Building visions out of suffering
When you listen to leading architect Daniel Libeskind relate his remarkable life story, it seems his path has been shaped by a number of what he describes as ‘life-changing moments’.
WAN Editor-in-Chief, Michael Hammond spoke at length with Daniel recently, and heard about some of the incisive one-line observations – made by his mother, a virtuoso musician, and himself – which helped propel him to the heights of his profession.
Born in 1946, Daniel spent his first 11 years growing up in the post-WWII town of Łódź in Poland. The whole country was a desperately grim place at that time. He describes it as ‘really just a shadow of the Holocaust’.
It seemed that one nightmare scenario had been quickly replaced by the fear and oppression of life under Stalin, whose picture hung in Daniel’s school classroom. However, with just a radio (and later a record player) for entertainment at home and a bleak courtyard to gaze out onto, his young imagination soon began to compensate.
He then moved with his mother, father and sister to Israel, which, by comparison, was paradise: “Just to see the sun, just to see the smiling faces, just to see the people who were not living in fear.” Soon after, his father moved the family again, this time to The Bronx in New York, to join his sister, the only surviving relative from an extended family of 85 who had died at the hands of Hitler.
Already a promising young musician, without a thought of becoming an architect in his head, Daniel went to a major audition in New York, performing on an accordion (it so large, he so small that all you could see were his feet and head poking out from behind it!) in front of a panel of three of the most distinguished virtuosos of the day.
They had never seen anything like him. At the end, one of the panellists told him that he had ‘exhausted all the possibilities of this instrument… now you have to play the piano’. These words had a profound effect on the young Daniel, but you’ll have to listen to the podcast to discover what that was…
A few more twists and turns later – via serious studies in science – saw him making a choice to continue with art or specialise in architecture in his second year at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. He wanted to opt for art… cue his mother: “You can be an artist in architecture, but you cannot be an architect in art.” And besides, artists were poor.
Many years on in 1989, married with children himself and living in Milan, Daniel and his wife Nina entered a competition to design the world-famous Jewish Museum in Berlin. At that time a new Senator to Berlin had been appointed. He challenged Daniel, pointing at him and twice demanding to know what ‘big buildings’ he had built before.
The answer was ‘none’ at this stage in Daniel’s architectural career. But he stopped the Senator in his tracks by replying: “If you go by the past, Berlin is not going to have any future.” He and his wife were appointed to the project, and the rest is history.
Michael speaks to him about the museum and also some of his more recent – and sometimes controversial – projects, such as the Pyramid in Israel, Zlota 44 – a residential skyscraper in Warsaw, the City Life development in Milan, and, of course, the masterplan for the World Trade Centre site in New York.
Listen now to Daniel’s evocative, thought-provoking yet amusing interview with Michael to hear the story in more detail…
We play in with Daniel’s personal music choice, Luigi Nono’s haunting ‘Fragmente-Stille’, of which he says: “In the noisy world we live in, Nono provides me with fragments of music that give a glimpse of an angel whispering to me.”