(I interviewed World Trade Center/Ground Zero architect Daniel Libeskind for my newspaper when he came to Manila at the end of May 2014. This story first appeared in The Philippine Star on June 7, 2014. All journalists hate transcribing interviews and this may very well be the only one in my 20 years as a writer where I didn’t want transcribing to end.)
It felt like he was in a movie, says architect Daniel Libeskind on his first sighting of New York, a city that he has called his home since arriving here as a young boy fleeing Europe with his parents and sister in the 1950s. A city that, more than four decades later, would have a huge gaping hole and it would be on his shoulders that the task to fill it with people’s collective memory and hope would fall.
The Libeskinds — Dora and Nachman and their children Daniel and Ania — were, in fact, “among the last waves of immigrants to arrive in the United States by boat,” on the Constitution. Their journey took them from Poland to the Soviet Union, back to Poland, to Israel and finally the United States. Coming into the New York harbor, it also felt to him that they were “Israelites arriving in the Promised Land, but we were also Joseph, leaving it. Our real promised land would be New York City.”
In 2001, the Manhattan skyline that he had grown to love would change drastically — as would the rest of the world because the attacks on the World Trade Center assured that nothing would ever be the same after the buildings and the people inside them came crashing down.
Libeskind was in Berlin that day to open the Jewish Museum, which he designed while living there. It wouldn’t open until three days after and by that time he was determined to go back to New York. In 2003, Daniel Libeskind’s firm won the competition to master-plan Ground Zero and a decade later the first structure, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, would be completed.
I expected Libeskind to be taller, to have broader shoulders — or at least the kind of physique that would move one to say that, yes, he could carry the weight of all that heartache and sorrow that warranted the construction of the memorials he has designed both in Berlin and New York. But he is neither tall nor big nor does he have a booming voice either. He speaks softly and warmly and with an accent that is distinctly New Yorker and Polish. (At some point during the interview, I even thought he sounded a little like Martin Scorsese.)
His home in New York is a constant reminder of how important memory is — and memory is a theme that finds its way into his architecture and his speech, as if telling us we must always remember and also hope. This is the nature of people. They move on. They rebuild. And one day they are able to look up toward the sky again.
In the mornings, Libeskind wakes up to a view of Ground Zero from his large picture windows in Lower Manhattan, and from his studio the view is also of Ground Zero but from another angle. And from the time he walks out of his front door and returns home at night, the light that drapes Ground Zero changes many times over, because the day progresses, the city is somehow altered, and no one day in New York is, after all, exactly the same as another.
Tell us about your experience in master-planning Ground Zero. You had about 15 to 20 million “judges” during the competition in 2003.
That’s true, maybe more! It was under high scrutiny, the highest level of interest in any project ever built in the world, and the highest level of emotion, too. And I think it was a project that changed the way people saw urban planning.
After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them. Something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives. It was a very meaningful process. It showed how difficult democracy is, how important society is. Everybody has an opinion but also not everybody has to agree with what you do. Initially it was very controversial but now that it’s built, people see the harmonious design and it delivers something very important to the city.
During the construction, when you were seeing everything coming up together slowly, was it an emotional experience for you?
Very emotional. You know, I started when there was just a devastated hole, a void in the center of New York. It was very sad in the beginning, it was like a wound that people wouldn’t even come near it.
Then as I was working on it and my master plan began to take shape, you could see the change not only on the site but in people’s souls. Slowly, people would come to the site in a different way, they could look with their eyes, some of the sadness began to disappear, and something positive began to emerge. And that’s how I always see it.
Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, which we have seen in the war, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can because it can change people’s lives in a positive way.
And as I said, 60,000 people have moved to Lower Manhattan as a result of the construction. It’s a new city. Lower Manhattan was kind of a lost area, it was like Wall Street at night — empty — and suddenly it has become a new center of the city with schools and new families moving in, so it’s been a renaissance, the rebuilding of Ground Zero.
Your book Breaking Ground is a moving tribute not just to Ground Zero but also to your immigrant past. Visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague, I realized how much his being Jewish and being Jewish in that city shaped his literature. How did your experience as a Jewish immigrant in New York City shape your architecture, if it did at all?
Oh, definitely! If you don’t come from a privileged background, if you have hardship, it creates a very different sense — it’s not a sense of entitlement, it’s a sense of having to work, of having to do things, often to go against the current. Of course, your family, your circumstances, how you grow up shape who you are in every case.
That kind of influence can be easily discerned in literature, how does it manifest in architecture?
I think because I grew up in a totalitarian country, I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty, freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas, to extend a little more the imaginative horizon is so important.
Speaking of imagination, the world has seen, especially in China, buildings that are shaped rather absurdly like Rem Koolhaas’ “Underpants” building in Beijing. What do you think of this kind of architecture?
That’s a great question. I think that the computer has led to a kind of absurdity in architecture because with the simple operation of a finger, digitally you can create any shape you want, and you can also construct it because you have the method that the computer provides you, but that doesn’t make for good architecture.
It’s not enough to wave a magic wand and create a nice shape because architecture is not about shapes or about pretty elevations. It’s about the actual space, the atmosphere that the building provides. Atmosphere is not something that is on any calculation sheet, it’s not on any piece of statistic because it’s ineffable, it’s not something you can measure with an instrument, it’s something very human.
When you feel you’re in a beautiful space, in a room that makes you feel good, or you’re in a city that is dignified, those are things that you cannot statistically achieve by a computer or by any operation using just a couple of fingers to create a shape. Of course, there’s been a lot of excessive manipulation on the computer that produces shapes that are interesting for about five seconds and later on you wonder why.
Architecture is not like a piece of fashion that can be thrown away, it’s there for a long time. Architecture a cultural discipline, not a fashion discipline. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about culture and culture is deep — it’s about history, memory, ideas that have shaped people’s values. It’s not superficial or about creating novelty.
Did you see the skyline of Manila before agreeing to design a building here?
Sure, I was here many years ago. Today, Manila’s quickly growing, it’s very impressive. But it needs…
It needs architectural icons.
Definitely, a city needs iconic buildings and new ideas. I think this building will transform the skyline, give a sense that there is a future and it’s not just looking at what other cities are doing.
What is your favorite skyline in the world?
I love the skyline of Manhattan because I live there. It’s a skyline that’s also changing all the time. Look at the skyline of London, just some years ago it was very static, until they allowed London to really develop in unpredictable ways, even the area near St. Paul’s Church. Versus Paris, which is a very set skyline that hasn’t changed.
So in a way you can see how London has outpaced Paris because its skyline has changed it. It has also signaled that London is developing in a much quicker and more diversified way and it’s not in a museum mold. Skylines are important signs of the development of cities.
Why is it that some buildings that are now loved were hated by people at the time they were first completed? Most often they are ridiculed, such as “The Gherkin” by Norman Foster and yet it’s now one of London’s icons.
Always. Because they’re new and people are set in their ways, they know what they like, they’re habituated. Habit is a shackle for the free. You know when it’s genuine — not everyone says “great.”
Have you had to battle this kind of attitude with your clients?
Oh sure, every project. Even a small house that I recently completed. In the beginning the Jewish Museum in Berlin was critically attacked by everybody. All the experts said it was terrible, nobody would come, nobody would understand, but they were proven wrong because the public grows to appreciate these things.
That’s also the nature of art. Look at all the great paintings that we now see as great. When they were first painted people thought they were horrible — Van Gogh’s paintings were not considered good, the paintings of Picasso were sold for very little for many years, Andy Warhol was considered stupid. But now when you look at art museums, wow, those people that recognized the talent were very few.
There’s a famous quote of Picasso’s conversation with Gertrude Stein on his portrait of her and which is now at the Metropolitan in New York. When he finished painting it, she said to him, “You know, Mr. Picasso, it’s a very nice picture but it doesn’t look at all like me.” And he said, “Don’t worry, it will.” And now that is our vision of Gertrude Stein. That is Gertrude Stein. We don’t have any other Gertrude Stein. So that’s art. People see but art envisions how people will see in the future.
What are your top three favorite buildings in the world?
That’s very difficult to answer. As I said in my book (Breaking Ground), architecture is like a spectrum, like a rainbow. You don’t choose what color from the rainbow is your favorite, you choose the rainbow. It is the diversity, the whole range that makes the world beautiful.
I like architecture across time, I like vernacular architecture, local architecture that doesn’t even have a name to call it, I like some of the great masterpieces in Asia, Europe, South America, some of the great wonders of the world that have been destroyed, like the Library of Alexandria, the fantastic Temple at Ephesus. You have to have an imaginative mind to navigate through this beautiful world.
I love that anecdote about Goethe choosing the rainbow that you quote in your book. And yet your designs for the Jewish Museum and Ground Zero show your fascination with light and shadows and time of day. How do you reconcile all this in your design?
We wouldn’t have any light if we didn’t have any shadow. Light and shadow intertwine. Every ray of light produces a shadow. And so we know that shadows are as important as light and we have to take account of that in everything.
Shadows kind of manipulate people’s emotions, don’t they?
Not only are we in the light but we are also in the shadows. You can say that life is a flame but there is also a kind of internal sun inside of us, the soul. Light and shadow are part of the images of the world for all eternity.
People have a sense of what life in Manhattan is like from mass media, what is life like for you living there?
It’s fantastic. What I love about Manhattan, about New York is that it’s a macrocosm of the world. The truth is people may not love each other but they all live together very well and that’s the beauty of New York, that it’s a city of tolerance.
You can be from anywhere in the world and nobody sees you as an immigrant, you’re just part of the city. The beauty is not just its nice skyline but the attitude that strangers are welcome and that people of different religions, languages, places and beliefs can live happily with each other. That to me is a good model for the world.
Was there a discernible change in attitude before and after 9/11?
Sure. Before 9/11 people often took for granted what America was. After 9/11, we saw things — not all good things — like tolerance and bigotry but it also taught people what a democracy is, how to move society forward, how to take the memory of what happened and turn it into something positive. That was my plan.
There’s always a danger in such a thing, that you can unbalance a city. It can make a sad place of the city but it can also pay homage to these thousands of people from over 90 different countries that died. You can use that as a hinge to create a beautiful 21st-century New York, to affirm liberty and the beauty of the streets, of walking around the city and being able to be part of it.
I am reminded of the Cupola by Norman Foster on the Reichstag in Berlin. How do you feel about new architecture being added to centuries-old structures?
That’s a very good building and Norman’s a great architect and he did a fantastic job. I think it’s a creative way to use a traditional device with new technology and a new sense.
Was there resistance from your mother when you wanted to be a designer?
It was the other way around. I wanted to be an artist, she said no, as an artist you will be very poor, you will not even be able to buy a pencil. She said, “Be an architect because you can always be an artist in architecture but you cannot be an architect in art, and in this way you can hook two fish with one hook.” Very wise woman.
Do you still design manually?
Only. I have many computers in my studios but I do design the traditional way. I start with a drawing and I make a small model myself. It’s a very traditional art; of course we have new tools but the tools cannot replace tradition in my view.
For instance, I have a drawing app and I can draw with my fingers on the screen of the iPad and it’s so fantastic. When I travel around the world, I draw and send them to my office. And I can draw in a very primitive way — with my finger. How fantastic! People have not done that in thousands of years — in the sand with their finger and now to create a building or to respond to a shape, what a wonderful world.
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(Link to the original version of this story: http://www.philstar.com/modern-living/2014/06/07/1331804/daniel-libeskind-ground-zero-manila)