A new dream rises from Ground Zero

The argument over what should be built on the mass-murder scene where the World Trade Centre once stood was, in essence, a fight between selling and telling. The property developers wanted prime office space; the families of the September 11 victims sought a memorial. Daniel Libeskind’s winning design – in which a new business complex rises around a still centre of remembrance that preserves the blackened grave – satisfyingly resolves the conflicting demands of real estate and reverence.

A riskier aspect of the planned rebuilding is that, while telling future generations the story of terrorist slaughter in Manhattan, it also seeks to send a message of American indomitability. Sense seemed to dictate that the sky should not be scraped again by whatever replaced the Twin Towers. Raising another space-rocket office block in New York risks simply creating another target for Bin Laden or his successors.

But a huge tower, planned to be the tallest in the world, rises at the heart of Libeskind’s design. America could not take the symbolism implied in building low. She needs to give the big finger to her enemies. Though psychologically satisfying, that aspect of Libeskind’s plans is in practical terms a big gamble.

Yet as long as it survives terrorism, and providing that his concept is not reduced or brutalised too much by the site’s owners, this new building will help to ensure that Daniel Libeskind becomes one of the legends of architecture, regarded in this century as Le Corbusier was in the last.

Libeskind’s story is an odd and moving one. An academic theorist who was deep into middle age before one of his designs actually troubled the clouds, he has become the art’s new superstar in the past few years through two completed buildings — the irregular, metallic, haunting shapes of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester — and another which is beautiful but still merely mooted: his spiral extension to the V&A in London.

As well as making skylines more exciting, however, Libeskind’s greatest achievement has been to rebuild the public image of the architect. The people who dream our cities into being had come to be regarded as arrogant, rich and egotistical. Libeskind lacks neither cash nor self-belief, but he is a warm and brilliant public performer.

A man of broad interests — a good enough musician to have conducted orchestras — he speaks in a rush of ideas and chuckles. I once interviewed him for radio in front of a live audience and it was immediately clear that he had a politician’s power over a crowd without a political candidate’s stench of self-advertisement. A half-hour talk about architecture and music he gave on Radio 3 last year was an awesome display of friendly erudition. This easy charisma will bring him envious enemies — especially now that he has won the biggest competition of them all — but it is a special gift.

So, as soon as it became clear that the Ground Zero competition would make such a point of public consultation and town hall meetings, it seemed to me that Libeskind could be the only winner. Norman Foster, the British representative among the bidders, has many great skills but, in a contest that increasingly came to resemble a political campaign, Libeskind v Foster was like Reagan v Mondale when it came to the ability to communicate.

The key to Libeskind’s success is not merely that he can speak brilliantly to the public but that his buildings do as well. Crucially, his successful designs all tell a story. In the past, theatre, cinema and literature have saved themselves from periods of public neglect or disdain by a return to compelling narrative. Libeskind has popularised modern building through narrative architecture.

Taking its strange shape from tracing a line around the historic Jewish quarter of Berlin, his Holocaust Museum dramatises absence: an empty space at the heart of the building is symbolically filled with the spirits of the millions killed by the Nazis. In his New York design, Libeskind has ensured that the thousands of ghosts from 9/11 have a similar sacred space.

The intersecting fragments of his Imperial War Museum North — which Libeskind, characteristically, researched by throwing his practice’s teapot out of the window in a plastic bag — speak, quite as eloquently as the military exhibits inside, of a globe broken too often by conflict. As a Jew of Polish descent, he carries the tragedies of the modern world in his memories and his genes and, in every space he fills, he tells that tale.

Narrative architecture obviously has its limitations. If all bank headquarters curved and twisted like dollar signs and railway stations were shaped to resemble a train, the capitals of the world would start to look like Toy Town. Storeys that tell stories only truly work if the building stands to serve as a memorial or warning. That made Daniel Libeskind the right man for Berlin and Manchester and gave him an unbreakable claim on the New York commission.

Culture’s new architect-superstar has the personality and charisma to become one of the rare members of his profession to be loved. It’s common to accuse architects of having too much power. But as Manhattan’s money men and landowners peer coolly at Libeskind’s blueprint, we may come to feel that, on this occasion, the man with the plan didn’t have enough influence. He deserves, though, to go from Ground Zero to hero. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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