Letter From New York: A Solid Foundation
A few months before architect Daniel Libeskind was chosen as the master planner to rebuild Ground Zero, he stood in the pit of the World Trade Center site, before the “slurry wall” - the gigantic concrete barrier holding back the Hudson River- and pressed his hand against its cold, rough face.
“It was a revelatory experience,” he explains, “because in that moment I could read the wall, and I understood its message. In refusing to fall it seemed to attest, perhaps as eloquently as the Constitution, to the unshakable foundations of democracy and the value of human life and liberty.”
As he reads aloud these words, from his new memoir, Breaking Ground, it’s clear from the nods and half-smiles that many of the 20 other people in the room understand, and are perhaps drawing a connection to another retaining wall, another foundation, some 6,000 miles (and 2,000 years) removed, that had also refused to fall.
After all, we are sitting in a tiny basement classroom/performance space known as Tribeca Hebrew, the brick walls bedecked with colorful posters of the Alef-Bet. Less than a mile from Ground Zero, and just a couple blocks from Libeskind’s new permanent home, it’s a Jewish community center of sorts for the young families in the area. The famed architect, with perhaps a dozen projects in as many countries currently under construction, has spoken to groups a hundred times this size. Yet the wide smile on his face - the full, teeth-flashing beam that’s as much a part of his image as the spiky hair, black Nehru jacket, and Buddy Holly specs that have earned him the tabloid nickname “Sprockets” - suggests that he couldn’t be happier anywhere else.
While Libeskind may have once bristled at being pigeonholed by others as a “Jewish architect,” his always heartfelt, often inspiring story pulls together those early life experiences, from Communist Poland to a kibbutz in Israel to a garment workers’ housing cooperative in the Bronx, and the lessons of his parents, both survivors of Stalin’s gulags, that shaped his views on the world and its buildings.
“I think my architecture is inspired by Jewish tradition,” he tells me later, in his cheerful Polish-Yiddish accent. “The Jewish tradition doesn’t venerate idolatry and hollow images. It’s not just about the surface of things, but the substance and meanings of things. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Jews formed the idea that history means something, that events are not just arbitrary, that there is a logic in the future that is informed by the past. That kind of historical memory is what informs my work.”
He anchors his buildings in time, he says, not just space. He designed his Jewish Museum of Berlin without a front door, forcing visitors to access it through the adjoining Baroque Museum - so that it could not be experienced without the context of German history. “History provides the focus,” he says. “Otherwise, the world would just be a series of meaningless events, and all the murders and injustices taking place would just be passing statistics.”
Architecture, he says, is the quintessential optimist’s profession (”You have to be an optimist; you’re inserting something into the future”) and he also sees optimism as an integral aspect of the Jewish identity he inherited from his parents. “There’s a permanence, a joy, in standing up for your values,” he says. “And there’s a belief in freedom, which across all the darkest events has always oriented the Jewish people.”
This optimism has been essential for overseeing the largest construction project of the new century. While he was hailed after winning the Ground Zero design competition two years ago, the fawning media attention is a memory. When Libeskind’s name pops up in the New York press now, its likely in an update on his not-quite-quelled feud with developer Larry Silverstein, who owns the lease on whatever is to be built, or the latest awkward incident in his “forced marriage” to architect David Childs, who Silverstein anointed to oversee the design of Libeskind’s 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower.
But this is far from the biggest battle in his career. In Berlin, he and his wife Nina, who is also his business partner (the two met as counselors at a Yiddish-speaking camp in upstate New York), fought to get the Jewish Museum built even though there was no budget or political support. At one point, it was scrapped by a unanimous vote of the German parliament. “That’s usually the end of a building,” he says. Turning down lucrative job offers in the U.S., the Libeskinds stayed in Berlin for 12 years, until they could finally celebrate the museum’s public opening - ironically, hauntingly, on September 11, 2001.
That same day, Daniel Libeskind pledged to return to New York and build something here, though reconstructing the World Trade Center hadn’t entered his, or anybody’s, thoughts.
In the book, he relates the struggles he’s already endured to defend his winning plan, an ascending spiral of five towers that echo the Statue of Liberty’s torch. But he believes it’s never too late to accomplish something new. Architecture was not even his first pursuit. As a child in Poland, Libeskind was a virtuoso on the accordion (he had wanted a piano, but his parents feared it would draw too much attention from anti-Semitic neighbors). He performed on the first broadcast of Polish TV and in 1959 won a prestigious America-Israel Cultural Foundation Prize alongside a young violinist named Itzhak Perlman.
By college, he had decided on architecture school, and spent the next 20 years as a pure theorist; when his first building opened, he was 52 years old. Now, he has projects in Copenhagen, Milan, Toronto, Denver, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, and others in New York, including a design he is donating for a facility to house the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, part of this downtown Jewish community to which he now belongs.
“You inherit a tradition,” he explains, speaking as a Jew and an architect, and perhaps also as an American and a New Yorker, “and you are responsible to continue it.”