calculations, and the habits of contractors accustomed to stacking identical apartments. To get a sense of how he might deal with these restrictions, I visited the Ascent, a residential tower in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, that should be completed by the end of the year. Covington is not Madison Avenue: Putting up a fancy apartment tower there means persuading a large swath of Cincinnati’s rich to move out of lavish mansions and pay about $100 per square foot more than they would anywhere else for the privilege of living in comparatively cramped quarters in an area that twenty years ago earned renown as a national example of urban blight. That’s the perfect sort of challenge to stimulate Libeskind’s messianic spirit: the chance to redeem a city through luxury design.

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.

A Libeskind Slideshow

The evolution of an architect: from the Jewish Museum to a Las Vegas shopping mall.

The Liberation of Daniel Libeskind