Daniel and Nina Libeskind thought they had figured out how to get a building built. Then they came to New York.
September 15, 2003
Mary Ellen Mark
238Y--POL-101 The Libeskinds work on the plans for Ground Zero together. He designs, she manages.
Daniel Libeskind likes to work with crystalline shapes. Before he was selected as the master planner of Ground Zero in Manhattan, he designed an addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that looks like a gargantuan pile of rock candy. His new wing for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto seems to be composed of enormous ice cubes. The principal architectural element of his proposal for the World Trade Center site is the Freedom Tower, a quartz-like slice that cuts into the sky and is attached to a bulkier office building. It is a distinctive and authoritative composition. Libeskind did not actually win the right to design the spire, however—or any other building on the site, for that matter—or even to determine precisely where it would be situated, although that was not entirely clear to most members of the public in the giddy weeks right before and after his design was selected, in February. The selection process had been portrayed, for better or for worse, as a kind of sporting event, and Libeskind was seen to have triumphed in the playoffs and then won the championship. It would have been more accurate to say that he had got past a qualifying round.
The competition for the World Trade Center site design was set in motion by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the fall of 2002, when seven teams of prominent architects were asked to come up with ideas about such things as where to put a memorial, what to do with the skyline, and how to connect downtown with the rest of the city. Most of the architects, including Libeskind, responded with elaborate plans—not only urban layouts but designs for actual buildings. The designs by the celebrity architects were well publicized, and Larry Silverstein, the real-estate developer who leased the original Trade Center towers from the Port Authority, stayed mainly on the sidelines, although at one point he wrote to the L.M.D.C. denouncing all the proposals as unsuitable for his needs.
Silverstein claims to have the right to rebuild the Trade Center. There had been talk of buying him out, or even of condemning the property, but no one— not the Port Authority or Governor Pataki, who theoretically could have—followed up on the idea. Silverstein is the beneficiary of several billion dollars in insurance money that will likely provide most of the funds, at least initially, for construction on the site. When Libeskind’s design was chosen, Silverstein said he thought that it was an excellent site plan, but he didn’t say much about the Freedom Tower. He intended to do business the way he always had, and he wanted his own architect, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to design the tower. He also wanted to move it closer to the spot where a new transportation hub will be built. Childs, unlike Libeskind, is an experienced designer of tall buildings, including the AOL Time Warner complex at Columbus Circle, and he has been playing with designs for a tower on the World Trade Center site since late in 2001, long before Libeskind was in the picture.
Early this summer, Silverstein’s money and chutzpah seemed to be getting him what he wanted, but Libeskind, who was born in Poland and grew up in the Bronx, turned out to know more than a little about street fighting in New York. He had hired a lawyer, Edward Hayes, who is a close friend of Governor Pataki, and Hayes argued that the public expected his client to build everything he had envisioned—that his plans had been presented as a package. Libeskind made it clear that he was prepared to walk off the project, which would have embarrassed both the L.M.D.C. and Pataki, whose support was crucial to Libeskind’s selection, and who has pledged to start construction on the tower by next year, when the Republicans come to town for their Presidential Convention. He made the pledge in April, standing in front of a six-foot-tall rendering of Libeskind’s Freedom Tower.
Pataki urged Kevin Rampe, the president of the L.M.D.C., to force Libeskind and Childs to sort things out, and Rampe called a meeting at L.M.D.C. headquarters at One Liberty Plaza on July 15th. Libeskind came with Edward Hayes and several staff members. Childs, who said later that he hadn’t been told about the draconian aspect of the meeting, brought one of his architectural partners and Janno Lieber, Larry Silverstein’s executive in charge of the World Trade Center site. The architects and their entourages sat in separate conference rooms at opposite ends of the twentieth floor, and Rampe and Matthew Higgins, the chief operating officer of the L.M.D.C., shuttled between the two camps. After five hours of this, nobody had budged from his original position.
“The Libeskinds are afraid of being chewed up by the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill machine,” Rampe told Childs. “Well, I’m afraid of being chewed up by the Libeskind machine,” Childs replied.
Sometime after nine in the evening, Higgins sent out for pizza, and not long after that Rampe suggested that it might be helpful if Libeskind and Childs discussed things face to face, away from everyone else. The two men went into a third room. Childs was firm. He had a design for a tower and he didn’t want Libeskind’s design to be the starting point of any collaboration. “Only if this is a blank slate can I work with you,” he said.
“This is not a tabula rasa,” Libeskind replied. “The Freedom Tower is an image, a basis.”
“I have my own image,” Childs said. “I appreciate and respect what you do, but it is not what I do.”
Libeskind began to sketch his design on a piece of paper. “I have an idea how we can develop it,” he insisted, but Childs continued to demur. Libeskind said that he would agree to a fifty-fifty sharing of authority. Childs said that was impossible: “Someone has to be the writer of the Constitution.”
Childs told me later that he felt that Libeskind was wedded to a sculptural image, and that he found his asymmetrical scheme illogical. “He is shaping a clay block and sticking a sword on one side of it,” Childs said.
“It was gruelling,” Libeskind recalled. “It felt like the Grand Inquisitor scene in ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ ”
It is hard to say which architect wore the other down, but shortly before eleven o’clock they came out of the room and announced that they had agreed that while Childs’s firm would be the official architect of the Freedom Tower, Libeskind would “meaningfully collaborate” on the design, and that it would be presented as a joint creation.
Libeskind likes to talk about how architecture is the art of compromise. It took the better part of a decade to get his most famous building, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, built, but after years of struggle with a hostile city government it was erected pretty much as Libeskind had designed it: a zigzag form clad in zinc. He has been waiting nearly as long to see the start of construction on the addition to the V. & A. in London. He and David Childs have been meeting regularly since their negotiations in July, but they have not agreed on a working design, and it is impossible to say whether the Freedom Tower will end up looking like Libeskind’s version, or Childs’s, or something entirely new. In any case, Libeskind, who has never before designed a skyscraper, is, for the time being, in a position to have a great deal of influence over what will be the tallest building in the world.
Most people who have come to know Libeskind in New York refer to him as “they,” meaning him and his wife, Nina, who is his business partner, office manager, strategist, negotiator, publicist, and nearly constant companion. They are both slight, and both have short, closely cropped gray hair and wear glasses. Nina is present at almost every meeting her husband attends, and when he isn’t there she represents their firm, Studio Daniel Libeskind. After they won the competition in February, Nina, who worked as a labor arbitrator in Canada in the late seventies, negotiated contracts worth nearly six million dollars from the L.M.D.C. and the Port Authority, for work on the master plan, the design guidelines, and the memorial areas of Ground Zero.
The Libeskinds had been living in Berlin since 1989, when preliminary work on the Jewish Museum began. Until early this summer, when they got an apartment in New York, they stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Fifty-seventh Street when they were in the city. Each day started with a fax from Nina’s assistant in Berlin that laid out that day’s schedule of meetings. “Nina has a great technique,” Daniel said to me. “I don’t know my schedule in advance—if I knew what I had to do each day I couldn’t do it.” Nina Libeskind sees her job as keeping the pressures of the world away from her husband so that he is free to think and draw. “Daniel can spend days, literally days, thinking about doorknobs,” Nina says. Nevertheless, she is the more private of the two.
Daniel Libeskind is probably more at ease in public than any architect since Philip Johnson. During a three-day period this spring, I heard him speak one morning at a press conference at the Second Avenue Deli announcing a benefit for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre; at a cocktail party that night on Central Park West, where he was introduced as the most famous alumnus of Camp Hemshekh, a summer camp established by Holocaust survivors for their children (he met Nina there in 1966); at the Bronx High School of Science the next morning, where he was honored as a distinguished alumnus; and the following day in San Diego, where four thousand architects attending the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects showed up at eight o’clock in the morning to hear him present his plan for Ground Zero. He made two other speeches that week that I missed.
Libeskind brings up the subject of architecture only obliquely in many of his speeches, and sometimes not at all. When he spoke to a group gathered at the home of David and Ruth Levine, old friends of his who are supporters of a project to create a new Yiddish theatre in New York, he talked only about Yiddish. “Yiddish is the language that gave me an identity, a connection with the six million murdered Jews,” Libeskind said. “Yiddish culture has to be rooted in this city, because the renaissance of Yiddish culture is part of the resurgence, the revival, of New York. New York is an optimistic city, the capital of emotions, of intellect.”
The Libeskinds—he is always in black with, occasionally, a red scarf, she in gray—look as if they belonged in an avant-garde art gallery in Berlin, but when Daniel Libeskind opens his mouth what comes out is more along the lines of Middle American sentiment, delivered with a cultivated Eastern European accent. (He didn’t start speaking English until he was thirteen.) Libeskind began his early-morning presentation to the architects in San Diego by talking about visiting his old high school in the Bronx the day before. “As I went up the Grand Concourse past the Amalgamated Houses, I thought, That is what it is all about, the civic process, the art of cities,” he said. “A student asked me what I did to prepare for the World Trade Center competition, and I said there are three things that I did that are special. I took out the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and reread them so I could get back to what America is about, and I read Walt Whitman, the poet of working-class New York, and I reread ‘The Two Churches,’ a short story by Melville. And of course I went to the site—people perishing in their everyday life. It is not about the ego of the architect. It is about people’s hopes.” Libeskind told the story of how he first saw the Statue of Liberty as he was arriving by boat as a thirteen-year-old immigrant, and he ended his presentation by showing the architects a slide of the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower as it would look from the water, juxtaposed with the Statue of Liberty.
There is a lack of connection between Libeskind’s speeches and his work, as if he had decided that the best way to sell avant-garde architecture was to be so gemütlich that no one could be put off by him. “He’s done amazing things,” Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said to me. “He’s propelled himself—or, rather, Nina and he have propelled themselves—onto the center stage of world architecture. But Daniel is a preacher, and preachers always make me slightly nervous.” For an architect who loves to talk, Libeskind says very little about his buildings that could be considered analytical. He presents his work almost as if it were someone else’s that he had just seen for the first time and found dazzling.
Libeskind gives his projects simple names: the new Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen is the Mitzvah; a proposal for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington (an entry in a competition for an addition to the museum which Libeskind eventually lost to Frank Gehry) is the Kaleidoscope; and a new building for the Denver Art Museum, his biggest project in the United States until he won the Ground Zero competition, is called the Eye and the Wing. The Ground Zero project, Memory Foundations, has a Wedge of Light and a Park of Heroes. Libeskind designs buildings that feature sharp angles, glass ceilings, and slanted walls, and then he describes them as if they were the inevitable result of his patriotic and optimistic instincts, and as down-home as Colonial Williamsburg.
He tailors his lines to his audience. “From the minute I saw the mountains and the light I fell in love with Denver,” he said last spring to a crowd assembled for a dedication ceremony at the site of the new building for the Denver Art Museum. “It was not just the light of nature—it was the light in people’s eyes. It is the beauty of the people here, the beauty of their aspirations.
Architecture is a civic art, and a museum is not just a container to be filled with treasures; it is a place where people are brought to wonder about the spaces of their own futures. We are creating a complex that will glow, not only with the light of the mountains but with the spiritual.” The audience, which had not heard him describe the skyline of New York in similar terms, was delighted.
Daniel Libeskind did not set out to be an architect. His first passion was music, which he began studying in 1953, when he was seven, in Lodz, Poland. “I started with the accordion because my parents didn’t want people to see a Jew getting a piano,” Libeskind said to me. “They told me they would bring me a piano in a suitcase, and it was the accordion”—which his father could bring in unnoticed through the courtyard of their apartment building. In 1957, the family emigrated to Israel, where Daniel won a music competition, and Isaac Stern, who was one of the judges, urged him to switch from the accordion to the piano, which he did. The family did not last long in Israel. “My mother truly hated it—she hated the idea that you had to conform to a collective idea,” Libeskind said. “And in 1957 my father was an old man. He was forty-seven, and it was a country of young people.” So two years later the family moved again, this time to the Bronx, where Daniel, his sister Annette, and his parents lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Amalgamated Houses. His father got a job in a printing shop on Stone Street in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from what would become Ground Zero. Libeskind continued to play the piano, but his interest in music waned. “Music was not about abstract, intellectual thought—it was about playing,” he said to me. “I didn’t find it interesting enough. I couldn’t see spending my life on a stage.”
For a while he pursued mathematics, and read Hegel and Spinoza, and somehow he gradually moved toward art and architecture. At the Bronx High School of Science, he designed a nuclear shelter as a science project. “Architecture was considered very lowly at Bronx Science,” Libeskind said. “If you were really smart, you did quantum physics. I didn’t take it that way, as only doing doors and windows, but I didn’t know what architects did. Had I known that most architects were people in white shirts sitting at desks designing details of buildings no one would take responsibility for, then I never would have become an architect. Architecture was once a humanistic pursuit. It is not just functional diagrams of an office or a shopping center.”
Libeskind applied to Cooper Union, partly because it was in New York City and tuition-free, and partly because the dean of its architecture school, John Hejduk, had made it a center for the kind of theoretical exploration of architecture that Libeskind was looking for. No one at Cooper worried about shopping centers or where plumbing lines went. Libeskind was accepted, and for a time he continued to live at home, where the only space he had to work was a small, oval Formica-topped table in the kitchen. He would set his T-square on top of the table, and, because of the rounded edge, the lines across his paper came out diagonally. “It was so difficult at that table to do straight lines all across—maybe that’s where the angles came from,” he said to me.
He was one of Hejduk’s prize students, and while he was at Cooper, Richard Meier offered him a job. Libeskind disliked the office routine, and thought that Meier’s elegant, pristine buildings were a kind of high-class form of standardization. “I hated how the young architects would copy the Meier formula from his books,” Libeskind said. After seven days, he quit. “Meier couldn’t believe it,” Nina said. “He was paying Daniel a hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. It was a lot of money.”
The Libeskinds were married in 1969. Nina—whose father, David Lewis, founded a socialist-leaning political party in Canada, and whose brother, Stephen Lewis, became the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations—immediately assumed the role of organizer, but she faced an uphill battle. “I arranged for a trip to the Caribbean, but Daniel had got a travel scholarship to see the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and that became our honeymoon,” she said. “Neither of us could drive, so we went with two other students. One was a strict Lutheran, the other a Jehovah’s Witness, and neither of them was what you would call loose and easy. We camped out in sleeping bags in a station wagon.That was when I realized my life would never be normal.”
Daniel was happy studying, teaching, and writing. He had little interest in politics. “I think the sixties passed him by,” the writer and critic Arthur Krystal, who was Libeskind’s closest friend when they were both growing up in the Bronx, told me. He went to the University of Essex, in England, and in 1971 earned a master’s degree in the history and theory of architecture. He taught for a while in London and Toronto and at the University of Kentucky. Then, in 1978, when he was thirty-two, he was offered a job as head of the architecture school at Cranbrook academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, an unusual institution in an idyllic setting. It had been headed for years by Eliel Saarinen, and had spawned Charles Eames, among other distinguished figures. The Libeskinds moved to Michigan.
“I remember my mother telling me when she came to Cranbrook that I was the luckiest person in the world and I should stay there until my beard grew down to my knees,” Libeskind said. “Just after she said it, I said to myself, ‘This is such a trap, it’s easy to be a saint in an ivory tower, you have the delusion that this is reality.’ ”
Libeskind didn’t tell his wife that he was increasingly unhappy at Cranbrook, thinking she enjoyed it, and she didn’t tell him that she, too, was miserable. In 1985, when he told her he wanted to quit, she opened a bottle of cognac. They moved to Milan, where Daniel started a kind of alternative architecture school, the Architecture Intermundium, which he hoped would straddle the worlds of practice and the academy. “I wanted to create an alternative to both models, teaching and business practice,” Libeskind said. His work at that time, however, was heavily theoretical, virtually unbuildable, and frequently incomprehensible. Chamberworks: Architectural Meditations on the Themes of Heraclitus, for instance, a project that he produced a couple of years before he left Cranbrook, is intended to explore the connection between music and architecture. It consists of twenty-eight drawings, many of them reminiscent of the work of Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, with an energetic panache that is very much Libeskind’s own. The drawings are breathtaking, but the connection between architecture and music remains obscure (although one drawing looks like a musical score interpreted by Ronald Searle). “Architecture is neither on the inside nor the outside,” Libeskind wrote in the accompanying text. “It is not a given nor a physical fact. It has no history and it does not follow fate.”
Libeskind got a big break in 1987, when a project he designed for a competition for housing in West Berlin won first prize, and a bigger break when, the following year, Philip Johnson put it on display in his “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The project was never built, but getting into the moma show anointed Libeskind. The housing consisted of space in a structure that looked like a huge bar elevated at an angle, so that at one end it was ten stories above the street and supported on a series of angled legs. Libeskind intended it to be a comment on the Berlin Wall, as if a piece of the wall were flying into the sky, and on the relationship between order and disorder in the city. “This space of nonequilibrium—from which freedom eternally departs and toward which it moves without homecoming—constitutes a place in which architecture comes upon itself as beginning at the end,” he wrote, which indicated, among other things, that he was not very good at communicating with anyone who wasn’t an architecture student.
It was Nina who changed that. In 1989, Libeskind won another competition, for a museum of Berlin’s Jewish history. He had just accepted a position as a senior scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and the Libeskinds’ household possessions were en route to California when he went to Berlin to accept the prize. The Jewish museum had a real chance of getting built, but Nina understood immediately that there was considerable opposition to the project in Berlin, and that Daniel’s design, which was only slightly more conventional than his housing project, would be torn to pieces or abandoned altogether while he sat reading books at the Getty. “Libeskind,” she said to him, “if you want to build this, we have to stay here.” The Libeskinds reversed course and set up shop in Berlin, where they stayed for fourteen years.
For the first time in his life, Libeskind had to have an architectural office that was equipped to build buildings, not just to think about them. Nina organized it, and at that point she became her husband’s managing partner. “When Nina entered the office, I had to explain everything to her,” Libeskind said to me, recalling the days when he was trying to sell the design for the Jewish museum to people in Berlin. “She said, ‘I just see a bunch of lines, explain it to me.’ At first, I was very angry. I said she knew no architecture, this wouldn’t work. Then I started to think that if she was so intelligent and didn’t understand it, I had to draw it and explain it in a way that she would understand. That Nina did not understand architecture was a great advantage. She was not initiated into the secret language, but the public wasn’t, either.”
Nina’s fears about opposition to Daniel’s scheme for the Jewish Museum were well grounded. The mayor didn’t want to spend money on it, and Berlin’s architectural and planning establishment favored the notion that the city should be rebuilt with largely traditional structures. German skittishness about accusations of anti-Semitism meant that public criticism of the project was muted, but it was strong. Nevertheless, Nina’s political instincts and Daniel’s new mode of communication prevailed. When the museum opened, in 1999, it was one of the most talked-about pieces of architecture in the world, not only because of its unusual, zigzagging shape and narrow windows, which looked like slashes across the bright zinc façade, or its interior, which contained, among other elements, a tall, empty concrete shaft called the Holocaust Tower and a long, inaccessible void that cut through the length of the building and was crossed by catwalks. It was distinctive also because for the first two years after it opened, the museum had nothing on its walls: it was an exhibition of itself. Libeskind had not been commissioned to design a Holocaust memorial, but he had produced a de-facto one, and, in his new, help-everyone-understand mode, he made each architectural gesture a metaphor. He called the central void “the embodiment of absence,” a reminder of the emptiness the slaughter of millions of Jews had left in German culture; the garden, with its rows of twenty-foot-high concrete columns topped by vegetation, was the Garden of Exile and Emigration, honoring German Jews who fled during the Nazi years. He filled forty-eight of the columns with dirt from Berlin and one with earth from Jerusalem. From the air, the building looks something like a Star of David broken apart.
The museum has its share of architectural conceits—for example, the forty-eight columns filled with German dirt represent 1948, the year Israel was founded—but it has a purely architectural force that transcends Libeskind’s gimmicks. The disquieting spaces are dignified and powerful, and when you stand in them you do not feel manipulated by a metaphor. You feel that you are in a work of architecture that is brooding and, at its best, profound. Still, the building is hardly a complete success as museums go, despite the enormous crowds it continues to attract. Most people think it worked best when there was nothing in it. The intense, angular spaces are distracting, and it’s hard to concentrate on the artifacts they house.
Libeskind’s design for the Denver Art Museum looks like a series of metal shards, and while it is carefully composed, it seems to symbolize chaos, not order. It looks like an astonishingly beautiful explosion. In some of the sections, the walls are canted outward, so that they loom over passersby like huge prows. The building is actually an addition to the museum, which is a kind of modernist version of a medieval fortress by the Italian architect Gio Ponti. It would have been nearly impossible to add to Ponti’s eccentric work by normal standards of compatibility, so Libeskind made the only reasonable decision, which was to leave it alone and put something completely different beside it.
There are almost no walls at a ninety-degree angle in the new building, and in several of the galleries the walls converge so that the spaces end in a point. Last spring, when I was there, Daniel Kohl, the museum’s chief exhibition designer, had set up a series of large white cardboard models of the galleries, into which he was placing postage-stamp-size replicas of pictures from the museum’s collection and miniatures of sculptures, like furniture in a doll house. “Daniel didn’t give us sloped walls—he gave us incredible spaces,” Kohl said to me, pointing to a model of a gallery. “Where in the world would you get a space like that? Every one of these lines has rational rigor behind it—it’s not just a lot of crazy lines moving through space.” Kohl is in charge of designing temporary partitions that will hold much of the art, zigzagging walls inside the zigzagging space. “I’m so enamored of the architecture and the geometry that I want what we do to celebrate it, not deny what Daniel has done,” he said. Still, he struggles with how Libeskind-like he should make his partitions. “Daniel and I have talked about this—is this a duet? Am I doing harmony to his melody? He says it’s like jazz and I’m improvising off his melody line.” Libeskind walked in just then. He looked at a wall Kohl had designed for the fourth floor, the top of which was slightly canted in response to Libeskind’s raked ceiling. “I think it’s wonderful what you’ve done—it’s so subtle, it has had a great impact,” Libeskind said. “I see in what Dan has done a true generosity.” Then he was gone, whisked away to have lunch with a potential donor.
Later that day, I joined Libeskind and Kohl—along with Lewis Sharp, the museum director, and Brit Probst, the Denver architect who is serving as Libeskind’s associate on the project—on a visit to the construction site, where Libeskind was to make a final decision about what kind of titanium to use for the façade. Two ten-foot-long sample panels of metal, one with a shiny finish and the other with a duller, matte finish, had been propped up on the ground so that the architect could see how the intense Denver sunlight fell on them at the exact spot where the building would rise. Libeskind went immediately to the sample with the matte finish. “The matte one is very mysterious, almost de-materialized,” Libeskind said. “It doesn’t look as metallic somehow—it’s more subtle, precious like jewelry.”
He stepped back and tried to view it from different angles. Then he realized that the panels had been set up perpendicular to the ground, and that his building has very few perpendicular walls. “Is there any way to tip it?” he asked. Probst and Kohl each grabbed an end of the panel, which weighed nearly three hundred pounds, and they leaned it forward. Libeskind watched the color of the panel change as the light hit the metal surface less directly, and for a moment he said nothing. “It’s incredible, it’s lighter, even better this way,” he said. “It has a glow, a golden color. It is the best material in the world, like gold.”
Libeskind hesitated a moment before making a final decision, and he looked at the shinier sample. “Is Bilbao reflective or not?” he asked. Libeskind has enormous admiration for Frank Gehry, who has been important to him as a mentor, but he doesn’t like anyone to think that his work is too similar to Gehry’s. He thought about the shiny finish for a minute, and said he felt that the angular shape of the Denver museum was distinct enough from Gehry’s curving, expressionistic Guggenheim in Bilbao, and in any event he planned to set his titanium panels close together to create a surface that would appear almost seamless—entirely different from Gehry’s surface at Bilbao, which, Libeskind said, “you read as tiles, or scales.” Then he chose the matte finish.
The decision made, Libeskind took a break to walk through the museum’s big spring exhibition of the work of Pierre Bonnard, where he stared at one of the paintings so closely that he was ordered by a guard to step back or he would set off an alarm. On the way out, he and I strolled through some of the other galleries in the old building. “It is kind of retro, these boring galleries,” he said to me. “They say they are for the art, but, after room after room of it, you want something different.” Then Libeskind went to the museum’s lobby, where Lewis Sharp was hosting a cocktail party for major donors. Sharp participated in the search process that chose Libeskind from a short list of major architects that included Arata Isozaki and Thom Mayne, and when he introduced Libeskind he explained why he wanted to create a cutting-edge building. “We’ve always felt a little frustrated at the Denver Art Museum,” he said. “Our collections are of world quality, but people come here to go to the mountains and go skiing. Anyone who has any interest in the arts and architecture is now going to come to Denver and see this incredible new building.” Sharp referred to Libeskind as his “ideal collaborator.”
Libeskind spoke off the cuff for several minutes. His goal in designing the museum, he said, was “to create an ambience, an atmosphere, where art can rise to its best state. It’s not just a beautiful box with treasures—a building has to be memorable.” Instinctively dropping in a reference to the museum’s current show, he used Bonnard’s work as an analogy for the kind of building he had in mind, a building that is much more than merely functional. “Bonnard painted on a piece of canvas, but we don’t see that, or the wood frame,” Libeskind said. “We see the art.”
That evening, Sharp hosted a small dinner for the Libeskinds at Tamayo, a Mexican restaurant in the restored old buildings of Denver’s Lower Downtown. (Nina joked that she would rather watch the women’s national basketball championship on television in their hotel room. She is a passionate sports fan, and says she would have become a sportscaster if women of her generation could have done that.) Libeskind tried a margarita—he usually drinks wine—and after a few pleasantries about how well things were progressing in Denver, the conversation turned to a competition to design the expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a couple of years earlier, which Libeskind had lost to Rem Koolhaas. “We never had a chance,” Nina said, and she named a powerful Los Angeles cultural figure who visited the Libeskind office in Berlin during the museum’s search, and with whom Daniel, who seems able to get along with anybody, did not get along. Koolhaas’s scheme, which called for the destruction of most of the older buildings in the museum complex, had recently been abandoned owing to its high cost, and the Libeskinds were not shedding tears for it. “The idea that you have to destroy in order to create did not appeal to me,” Daniel said.
The rest of the evening was devoted mainly to a discussion of the difficulties the Libeskinds were having in finding a place to live in New York. Daniel wanted to be downtown, believing that it would be appropriate for them to live near Ground Zero, and Nina thought the Upper West Side might be easier for their fourteen-year-old daughter, Rachel. The Libeskinds also have two adult sons: Lev, who is twenty-five and was about to start graduate work at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts until a few weeks ago, when he decided to pursue some writing projects and work in the Libeskind studio instead; and Noam, who is twenty-three and studying cosmology at the University of Durham, in England. Daniel fretted that the West Side felt too bourgeois; he thought that a loft was more their style. Nina allowed that a bit of bourgeois living might do her some good, but she worried that they would be unable to afford anything big enough to suit their needs. She is the only one of the couple who thinks about money. Daniel once told me that he overheard her having a long discussion about the economics of running a business and, intrigued, asked her what business she was describing. “It’s yours, Libeskind,” she told him. (A couple of weeks after their trip to Denver, they settled on a loft on Hudson Street, just north of the World Trade Center site. Then, fearful that designing it would consume too much of Daniel’s time, they did an almost unheard-of thing for an architect. They hired another architect—Alexander Gorlin, who lives in the building himself—to work with them to pull the place together.)
The next morning, I rode with Daniel and Nina from their hotel across downtown Denver to the art museum. He was holding a sketch for a portion of the Ground Zero design that had been faxed from his office in London. “Nina, I need to talk to Michael about the drawing,” he said. Nina picked up her cell phone and called one of their employees, who was in Switzerland. “The opera house on Greenwich Street looks like an office building,” Libeskind said into Nina’s phone. “We don’t want this to look just like a box in shimmering shadows. It looks like a cartoon, a cliché.” He shuffled the pages and picked up another drawing. “But the Park of Heroes drawing is exactly right.” Libeskind clicked off, and turned to me. “This is a drawing that is being produced in London by a person in Switzerland for a project in New York, that has been faxed to me in Denver. What an amazing world this is.”
For several years after the Jewish Museum project got under way in Berlin, most of Studio Daniel Libeskind’s commissions were for other museums: a small museum of the work of the artist Felix Nussbaum in Osnabrück, Germany; the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, which opened last year; the Jewish Museum in San Francisco; the Danish JewisH Museum; and the addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, which, like the Victoria and Albert addition, juxtaposes crystalline glass forms against an ornate old building. (Unlike the Victoria and Albert, the Royal Ontario project is about to go into construction.) Lately, however, the Libeskind office has begun to attract other kinds of work. The firm has commissions to design a three-hundred-million-dollar hotel, retail, and convention complex outside Bern, Switzerland, a media center for the City University of Hong Kong, and an office building in Seoul. These are projects that require something different from the Libeskindesque spaces that many museum directors believe attract visitors.
Being sought after to design all kinds of buildings is a new experience for Libeskind, which may be why he tends to accept much of what comes his way. Frank Gehry says that he has warned Libeskind about being a celebrity architect. “His political savvy is ahead of his best work, and that can be dangerous,” Gehry says. Gehry’s own international celebrity, he reminded me, came after he designed the museum in Bilbao, which wasn’t finished until he was nearly seventy. “Part of me thinks he’s in over his head, and yet part of me thinks he’s such a survivor, and with her”—Nina—“he can figure it out.”
Studio Daniel Libeskind is now a large, diversified architectural practice employing a hundred and thirty-five people, with satellite offices in Toronto, London, Zurich, Bern, Tel Aviv, and Denver. Most of those offices are in spaces that the Libeskinds sublet from large firms that serve as their local partners. Until this summer, when they moved some of the staff to an office on Rector Street, overlooking Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, the main Libeskind office was in an industrial-style loft space in Berlin, where thirty people worked. The operation is a curious mixture of the casual and the corporate. Daniel didn’t have a private office in Berlin, and when he was not on the road he would wander from desk to desk, critiquing work like a professor in an architecture school. He did most of his own work at home, where he kept a library of about a thousand architecture books. (Since the Libeskinds’ new loft won’t be big enough for the library, they are making room for it in the office on Rector Street, where Daniel will have a private space, opposite Nina’s.) Most of the staff members are young and work long hours, and Nina and Daniel treat them as something between employees and apprentices. Nina likes to throw parties for them when big projects are completed, and she sometimes impulsively closes the office for a day when she thinks people have been working too hard.
When it comes to finances, however, the firm is less casual. Studio Daniel Libeskind’s rates are at the high end. Libeskind’s time is billed at three hundred dollars an hour, which is not much for a lawyer but quite respectable for an architect. Last year, the firm grossed between five and six million dollars and made a profit of roughly half a million. Of course, not all projects pay well. Nina estimated that creating the design for the Ground Zero competition cost more than seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, including the work of twenty-eight employees, model-making, half a dozen trips across the Atlantic for Daniel and Nina, and several trips for other staff members. The L.M.D.C. paid all the firms in the competition a flat fee of forty thousand dollars, and all of them lost money. Only the Libeskinds could offset the losses later with contracts from the L.M.D.C. and the Port Authority.
Last December, when the seven architectural teams that had been invited to devise plans for the former World Trade Center site presented their ideas at a televised press conference, some of the most prominent architects in the world came off as mumbling captives of technical jargon.
Libeskind, an American flag in his lapel, talked about arriving in New York as an immigrant and showed his slide of the Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty. He seemed too manipulative for some tastes, but the fact of the matter is that his scheme was very good, and in some ways brilliant. Of all the designs, Libeskind’s was the one that most seamlessly united the awesome and the everyday. He understood that people yearned for a symbol that would reflect a sense of impassioned mourning, and at the same time he recognized the urgency of rebuilding the city. Libeskind succeeded in communicating the notion that architecture—and particularly modern architecture—can have a moral component. It may not have been obvious that the sharp, angular forms he favors are the natural outgrowth of that notion, but it didn’t matter.
The dominant features of Libeskind’s proposal were the 1,776-foot tower and the exposed slurry wall—the concrete retaining wall that formed the foundation of the World Trade Center and that survived the terrorist attacks. The area where the original Twin Towers stood, their so-called “footprints,” was to be left open to a depth of seventy feet. The slurry wall would stand not only as a ruin but as a testament to survival, and the footprints would be a kind of sacred space.
Descending into that space would be a gesture of mourning. Libeskind suggested that a pair of glass structures containing museums be cantilevered over the sunken memorial area, and his plan restored Fulton and Greenwich Streets, which had been eliminated when the World Trade Center was built. He made the intersection of Fulton and Greenwich the focal point of a new neighborhood. His plan also included a performing-arts center, a number of office buildings, and a train station that would serve as a hub for the multiple subway lines in the area.
All the architects in the competition were required to include a tall element in their designs, and Libeskind chose neither a super-tall office building, which would have been difficult to rent and probably impossible to finance, nor a pure, Eiffel Tower-like symbol, which would have been far too expensive to build without some offsetting income. His notion, developed with the structural engineer Irwin Cantor, was that the tall spire and the office building would share a structural system and an elevator core. This was both practical and visually powerful. But Libeskind has had to contend with a host of critics, the most severe of whom has been Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times, who, after initially praising his scheme as “a perfect balance between aggression and desire,” turned vociferously against it in the weeks before the final selection. He called it “stunted,” “predictably kitsch,” and “demagogic.” The New York Post published an editorial titled “Control Freak,” which referred to Libeskind as “self-promoting” and “bizarre” and suggested that he should have no influence at all in deciding what should be built at Ground Zero.
The most awkward criticism of Libeskind’s plans came from Eli Attia, the architect who designed the Millenium Hilton, a glass slab just to the east of the Ground Zero site. Attia published a study suggesting that Libeskind’s Wedge of Light, a plaza at Fulton Street, was based on a fraudulent principle. Libeskind had claimed that every September 11th the sun would shine on the plaza between 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower fell. But, Attia pointed out, this would be impossible, since the Millenium Hilton was in the way. When Libeskind was asked to comment on this by the Times, he rambled on about Stonehenge and the sun as a ball of fire, and said he believed his design “is about radiating light, reflecting light, the atmosphere of light. It’s not about tricks of light but about how light behaves when you look at the sun in three-dimensional form.” For the first time, he sounded as though he didn’t know what he was talking about.
There was also trouble with the Port Authority, which had been a somewhat reluctant partner in the L.M.D.C.’s architectural competition. Port Authority officials began to talk privately about the need to have an expert in transit architecture design the central transit station. By late spring, it became clear that Libeskind would not end up with more than a consulting role in the station, and in July the Port Authority designated Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish-born architect known for his bridges and his soaring glass structures, to design the station.
Westfield, the enormous mall operator that leased the Trade Center’s retail space, wants to build something like a suburban shopping center on the site, and while Libeskind was trying to resist Westfield he was attacked by left-wing urban planners as having made the project too commercial. His master plan contains ten million square feet of office space, which is what Larry Silverstein and the Port Authority asked for, and it seemed to some people that he had simply conferred an avant-garde veneer on an immense business development. A couple of members of the L.M.D.C.’s board, Carl Weisbrod and Madelyn Wils, who represent the lower Manhattan business and residential communities, objected to the sunken memorial space, because some of their constituents don’t want to walk around it to get from Battery Park City to the subway. They thought the memorial should be moved to ground level. (The seventy-foot exposure had already been changed to thirty feet, for engineering reasons.) The L.M.D.C. defended Libeskind, however, and there appears to be almost no chance that the memorial site will be moved to ground level, or that the area will be turned into a big mall.
Building in New York City has always been a matter of money and politics as much as architecture, with predictably mediocre results. But it seemed, for a while, that the city’s usual way of doing business would be suspended during the rebuilding of Ground Zero, since public sentiment demanded something more high-minded than the conventional New York real-estate deal. Hiring Daniel Libeskind was a good start. In the last few months, however, it has become clear that Ground Zero is not going to be remade as Libeskind would wish it to be. He is being made to conform to the city’s modus operandi rather than the other way around.
The Berlin experience prepared the Libeskinds, in part, for what they are now going through, and they understand that the process of building is a struggle. “I think architecture should mean more than drawing some fantasy buildings to show in fantasy galleries,” Libeskind said one evening over dinner. We were talking about the difference between the projects of his first years as an architect, when he found it so difficult to communicate in terms that ordinary people could understand, and the work he is doing today. I asked him whether he felt his zeal to be understood was a change in direction, or even an abandonment of the philosophical bent that he had thought would dominate his career. “I don’t feel that I’ve betrayed myself,” he replied. “I do feel there is a continuity with those early drawings, but I can’t really say how.” He went on, “Did I waste my time doing it? Should I have been out there trying to build a football stadium rather than in my studio drawing all those lines? I don’t think so. But when I stopped teaching I realized you have a captive audience in an institution. People are stuck listening to you. It is easy to stand up and talk to students at Harvard, but try doing it in the marketplace. If you only speak to people who understand you, you get nowhere, you learn nothing.”
Peter Eisenman, who was one of Libeskind’s teachers at Cooper Union and later became one of his competitors for the Ground Zero commission, is, like many other architectural theoreticians, not a fan of the new, user-friendly Libeskind. “He’s changed himself from an obscure avant-gardist to a mainstream architect,” Eisenman said to me, “and what history does with that is anybody’s guess.” Nevertheless, Eisenman includes Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin in a course he teaches at Princeton on the ten most significant buildings of the past half century. “Every year, I give a two-hour lecture about that building,” he said. “I consider it one of the most important buildings of our time.”
Daniel Libeskind wants to have the impact of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but he doesn’t want to be Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “The more you do, the more you build buildings, the more you become like everyone else,” he said. “On the other hand, I didn’t work all this time to make esoteric architecture.” By accepting the demands of the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein for office space, Libeskind forfeited his claim as a visionary, but he managed to synthesize the symbolic and the commercial in a design that can still be called avant-garde, which is no small achievement. And he might get at least some of the thing built.