Tower of faith
Daniel Libeskind is in his Zurich studio, having flown in from New York for a day and night. He is unsure what day it is, and when we pop back to his office after a coffee, he forgets what floor his studio is on.
Aside from the Zurich studio, Libeskind has offices in New York and Hong Kong.
His career is clearly on some global trajectory.
As well as the master-planning of Ground Zero in New York, he has new commissions for important building projects in Milan, Seoul and Hong Kong. He is busy building in Denver, San Francisco, Bern and Tel Aviv.
He has just completed a boat-like and uncharacteristically low-profile Jewish museum in Copenhagen. In the Zurich studio, he shows me a model of a military museum planned for the centre of born-again Dresden. We get to talk between his client meetings.
Libeskind’s ability to concentrate intensely on one project for the time needed before switching to the next with equal enthusiasm is remarkable.
Here is a successful architect firing on all cylinders and very much on form.
He has been in the news recently after the British government turned down a funding application from the Victoria and Albert museum to build his spiral gallery, dedicated to contemporary design. And there is trouble in New York, too. The architect’s design for the 538m freedom tower at Ground Zero has been taken over by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). Now Studio Libeskind is suing the developer, Larry Silverstein.
Is the sky-rocketing Libeskind falling to earth? ‘You’ve got to have faith,’’ he says. ‘And patience, too. Lots of it.
‘When you’re a kid with artistic yearnings brought up in the Bronx, you don’t get fed up too easily. It took 10 years to build the Jewish Museum in Berlin [his first building]. Nearly everybody said it would never happen. It was too crazy, too unrealistic. But it did happen. And now we’ve been asked to build an extension to the museum because the number of visitors is growing each year.
‘The spiral gallery may happen, too. It is not dependent on government funding. The museum has raised many millions of pounds, and a benefactor might still come its way. We’ve revised the project to bring it up to date. There is a possibility it will happen, and there is the possibility it might not, but you have to believe in what might be. I’m not Candide, nor Dr Pangloss, but we know that faith moves mountains.’‘
And raises Manhattan towers? Libeskind proves keen to emphasise the positive here, too.
‘SOM has taken over the design of the freedom tower, but we’re in charge of the overall master plan for Ground Zero. This includes the tower, but far more besides. We’re dealing, simultaneously, with the commissioning and construction of ... offices, the 9/11 memorial, entire new streets, a new park, seven storeys of infrastructure below ground, transportation, security.
‘This is a huge project,’’ he continues, ‘the rebirth, effectively, of Lower Manhattan. It involves so many players and will take several years to complete. We’re in this for the long run.’‘
So what is the problem between Libeskind and Silverstein, the Mr Big of New York’s property world and lessee, from the Port Authority, of the World Trade Centre site? ‘It’s a straightforward legal issue,’’ says Libeskind.
‘Larry wanted us to reposition the tower. We wouldn’t, and won’t. He’s been holding back our fees.”
‘We want to get paid. And that’s it. It’ll get solved and we’ll carry on with planning Ground Zero.’‘
Planning, but not building. Libes-kind admits: ‘It’s been hard to hand over the working design of freedom tower to another architect — although we’re still a part of the team ...
‘I love the process of building. But maybe it’s good for architects to have their egos kept in check ... Anyway, we’re building so much around the world, I can hardly complain.’‘
New York, though, is a very special case, and place, for Libeskind. This is where he came, by ship, aged 13, with his family from Lodz in Poland in 1959.
The sight, and promises, of the Statue of Liberty, the experience of immigration procedures on Ellis Island, and the sheer drama of the anyone-can-make-it-here city, made indelible impressions on the budding architect. He is an American citizen, and proud of it. His twisting design for the freedom tower is a play on the stance of the nearby Statue of Liberty. He finds nothing corny in designing a building 538m tall, nor in the decision to lay the foundation stone on July 4.
‘Right now, the rest of the world confuses American notions of patriotism and nationhood with the actions of a specific administration,’’ he argues. ‘But the US is a democracy, and when a government is voted out, these humanist notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness continue.’‘
Libeskind still recalls the construction of the World Trade Centre when he was a student at the Cooper Union school of architecture in New York.
‘I remember vividly the huge holes in the ground excavated for their foundations. Yamasaki’s towers were exciting in terms of their sheer scale and daring, but they were never my favourite buildings. Most people only really expressed a fondness for them after their destruction ... Now, for the worst of reasons, we have a chance to make this area really special — and this is happening even before any of us gets to build.
‘There are more people living in Lower Manhattan now than before the terrorist attacks. That’s faith for you. There’s such a strong spirit here.’‘
So strong, in fact, that everyone seemed to have a view on how to redevelop the site. One difficulty for the architect has been the number of people who have a say in the redevelopment — ‘everyone from federal, state and city governments to those who live and work here. Remember,’’ he says, ‘it was the people of New York who rejected the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s plan for the site. They said we want something incredible, not just more real estate.’‘
And of course, fascination with the site wasn’t limited to the US. Libeskind points out that in the final two weeks of the competition to find a planner for Ground Zero, the official website had eight million hits.
‘The level of global interest was amazing. But the press reported the story in a way that was all about the egos of duelling architects. And we were all caught up in the act. We had to address huge audiences through the media and on public stages. The press were writing about our clothes, our haircuts and glasses. It was nerve-wracking.
‘Perhaps we were over-sensitive to criticism and maybe everyone got a little too hot under the collar. Now it has settled down.
‘We have some great architects collaborating with us today, like Santiago Calatrava, who’s designing the new subway station and interchange. You’ll be able to see right up from the platforms several stories below pavement level to the 9/11 memorial, to the 70-storey freedom tower and to the sky above.’
‘The foreign press seem obsessed with the freedom tower, as if it was the only thing going on here. In fact, we’re trying to keep a huge juggling act in balance, with the tower as just one of the many balls in play.
‘I’m also positive we’ll end up with a part of New York that is very different to, for example, the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. That was crazy. Really good architects ... were working there, yet you ended up with a cultural and commercial dead-end.
‘The plan for Lower Manhattan is very different; it’s very much a part of the old city, a new and exciting part, but it will have the spirit of New York written all over it. —