Daniel Libeskind: the healer

29 May 2013

The first recipient of a LEAF Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Architectural Community, Daniel Libeskind has consistently demonstrated architecture’s ability to address, process and build on difficult or conflicting historical and cultural legacies. The LEAF Review looks back on a career that, in a relatively short space of time, has come to pose fundamental questions about the value and role of architecture.

Despite being an architect synonymous with museum design and memory, there's no danger that an award for lifetime achievement will mark the point where we begin to talk about Daniel Libeskind in the past tense.

The 67-year old has never been busier, with a portfolio of large-scale prestige projects - the master plan for New York's World Trade Center redevelopment among them - currently under construction across the globe. In fact, Libeskind has become such an omnipresent feature within the architectural discourse, and among a somewhat divisive coterie of global 'starchitects', it is often forgotten that he didn't complete his first building until the age of 52. It would appear that he has been making up for lost time ever since, packing a lifetime's worth of achievement into the subsequent 15 years.

This was recognised at last year's annual Emirates Glass LEAF Awards, with the Polish-born architect having flown in to London from his US base to receive his award and the congratulations of his peers.

"We should not take for granted the fact that we are in a room with people who love architecture," he told a packed banqueting hall at the Four Seasons Hotel. "It is something very special to be in a space where everybody is in thrall to this special field."

A better place

The Jewish Museum Berlin, which opened in 2001, was Libeskind's first major international success and one of the first buildings designed after the city's reunification. His focus on memorials and museums is appropriate. He was born in 1946 in Lodz, Poland, to parents who survived the holocaust.

"As someone who did not come to this abstractly, it's a tremendous responsibility," he says. "I grew up in the post-war greyness of that world. I believe it is very important to contribute something that deals with the past in a positive way; to create something that gives hope and is dynamic."

Having started his career as an architectural theorist and professor, holding positions at various institutions worldwide, Libeskind has always invested a huge amount of significance in the theoretical power of architecture to engender positive cultural and social change. An architect cannot afford to be a pessimist, he believes; one's driving force must be a belief in one's own ability to create a better future.

"Architecture is based on ideas, not just bricks. I'm not a philosopher, but a reader of books."

"I've never given up the thought that we don't really know what architecture is," he says. "We think we know, but when we look at the amazing panorama of the history of architecture, spanning 50,000 years and moving into the future, we are looking at a very small segment of what human beings are capable. That for me is the essence of architecture; it's a search, a quest into the unknown.

"And, of course, it is a quest that is based on memory, because without memory we would be rudderless, unable to find where we are going and who we are. At the same time as memory, it is a desire to create a better world, which may sound clichéd, but every act of designing and erecting a building is an affirmation of the beauty of the world. Every time we lay foundations, we affirm that the world is good, that there is a unity - that, for me, is the wonder of architecture.

"On the one hand, it is immensely practical: you set foundations, dig the earth, build and populate. On the other hand, it's so fantastic, wondrous, something that has no end. Human beings will always have a soul and, so long as they have a soul, they will always search for a home."

Identity and reconciliation

For Libeskind, architecture's role in creating dialogue between communities and repairing damage should not be underestimated, a point perhaps best encapsulated by the themes that run through his trio of Jewish museums: Berlin (2001), Copenhagen (2004) and San Francisco (2008). One doesn't have to be a scholar to appreciate the symbolism apparent in his work, but Libeskind consistently displays an innate ability to avoid the pitfalls of pastiche or overt sentimentality.

Where the Jewish Museum Berlin focuses on the traumatic history of Germany's Jewish population over the centuries, San Francisco's is positively upbeat, covering Jewish-American identity and assimilation in a city with the third-largest Jewish population in the country. Libeskind says the museum's primary focus is on culture not religion.

"It's about divergence," he explains. "To create a place that has an identity for people and, through the experience of architecture, to present fundamental ideas to all people, not just to Jewish people."

Meanwhile, his Jewish Museum Copenhagen, which Libeskind designed around a plan based on the Hebrew letterforms for mitzvah - a Yiddish term for a good deed through religious duty - refers directly to an event in 1943 when 7,200 Danish Jews escaped Nazi-occupied Denmark to Sweden.

"Architecture is based on ideas," he says. "It is not just based on bricks. I'm not a philosopher, but a reader of books and someone who thinks a bit and meditates. Of course, it's very important that there is something that is beyond the obvious in the process that you are pursuing."

"The slurry wall represents the resonance of liberty around the world."

Libeskind became a US citizen in 1965 and it is his work on the Ground Zero Master Plan that may come to define him in his adopted country. The original proposal, Memory Foundations, underwent extensive revisions during a collaboration with developer Larry Silverstein, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and, though Libeskind designed the site, the individual buildings are the work of several different architects.

While not all of Libeskind's ideas have been incorporated into the final design, the principle that the site's footprint be turned into a memorial emerged unscathed from an exhaustive process of legal wrangling and the project as a whole is imbued with the architect's innate spirit.

Built with meaning

While a huge amount of public attention has been paid to the high-rise structures transforming Manhattan's skyline, the master plan mandates that the memorial museum provides "meaningful access" to various features: the bedrock of Manhattan schist that originally supported the towers, the sheared-off box-column bases, the tower footprints and the concrete slurry wall that held back water pressure from the Hudson, preventing an even greater disaster.

Libeskind views the slurry wall as a strong metaphor for democratic values and institutions that held fast under attack, and it has consequently been designated a historic asset; marking a centrepiece of the museum, its massive tiebacks protrude as mute sentinels overseeing the space and resisting static pressure. The project "represents the resonance of liberty around the world," he says.

Furthermore, it is an affirmation of a theme that runs throughout so much of his work: the ability for architecture to recognise and mark difficult or tragic events, while simultaneously building consensus, aiding in the healing process and steering us towards emotional and physical resolution.

He may be busier than ever, but even if Libeskind was to stop now, 15 years after the completion of his first building, the legacy he'd leave behind would account for an exceptional lifetime's work. Everyone here at the LEAF Review would like to congratulate him on a greatly deserved award.

Libeskind receives his LEAF Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Architectural Community.
A sketch for the Ground Zero master Plan in New York.
The Ground Zero site's slurry wall: a symbol for democratic values holding fast under pressure.

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