When my best friend who lives in Canada told me last year she was going to vacation in the Philippines in January, we immediately started to plan an out-of-town weekend. People who know me know I love Palawan for its marine life and limestone cliffs, Boracay for its White Beach and food, and the third island province I never tire of visiting is Bohol.
“Bohol is for culture, churches, the sea and amazing landscapes,” I told Maria.
Indeed, foreigners who tell people they’ve been to Boracay are asked next, “But have you been to Bohol?”
Bohol has two things no other destination in the Philippines has: the Chocolate Hills, which are 1,700 geological formations that look like Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses spread across 50 square kilometers in Carmen (they’re five million years old) and the tarsiers at two conservation centers, the world’s smallest primates that have been in existence for 45 million years.
Plus, there’s Loboc River, which to me is the most scenic river in the country with coconut trees on the banks, bent toward the water as if bowing to welcome you.
So we planned the trip in December, more than a month before she was actually arriving, bought tickets and booked at Amorita Resort and Momo Beach House, both of which belong to One-Of Collection, which manages hotels and resorts around the Philippines such as The Funny Lion in Coron, Sta. Monica Beach Club in Dumaguete and Momo Beach House in Bohol.
What I love about their resorts is that each one has its own distinct personality. They’re like children from different mothers — no two are alike and that’s the fun in it.
In Bohol, Amorita is the elegant child with its quiet villas with private pools, meandering gardens, amazing food (my God, the Peanut Kisses milkshake!) and discreet service.
Momo Beach House is the hipper version — the child that runs around barefoot in the gardens and climbs trees, the one that makes his parents laugh with funny faces, the one that catches fish on a boat with his father, only to release them again to the sea.
With Amorita located on a cliff, you can contemplate your life and probably come up with a plan for the next 10 years. If you contemplated your life on Momo Beach House’s hammocks — sandwiched between Momo Beach and the swimming pool — the furthest you will want to plan is dinner. In fact, you don’t want to plan that either. It’s that chill.
“We developed Momo Beach House as a peaceful, inspiring destination where guests can share our passion for having a relaxing lifestyle,” says Ria Hernandez-Cauton, president of One-Of Collection. “Here, we foster a nature-driven culture so that guests can get away, exhale all the big city toxins, relax, and soothe their mind, body, and soul.”
Located on Panglao island and a 20-minute drive to Amorita and Alona Beach, Momo Beach House is an eco-chic boutique resort that “has emerged as one of the Philippines’ top resort destinations, offering world-weary guests an escape from the urban fray and multiple opportunities to rejuvenate in a beachside setting.”
The 15-room resort looks like someone’s ancestral manor with its whitewashed walls, thatched roofs and a pool in the middle. The dining room is an open space with couches and wooden tables and chairs and colorful throws.
The rooms are in vibrant pastels with stunning seaside and sunset views, and a distinct architectural design theme incorporating white furniture pieces, locally sourced organic bath products, wooden poolside lounge chairs, a repurposed wine rack made from an old fishing boat, and a beachfront bamboo bar.
“Sustainability is an integral part of One-Of Collection’s business strategy,” says Ria. “The location of Momo Beach House is already blessed with a fantastic combination of sun, sea, and sky, and that’s why we designed in ways that integrated key features of these beautiful natural surroundings.”
Committed to meeting the demands of today’s increasingly busy tourists and wellness-oriented leisure travelers, Momo Beach House distinguishes itself with a wide range of features and services that make for truly holistic holidays: nature-inspired architecture, homestyle al fresco dining, environment-friendly amenities, and a homey, just chill vibe.
“There is also much more to Momo Beach House than scenes of tropical idyll. Its Beach Tree Café is an all-day dining venue with a homestyle-inspired menu designed around locally sourced organic ingredients, and an approach to food that emphasizes health, freshness, clarity of ingredients, and local availability.”
Banking on the widely held notion that a healthy lifestyle is also necessarily an active one, the boutique resort serves as a venue for regular private yoga retreats and wellness activities, with an on-call yogal instructor available to lead practice sessions for beginner and advanced yogis and yoginis. Momo Beach House also provides kayaks and standup paddleboards for guests.
“Here at Momo Beach House, our approach to wellness is holistic,” says Ria. “The facilities, features, and services in our resort are all aimed at strengthening our ability to engage with and cater to travelers who demand greater options for getting away and rediscovering themselves.”
They come on the beaches of Phillip Island at sunset, hundreds of them through the evening. They call it the “Penguin Parade,” a daily ritual of the Little Penguins, a name they acquired from being literally the smallest species at 33 centimeters tall and a kilo in weight. Blue and white in plumage, they go out to sea in the morning to catch fish and come back to their nesting burrows at night.
In the last hour or two of daylight, big waves come splashing on the shore as the tide rises. Then the water recedes as night falls, and by this time there are hundreds of people waiting on the bleachers, all shivering and wet from the winter rain — including our media group last week.
It’s our second day in Australia, having arrived the day before on Cebu Pacific’s inaugural flight to Melbourne, a thrice-weekly direct service that is Cebu Pac’s second destination in Oz following Sydney, which it launched in 2014.
It’s about time the budget airline launched its Melbourne route to make it more accessible to Filipino travelers, because the city and the national parks surrounding it in Victoria state are packed with attractions that are at turns surprising, colorful and delightful. And they make damn good wines and chocolates here, too.
But back to the penguins. If you’ve seen the 2005 French documentary March of the Penguins, the only Oscar-winning docu that really interested me, you know how beyond cute they are.
You’d know, for instance, that some species like the Emperor Penguins can hold their breath for more than 20 minutes underwater, that they can go as deep as 500 meters, that all penguins spend most of their lives at sea, and travel thousands of kilometers a year, and that they are monogamous for each breeding season — in the next mating cycle, all bets are off and new affairs are started.
According to the Penguin Foundation of Australia, the Little Penguins are found only on the southeastern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand, “with Phillip Island in Victoria home to an estimated 32,000 breeding adults.”
Driving around Phillip Island Nature Park, which is two hours by land from Melbourne, you’ll see their nesting burrows (some of them manmade) on wide open fields on either side of the road, along with wallabies, birds and other animals that roam freely.
We are told by the rangers that the penguins would come in groups — one would leap out of the water and then waddle onto the beach to check things out, then it would signal to his mates and they’d all follow him.
And that’s exactly how the Penguin Parade goes.
Lit only by the moon and lights on the bleachers, it’s not so easy to see them come ashore and on to the grassy areas, but you can walk with them as they go “home” because the design of the Penguin Parade Center is such that the path to their burrows is alongside the human path and separated only by a three-foot glass barrier that goes around and past the center.
In fact, this is the way to see them up close. Some of the penguins walk in big waddles of 8 or 12, while others in smaller ones, and there’s always one left behind the bunch — “that one friend,” you imagine them gossiping with each other, their bellies full from the day’s feeding at sea shaking with laughter.
Since the penguins go out to sea all year round, summer (December to February) is the best time to go when the weather’s warm, but it also means that the sunset parade happens around 9 p.m.
Absolutely no photography is allowed because they don’t want to scare the penguins away or disrupt their ritual of a thousand years. And you realize what a joy it is to watch them with your own eyes and not through your phone camera. What a relief it is to not take pictures but to just enjoy the moment.
CHURCHILL ISLAND & YARRA VALLEY Phillip Island tours usually include Churchill Island Heritage Farm, located on the smaller island and connected by bridge. Here, activities include cow milking, lassoing, and a sheep-shearing show. Children especially love seeing a sheep transform into a skinny one after its wool is sheared off in one piece. The record shearing speed is 49 seconds or 620 in eight hours — that’s a ton of wool!
The farm serves an unforgettable Ausssie lunch of grilled shrimps, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed mushrooms, coleslaw sandwiches and brownies.
I quickly realize that a trip to Melbourne is a journey in gastronomy. Every time we went out to eat, Australia’s bountiful produce, seafood, meats and wines were laid out as if it was our last meal.
Yarra Valley, which is an hour away from Melbourne, is home to the biggest handmade chocolaterie in the country and some of the highest-rated boutique wineries.
At De Bortoli Wines, which produces an even split of reds and whites, we have a wine tasting accompanied by cheeses on its Dixons Creek estate. While I like the chardonnay and pinot, I love its dessert wines. After our tasting ends, our tasting master hands me another glass — the Black Noble with its nutty and raisin flavors.
It tastes and smells like Christmas and makes you feel like you’re drinking happiness! The only other wine that I’ve had a similar experience with is on the other side of the world, in Spain’s sherry-producing Jerez de la Frontrera in Cadiz, which I’ve never found in Manila.
At Yarra Valley Chocolaterie, you feel as if you’ve stepped into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. You don’t actually see how they’re made — but my god! this is heaven for chocolate lovers.
The chocolate is from Belgium; the chocolatiers from France and Belgium and their creations are hundred of kinds, from chocolate spreads to bars, clusters, candies and truffles, plain or flavored, white, milk and dark. Their Chocolate Wall alone features 34 chocolate varieties. And mind you, they’re not cheap — but they’re worth it.
We do a chocolate tasting of their single-origin premium chocolate —12 flavors whose packaging features paintings of the surrounding areas in Yarra Valley — the chocolaterie on the Mango & Passionfruit bar, Yarrawood Winery on Macadamia & Salted Caramel, Yering Orchard on the Roasted Nuts & Dried Fruit, Yarra River Yea on Cookies & Cream, and so on.
BRIGHT BRIGHTON BEACH I’ve never been to this part of Australia before, so Melbourne was a wonderful surprise for me — its architecture, its laid-back vibe and Asian feel, and the shopping! But none amused me more than the colorful bathing boxes of Brighton Beach.
Lined up like faithful soldiers on the shore, uniform in size and material but wildly different from each other, the 82 bathing boxes started out as exactly that — rooms for women to change. Now they contain beach stuff like deck chairs, tables and kayaks.
Visitors think of them as a Melbourne icon, but that’s geographically wrong; they are located in the city of Bayside, which is about 20 kilometers away, and they can only be owned by Bayside residents.
The Brighton bathing boxes are some of most expensive real estate in Victoria despite being just timber boxes without electricity or running water. One box auctioned last December fetched above the previous record of AUD$326,000 — and buyers don’t actually own the land, they’re just granted a license by the city council.
There are guidelines to the façade of the boxes issued by the council and among the outstanding designs are the VW van, the Australian flag and so many striking color combinations.
You can picture in your mind what it’s like here in the summer, when the days are long, the bathing boxes are open and the picnic tables and umbrellas are out.
They might even have shrimps on the barbie.
MELBOURNE AT LAST It feels that I’m getting to know Melbourne last on this trip, as if it was saving itself for the final number, like dessert, like a nightcap, like showing you its neighbors first before opening its arms in embrace.
Our driver and guide throughout this trip is an East Timorese native named Nigel who migrated to Australia with his family when he was a boy. On our first day, he proudly tells us that the city was voted this year as the Most Livable, beating Vancouver, another western city that’s been Asianized with migrants.
Melbourne’s widely regarded as Australia’s cultural and gastronomic capital with its mix of old architecture and new buildings, its Federation Square and its Flinders St. Railway Station, its casino and duty-free shopping, its Divisoria-like Victoria Market where the prices go down as closing time nears, its pubs and Chinatown. I think its openness, its multi-cultural population (4.8 million or 19 percent of the country’s population) has a lot to do with its livability.
A colleague remarks that for a city that’s visited by millions of tourists, it’s not very touristy with its early sleeping hour (or perhaps we were simply on the quieter side of the CBD), but I point out that maybe that’s precisely what makes it the most livable city in the world — for locals to enjoy a balance of life and work and play.
Alongside its wide streets and botanic gardens, its running paths and riverside neighborhoods, its monuments to remembrance and war heroes is Hosier Lane, a street that merges art and horor vacui. Hosier’s a city block spanning two or three branching streets filled with graffiti from the ground up to rooftops — some interesting, mostly trash, at least to me — but it’s a place like no other.
Every day, for one reason or another, we find ourselves walking by Yarra River in the heart of Melbourne. This water flows 242 kilometers through and out of Melbourne, through other cities and valleys. We are told that Yarra is an aboriginal word that means “upside down.”
Maybe that’s part of Melbourne’s secret — the mix of strict order and freedom, of stable and fun, of ridiculously priced bathing boxes and ridiculously good kebab stalls after a pub crawl. You only have to look to the right of Federation Square’s modern arts venue contrasting with the old railway station’s regal architecture to realize that this is a city that’s changed by time and migration but still treasures its history. And it effortlessly convinces people to treasure it too.
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Cebu Pacific flies nonstop from Manila to Melbourne on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6 a.m.; Melbourne to Manila on the same days at 5 p.m. Its nonstop service from Manila to Sydney is on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 10:15 a.m.; Sydney to Manila on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:45 a.m. For inquiries and reservation, call Cebu Pacific’s hotline at 702-0888; for promos and seat sale, log on to www.cebupacificair.com.
When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.
Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.
Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.
Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.
Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.
With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.
For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.
A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.
Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.
The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.
The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”
I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.
So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.
“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.
I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.
It occupies one of the most historic addresses in the country: One Rizal Park, Manila, a stone’s throw away from beloved Luneta and Manila Bay. It’s also one of the very few places from where you can see the water on one side and the beautiful parts of a reckless city on the other.
Writers, poets, politicians, rebels and history-makers have all passed through its doors, and it was no less than the timeless writer Ernest Hemingway who said, “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” It was 1941 and Hemingway was a journalist en route to China. He and his wife Martha Gellhorn stayed at The Manila Hotel for five days.
One hundred and four years later, Manila Hotel’s stories continue to evoke nostalgia from people of all ages who remember the hotel at its different stages. Today, the hotel is having a rebirth, if you will, to bring back its glorious past as it faces tough competition from new and modern hotels.
On the long list of heads of state, royalty, celebrities, and events that shook Philippine history are Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Prince Charles, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko of Japan, Michael Jackson, President Thein Sein of Myanmar, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, World Chess champion Anatoly Karpov, Spanish singer and songwriter Julio Iglesias, Korean pop star Rain, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea for APEC last year.
Manila Hotel president Joey Lina — yes, the former senator, governor and DILG secretary is now a full-fledged hotelier (more on this later) — says on the significance of the hotel to the country and people, “It’s a national heritage. This should be the pride of the Filipino people. Our vision is to make Manila Hotel the true heart of the Philippines.”
The hotel is on the way to taking back its position as one of Asia’s top hotels by renovating in stages, including the presidential suite, “the showcase of any hotel” according to Lina, which was finished in time for the APEC Summit in Manila in November 2015.
Lina says the total renovation cost for the whole hotel exceeds P1 billion, and for the presidential suite alone, it’s more than P100 million. Owner Don Emilio Yap died two years ago but Lina says the patriarch saw Ilang-Ilang coffee shop and Mabuhay Palace to their completion, but not the new Fiesta Pavilion and presidential suite.
Manny Samson was the architect in whose hands the presidential suite of the Grand Dame of Manila was entrusted. Architect Samson says, “The board of directors decided that it was about time to reposition the presidential suite and the old Rizal suite. Both suites were very old, non-functional and bordering on neglect. I did not think they were being used that often.”
Samson’s design was to make what was originally an all-wood and dark suite into a “bright, light and airy space, or what we call in Tagalog maaliwalas.” Maaliwalas was also literal because the actual physical space of the presidential suite is 1,200 sqm. Today, it is the biggest suite in Southeast Asia, according to Lina.
It occupies the entire 18th floor of the Tower Building, which was added in 1975 and designed by National Artists Lindy Locsin and Ildefonso Santos. The original building was built by the Americans and opened, ironically, to commemorate American Independence on July 4, 1912.
IT INCLUDES A ‘PANIC ROOM’
Since the presidential suite is the choice of heads of state for occasions such as the APEC Summit, one room that had to be built in was a “panic room.” At a dinner with editors in the presidential suite two weeks ago, Don Emilio Yap’s grandson Emil Yap said that this room was built with bulletproof walls.
Samson adds that the hotel also engaged “the services of security experts — this time from a professional group of former CIA men. Again, our goal was that this could be the residence of visiting presidents and other world dignitaries, and that security is one of the utmost considerations. I think we achieved that.”
Samson walked through the old rooms and all the spaces around them. “We captured some wasted areas that were planters before to increase the floor area. Similarly, nowhere in the suite could you sit down with a glass of champagne and watch the glorious sunset, which is what Manila Bay is famous for.”
“Elegant” and “modern” are indeed two words to describe the suite. You walk in and there’s a large receiving area with a bar and expansive views of Manila Bay on one side and a large conference room on the other.
Through glass doors is an airy lanai with modern woven furniture pieces and a provision for a dipping pool, which will be completed next year (in the same place where it was in the old presidential suite). This is my favorite space in the presidential suite, not in small part because of the black-and-white Machuca tiles or what Samson calls “baldosin” (old-style Spanish tiles).
The lanai looks so open and airy but is actually very secure with glass roof and windows. One side is Manila Bay and the other side, down a long corridor that spans several rooms, is a view of Intramuros and its golf course, as well as Luneta.
You look out through these windows and realize that if Manila had protected its spaces from overdevelopment, all of it could have been very beautiful.
Beyond the lanai is a modern dining room with a capiz chandelier and a gorgeous, all-white kitchen. “Gone are the days when the kitchen is a back-of-the-house space where butlers do their chores,” says Samson. “We would like our guests to feel very special as our great chefs prepare their meals and also put on a show in the kitchen.”
SUNSET IN BED
After the dining room, a corridor leads to two guestrooms that mirror each other in design. Instead of the beds positioned against a wall, they are set in the middle of the room to face Manila Bay. Imagine winding down your day with the sunset or waking up to the sunrise. Both have en-suite bathrooms with separate shower stalls and bathtubs, and sensor-activated toilet seats.
And then there’s the master bedroom. Combining a blue-and-earth-tones palette from the carpet to the furnishings, which include mother-of-pearl accessories, the master bedroom has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the side of Manila Bay. On the same side is the bathroom, whose Jacuzzi for two is set beside the windows facing the bay. The master suite also has a private spa with massage beds for two.
So, how much does it cost to stay in the presidential suite for one night? A whopping P600,000! Lina says not only royalty or presidents have booked the room but also private individuals.
FROM POLITICO TO HOTELIER
Manila Hotel president Joey Lina always thought the hotel has the grandest lobby in the country. He enjoyed going there to eat, for meetings, and to sing in fundraising shows with then fellow Cabinet members Bayani Fernando and Angelo Reyes from 2003 to 2008.
Imagine his surprise when he left politics in 2004 and two weeks later he got a call from Don Emilio Yap. In the end, he accepted the job because it was the Manila Hotel. “If it was another hotel, I would probably not have accepted it. Another thing was the assurance of the owner that he would guide me along. In everything I do I am hands-on. I studied everything, from the front office to the door, to the back of the house and kitchen.”
That was nine years and three months ago. Sometimes he would run into people he knew in his political life— mostly ambassadors to the Philippines — “and they wonder why I became a hotelier.”
As the hotel’s president, he is part of the long welcome line at the entrance when visiting dignitaries arrive (or leave). He says the last one to occupy the presidential suite was South Korean President Park Geun-hye during the APEC Summit last year.
“Her father, former President Park Chung-Hee, also stayed at Manila Hotel. I presented her a collection of photos of her father when he was here, including when he laid a wreath in Luneta at the Rizal Monument. She talked to me about how she has fond memories of him. She was surprised to see the pictures.”
Also staying at Manila Hotel during APEC was Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who occupied the MacArthur Suite. “We had two lady presidents during APEC,” Lina beams. What happens when two heads of state want to occupy the presidential suite? Lina says the rule first-come, first-served is followed. In the case of APEC, the South Korean Embassy reserved first.
Finally, and perhaps the most famous politician after whom another famous suite was named: Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “The first honorary general manager of The Manila Hotel was Gen. MacArthur. He was military adviser to the Philippine government. Before he accepted the offer to become adviser and put up the army and armed forces here, his condition was that he would stay in Malacañang Palace, but of course the palace was only for the president. The government decided that he would stay at Manila Hotel.”
MacArthur lived in the hotel’s penthouse which occupied the entire floor. It had seven rooms and a library — it was a well-appointed penthouse and even during that time it was very expensive. To justify MacArthur’s stay there, he was made honorary general manager.
“But he wasn’t just an honorary GM, he took the job seriously!” Lina says.
When it was bombed and rebuilt during the war, the MacArthur penthouse was reduced to one-third of its original size.
“You know, there is pride in being at The Manila Hotel,” says Lina. “The hotel is different, it has its own character, which is uniquely Filipino. All the people here can laugh with our guests, we’re not stiff, we have the Old World charm of Manila, we do things with a sense of theater. We’re a work in progress and we’re still evolving.”
(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.