The Architect’s Architect

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

CH: Daniel, given how contemporary and sharp-edged your architecture is, don’t you think people will be surprised to learn you’re living in a Florentine apartment?

Libeskind: Well, the images people will have when I say the word Florentine might be the nostalgic images from Ruskin. But I mean Florentine in the Brunelleschian sense of the avant-garde, the never-before-tried. I think we’ve created a series of spaces that might be cozy but are also very crisp, very modern.

CH: How many square feet?

Libeskind: About 2,100. It’s not very grand. For example, I have a very large library, which I’ve always had at home—in Berlin, we had a much grander apartment. I realized that if I wanted to bring in all my thousands of books, they would overrun the entire apartment.

CH: So no bookcases at all?

Libeskind: I’ll keep my books in my office, which is just a few blocks away, and have a few books at home while I’m reading them.

CH: There’s something of a student-mentor quality to your relationship, because the two of you first met back when Alex was a student at Cooper Union in the late seventies.

Gorlin: Daniel was on the jury for my thesis. It was a project to re-create Solomon’s temple.

Libeskind: It was a spectacular project. It was very unusual in a school that was basically so Modernist to see somebody who was exploring historical issues and dealing with theology and philosophical ideas.

Gorlin: And then we met again on Victoria Newhouse’s jet!

Libeskind: Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten about that.

Gorlin: I was helping her with her book on museum architecture, Towards a New Museum. We went over on the Concorde and then took a private jet to Berlin with Daniel, and we all saw his Jewish Museum together.

CH: Alex, can you describe the first formal presentation you made to Daniel of the apartment design?

Gorlin: I treated it in a really conceptual manner and brought all these supporting texts—from Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and from the section of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture called “Manual of the Dwelling.” And then I brought these diagrams showing the vectors connecting the site to views of various monuments around the city.

Libeskind: Again, Alex knew all my weaknesses!

CH: There’s something very New York about the shape of the site.

Libeskind: Absolutely. It’s not the whimsical shape of the building; it’s the gridded street taking shape in lower Manhattan—and I think that’s powerfully felt in the apartment. You really feel the struggle of the grid as it makes its way to lower Manhattan, and what it has to do to negotiate those changes.

CH: Were there echoes of your thesis presentation for you, Alex, in that meeting?

Gorlin: Absolutely. It was a psychological drama!

CH: Daniel, has this process revealed anything to you and Nina about your respective tastes that you didn’t know before?

Libeskind: I suppose it has exacerbated the differences in our sensibilities—her preference for cozy rooms versus mine for completely open space. Her preference for a well-equipped kitchen versus my preference to call out for dinner. But it goes the other way around, too. I was convinced that we should have curtains in the apartment, but just today Nina said she didn’t care for such an old, bourgeois idea. She wants plain, modern screens.

Gorlin: Oh. Well, we have to talk about that. That I hadn’t heard yet.

Libeskind: Yes, it’s just now I’m telling you.

Gorlin: Maybe she thinks I mean curtains like big velvet things.

Libeskind: No. She said, “I want the apartment very crisp. I don’t want any of this nostalgic cloth near the windows.” And actually, I think I agree with her.

Gorlin: Uh-oh.

Libeskind: You’ll have to try to re-convince her. See, that’s why it was good to have Alex around. He was able to reconcile different points of view and then create a consensus to build. Otherwise I really would have been in trouble. Between Rachel, Nina, and our grown sons, it might have taken twenty years for me to get this apartment done.

Gorlin: In that sense, an architect is like an analyst.

CH: So what would an analyst say this design reveals about the Libeskind family?

Libeskind: I think it says we have a strong marriage, because we’re still together after this process. Moving houses, moving apartments—it’s the biggest single cause for divorce.

CH: What were the toughest things to agree upon?

Gorlin: Nina wanted wood floors, and Daniel wanted this type of white resin, and we compromised with Florentine stone. In fact, Daniel at first wanted the whole apartment to be white.

Libeskind: I did play around with that idea, but of course the critics from all sides of the family began to question it. I mean, that’s how the process works: You go from fantasy to reality.

CH: What else was part of the fantasy stage for you?

Libeskind: I preferred originally to have no interior walls at all. But that idea met with a stony silence from Rachel and Nina.

CH: What did Nina have to compromise on?

Libeskind: She wanted a third bedroom, for when our sons come with their girlfriends, and for other guests.

Gorlin: I pushed to have two bedrooms instead of three so that we could keep the space open. So we thought of a way to have a rotating wall—as well as a Murphy bed.

Libeskind: Still, there are some ideas in the house that Nina alone takes credit for—Rachel’s room, for example, which Nina always fought to make bigger. She did it by disagreeing with both of these architects.

Gorlin: By force of will, she made Rachel’s room larger, and inch by inch we found space from other rooms—mostly from the master-bedroom closet—to do it. It was a battle for that space.

Libeskind: In Berlin, Rachel’s room was practically twice as big as our whole apartment here.

Gorlin: Nina wanted a balcony too. She said, “Can’t we extend out or maybe give up part of the apartment and create an outside space?” And I didn’t know how to answer that. I had to be the practical one and insist that you couldn’t really do that in this building. And that you could barbecue on the fire escape.

CH: Like a real New Yorker.

Libeskind: Yes, exactly.

CH: Alex, was there any element of the design you had to give up?

Gorlin: Not really. The things I’m not happy about have to do with some of the furniture.

CH: How will it be furnished?

Libeskind: Primarily, we have Mies furniture, which we bought many years ago, and original Le Corbusier chairs. Very spartan furniture, very modern.

Gorlin: Except for the marble table.

Libeskind: It’s a table with sentimental value!

Gorlin: The whole family wants to keep this table. And I’m not so crazy about it.

Libeskind: It’s a small dining table. It was part of our life in Italy many years ago. I suggested actually that we not use it, but there was a great outcry from the whole family that this table has brought us good luck, and whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, it has to be part of the new apartment.

CH: Daniel, if you had to choose between, say, a comfortable chair to read or watch TV in and a view of two walls that came together in an angle that was particularly pleasing to you, which would it be?

Libeskind: Well, the problem with that question is that it assumes my chairs are comfortable. To this day, my wife is unhappy that 25 or 30 years ago I convinced her to buy a Mies couch—no one can lie on this couch. She says, let’s throw it out the window. But I love looking at it.

CH: And Daniel, you’re now designing some domestic items yourself?

Libeskind: Yes, a chair and a piano. The chair is not extravagant—very functional, a chair for a home or a restaurant or a gallery. And the piano is a grand piano, a very new interpretation of a classical design. Apparently, it has already been ordered by the Sting and the Prince.

CH: Will you have one in the new apartment?

Libeskind: I think literally it wouldn’t fit.

Gorlin: Daniel, I’ll try to sell you the piano I designed, because I did one, too.

Libeskind: As long as it’s small.

CH: Daniel, have you had any pangs during this process, feelings that you should have designed the apartment yourself?

Libeskind: No, I always felt lucky that Alex was doing it, because my work on ground zero has been a 24-hour task. You know when you get up in the morning that there’s going to be another fight, another struggle, and more tension and a stressful day. But it has been a struggle with a purpose.

CH: When will you move in?

Libeskind: You’ll have to ask my architect.

Gorlin: May 1st.

CH: Alex, this must have been a nice change for you from a typical residential commission.

Gorlin: The wonderful thing about Daniel is you don’t have to explain everything, as you normally do when the person doesn’t understand a model or a drawing. I’ve had clients who don’t even understand the space once it’s built. I often wonder why they don’t walk into the walls! In fact, this whole process has given me more confidence that I should insist more often to clients that I’m right.

Libeskind: And it’s been good for me to be a client. Often architects see very myopically. I certainly learned, from being on the other side this time, the difficulties of being an architect. And you know, this has been like any project, in that it goes through transformations and compromises, and at the end everybody has to be happy in some median world.

CH: Sounds a bit like the design process at ground zero.

Libeskind: Well, yes. And one of the reasons I love this apartment is that it will give me a permanent view of ground zero. We’ll be seeing the Freedom Tower going up and then all the subsequent towers as well.

CH: At what point in the construction will the Freedom Tower be tall enough for you to see?

Libeskind: The cornerstone will be laid this summer, so I think in two years.

CH: Given how tense your collaboration with David Childs has been, is that really a building you look forward to seeing every day from your living room?

Libeskind: Absolutely. It was not an easy collaboration, and I’m certainly not about to go to SOM and join David Childs as a partner. But I think it’s a very positive development that this building is moving ahead within the master plan. And you know, the apartment has eighteen windows altogether—and they don’t all face in that direction.

See the Plans for Libeskind’s Apartment>>>

An Architect’s Education

Big Break: “I never had any family connections at all,” says Alexander Gorlin. “My first job came after I wrote an article for a journal called Oppositions about Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh, India. Victoria Newhouse”—the wife of S.I., the publisher—“read it and asked me to do some work on a book of his sketches she was helping to publish. And she became my first client: I did a garden gate for her in Palm Beach.”

Networking Entrée: “And that led to other things. Victoria recommended me to Grace Mirabella, who was then editing Vogue, for example … ”

Biggest Frustration: “It’s that architecture involves people beyond the architect’s control. Especially builders. You wind up giving instructions to people who have to execute your work.”

Biggest Mistake: “I never make them.”

Proudest Moment: “The Nehemiah housing development in Brooklyn. It’s a completely different scale of work for me—840 units of affordable housing. It reaches people for whom architecture is usually out of reach.”

Dream Project: “A big cultural institution. Something even bigger than Disney Hall.”

The Architect’s Architect