Interview'Architects must be optimistic, they're building the future'

Architect Libeskind charts how he built a path to success — and how you can too

With new book, ‘Edge of Order,’ Polish-born Israeli-American shares creative mind-frame and out-of-the-box solutions that landed him such projects as World Trade Center redesign

  • Architect Daniel Libeskind. (Stefan Ruiz)
    Architect Daniel Libeskind. (Stefan Ruiz)
  • The Jewish Museum Berlin. (Hufton Crow)
    The Jewish Museum Berlin. (Hufton Crow)
  • Honoree architect Daniel Libeskind with Dr. Ruth Westheimer at the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gala, October 23, 2018. (American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra)
    Honoree architect Daniel Libeskind with Dr. Ruth Westheimer at the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gala, October 23, 2018. (American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • Part of the World Trade Center redesign by Daniel Libeskind. (Hufton Crow)
    Part of the World Trade Center redesign by Daniel Libeskind. (Hufton Crow)

From memorializing the Holocaust to redesigning the World Trade Center site, for decades Daniel Libeskind has contributed new chapters to architecture. Now he’s explaining how he does it in a hybrid memoir/self-help book, “Edge of Order.”

The book details Libeskind’s celebrated career as an architect, and shares insights into the thinking behind some of his landmark works, including the Jewish Museum Berlin, which was completed in 1999, and Ground Zero, still under construction.

Libeskind encourages readers to apply the book to their own lives, and evidently many are: The book hit No. 1 on the Amazon list of self-help books.

“The creative process I seek in architecture is open to everyone,” the Polish-born, Israeli-American architect told The Times of Israel. “Everyone has creative abilities, not just in architecture, but any creative field.”

Creativity helps Libeskind find inspiration in unexpected places, such as a poem by Emily Dickinson that proved vital to the World Trade Center redesign.

“It’s beyond seeing with the eyes, under a visible piece of real estate, the roots connecting communities and history together,” he explained. “The creative process is open-minded, fresh, reinventing itself.”

The book “Edge of Order” takes a multidimensional approach to showcase Libeskind’s contributions.

Part of the World Trade Center redesign by Daniel Libeskind. (Hufton Crow)

Readers will find narrative accounts of his life and work, as well as visual accompaniments such as photos and sketches of his projects as head of the renowned Studio Libeskind. These projects range from his first completed work — the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Germany, which he finished at age 52 — to a gallery of endeavors he’s currently working on (one not included in the book is Beit Gibor (“Hero House”), an adaptive reuse office tower that he envisions will transform the Tel Aviv skyline).

There are more unconventional touches — including an illustration of a unicorn to accompany his application of a Chinese myth to architecture.
“According to that myth, the unicorn is always there, right in front of us, but because we don’t expect to see it, we never do,” Libeskind writes. He likens this to a building site: “You don’t just have to be ready for the unexpected — you have to actively search it out.”

Libeskind learned to expect the unexpected early on. He was born in 1946 to Holocaust refugees Nachman and Dora Libeskind in a homeless shelter in Lodz, Poland. With his parents and sister, he relocated to Israel and then the Bronx, finding instructive experiences in both places.

A young Daniel Libeskind holding his accordion in 1955. (Courtesy)

In Israel, young Libeskind entered a musical competition juried by such formidable names as Isaac Stern and Olga Koussevitzky. His competitors — including one named Itzhak Perlman — were trained on classical instruments such as the violin, cello, harp and flute. Meanwhile, Libeskind struggled to carry an accordion about the same size as himself, to the amusement of the judges. Yet when he began playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, amusement became admiration, with Libeskind and Perlman named co-winners.

“Isaac Stern very solicitously put his hand around my shoulder and said, ‘You already did everything you could do on that instrument. Play the piano,’” Libeskind recalled.

He would indeed switch instruments, but in a different sense.

“I am a musician who does not play an instrument,” said Libeskind, who was honored at an American Friends of the Israeli Philharmonic gala last October. “I changed my instrument from accordion to architecture.”

Architecture is the mother of the arts — poetry, geometry, the stars, history, dance

His new discipline was challenging. Architecture, he said, is “the mother of the arts — poetry, geometry, the stars, history, dance.” And, he said, “you can be a pessimist in any field — a politician, economist, poet, composer — but an architect has to be optimistic. You’re building something for the future, putting foundations deep into the ground.”

But the teenage Libeskind struggled with a different kind of structure: the curved dimensions of his family’s dinner table in their new home, a working-class Polish-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. Initially, Libeskind viewed the table’s surface as an impediment to his ability to draw parallel lines or 360-degree angles. Yet once again, obstacle presented opportunity. He realized that if he could not draw a 360-degree angle, he had 359 other possibilities.

An aerial view of the Felix Nussbaum Haus. (Bitterbredt)

“I was not really limited,” he reflected. “If I had a different kind of upbringing, in a big house with a drafting table, I would never have stumbled across this idea.”

The book shows how Libeskind applies his creative thinking to the commissions he won designing high-stakes architectural projects — including the eponymous Felix Nussbaum Haus, a museum commemorating the Jewish artist and Holocaust victim.

Built between 1996 and 1998 in Nussbaum’s hometown of Osnabruck, the Nussbaum Haus was influenced by research Libeskind did into the artist’s life, examining his paintings and diary, as well as his death shortly before the end of World War II.

One design element of the museum anticipates the unexpected — an enclosed, zinc-clad bridge that evokes the possibility of future discoveries about Nussbaum. Libeskind writes that this element caused “the most distress” to museum officials who “believed they already knew everything there was to know about their subject.” The architect was vindicated when two collections of Nussbaum paintings were subsequently discovered, one from New York and another from Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Libeskind had been working on a larger-scale, longer-term project — the Jewish Museum Berlin. Begun in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall came down, the project was interrupted by the complications of reunification and other political dynamics in the German capital.

Over the next decade, up to the project’s completion in 1999, Libeskind stayed focused on his mission of honoring the Jews of Berlin and their place in the city’s history. He found inspiration in diverse sources, such as the Gedenkbuch (Memorial Book) listing names of Jews killed in the Holocaust and the unfinished Arnold Schoenberg opera, “Moses und Aron.”

The Felix Nussbaum Haus. (Michele Nastasi)

“At the end of the second act Moses calls to God, but there is no answer,” Libeskind writes. “I thought I could complete the third act with this building, in the reverberation of visitors’ footsteps across a void.”

The idea of a void is also incorporated into what Libeskind calls perhaps his largest challenge of all: Ground Zero.

After the tragedy of the 9/11 terror attacks, Libeskind was selected for the World Trade Center redesign. The theme of the master plan is “the victory of life over evil deeds before New York and the world,” he said.

The project will feature 1 World Trade Center, the tallest structure in the world — 1,776 feet, honoring the year of the Declaration of Independence. But it also incorporates empty space to reflect what was lost on 9/11. Libeskind quotes the Emily Dickinson poem that inspired this idea, which begins with the lines “To fill a Gap/Insert the Thing that caused it.”

Interior, Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind. (Hufton Crow)

“It’s a beautiful thought: use the emptiness, because nothing can eliminate it,” Libeskind writes. He achieves this with 70 feet of exposed underground bedrock and wall to show “the depth of the tragedy in a visceral way through the depth of the foundation.” The wall also signifies hope — “the unshakable foundations of democracy and the value of human life and liberty,” he writes.

Such projects take time — 15 years and counting for the World Trade Center redesign, longer than the decade that it took for both the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

“Ground Zero or the Jewish Museum [Berlin], whatever it is you are building, you’re a marathon runner, not a sprinter,” Libeskind said. “You struggle across something many, many years to do something genuinely complex, genuinely different.”

As Libeskind keeps his eye on the finish line for the World Trade Center redesign — “it will take more years — five, seven, who knows? I’m never giving up,” he said — the architect is working on multiple other assignments across countries and continents.

“There are so many I list in the book, with different levels of being realized,” Libeskind said.

He called the NGAREN Museum of Humankind in Kenya’s Rift Valley “one of the very interesting ones,” an exploration of evolution done in collaboration with famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. He is also excited about the Kurdistan Museum in Erbil, Iraq, telling the story of the Kurdish people. The site is located next to a citadel that is one of the oldest continuously inhabited religious places in the world.

Architect Daniel Libeskind. (Stefan Ruiz)

Libeskind spoke optimistically about his plans for Beit Gibor in Tel Aviv. While still in the design phase, the “interesting project” involves an “old Brutalist building that does not serve its purpose [any more]. We have a mock-up of the project, a hotel, a public space, [that will add] beauty in the Tel Aviv skyline.”

He remembers the Tel Aviv of his youth, with its Bauhaus buildings and low-rise architecture, and says that today it is “just phantasmagoric, with improved transportation and neighborhoods. The skyline is fantastic.”

But in discussing the Israeli skyline, and the state of world cities in general, he sounded a note of concern amid the optimism.

“Cities like Tel Aviv, New York, I worry about cities being not just for those who can afford them,” he said. “Maintaining a balance between affordable housing and people in the center, people who can afford to live in the center. It’s a very important question.”

And, he said, it all comes back to creativity.

“The creative city, in the first place, is where you meet people different from yourself,“ Libeskind said. “It’s the core magnet of a city, why people flow there … The city must have more needs in mind — public space for a family with kids, the importance of poorer neighborhoods, no concentrated, glittery high-rises. Provide great space for everyone — that’s the role of an architect.”

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