A first for acclaimed architect, Daniel Libeskind

Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 18 September 1993, International Herald Tribune

Daniel Libeskind is one of the top names in international architecture today. He was a finalist in the Alexanderplatz urban design contest in Berlin, winner of the competition to design Berlin’s Jewish Museum, one of seven architects selected for the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition, a visiting professor and lecturer at universities in Europe, North America and Japan, and a holder of a standing invitation to become a senior scholar at the J. Paul Getty Foundation in Los Angeles.

With all these accolades can it really be true, then, that the Jewish Museum, on which construction began in November, is the first of Libeskind’s designs that is actually being built? In fact, it is.

In an interview in his Berlin office, the 47-year-old architect explained: “I’ve designed many buildings but it’s really my first building. I’ve never been one of those architects who worked his way up from additions, renovations and buildings for the bourgeoisie.”

“I never really made the separation between architecture’s spiritual existence and as it is realized. Of course, I was wrong. I really think building is really a matter of luck or just cleverness. It’s not the only thing. But I want to stress it’s very important. It’s another stage. It’s wholly public. It’s not only for architects who can read drawings.”

For years many of those who can read drawings have been praising Libeskind’s work as visionary. Detractors, on the other hand, have called it unbuildable, on technical and financial grounds. And although the history of architecture provides many examples of prize-winning projects that never got built, it is highly unusual for an architect of Libeskind’s stature not to have had a single design realized. The Jewish Museum appears, however, to have marked a turning point.

When he won the design competition for it in 1989, Libeskind, a Polish-born Jew most of whose family was killed during the Holocaust, moved to Berlin with his wife, Nina, who is his business partner, and children to ensure that the museum would indeed be built. Although there was a debate about whether unified Berlin could afford to pay the estimated 117 million Deutsche mark ($73 million) price tag, the city’s Senate eventually decided the museum was a crucial project.

But even if it is completed on schedule in 1995, it may not be the first Libeskind building to be realized. The architect recently won a contest to design a 50,000-square-meter (538,000-square-foot) office building in Wiesbaden.

“The building represents a totally different idea of an office. It’s not a box with corridors,” he said. “It’s more like a city with many different spaces. It combines leisure aspects of work with work. It doesn’t make strong distinctions between dining rooms, cafeteria, meeting rooms and so on.” He added, “To my great fortune, the developer was on the jury. Otherwise people would have said, ‘It’s a great project but it can’t be built.'”

Libeskind expects the Wiesbaden office to be finished before the museum.

Libeskind has also been occupied with two other much talked-about German projects. Although the chairman of the jury for the redesign of Alexanderplatz, the prewar center of Berlin, derided Libeskind’s proposal as chaotic, it was one of five to enter the final phase of the competition and was awarded second prize.

The second project is of an entirely different nature. In February, Libeskind was awarded a special prize for his proposal for the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg, north of Berlin. He proposed demolishing the old SS barracks but leaving their ruins exposed in a newly created lake. The design also included a “hope incision,” buildings providing retraining facilities for the unemployed and offices for physical- and mental-health clinics as well as space for a library, archives, museum and ecumenical chapel. Libeskind aimed to create a place for those trying to rebuild Germany at a site whose “history is paradigmatic for the catastrophe of Germany and its responsibility in the future.”

The jury, however, decided that his plan would “mean a new trauma for Oranienburg” and gave first prize to the Viennese architect Hermann Czech, who proposed turning the SS barracks into an 8,000-unit housing estate. That provoked outrage among Germany’s Jewish community and others who eventually persuaded local government to exclude any housing plans. In an effort to deal with criticisms about the costs of his plan, Libeskind has altered it to use canals instead of flooding the area to create a lake, a change that, he says, is still in keeping with the spirit of his original design.

PARTLY to save money, he also transformed the design of the Jewish Museum, eliminating its original sloping walls. The building, officially called Extension to the Berlin Museum with Jewish Museum Department, is zigzag-shaped with what the architect calls a “void” or “a straight line which is empty” cutting though it.

Libeskind, whose family emigrated to Israel and who then studied architecture in New York and England, is now a U.S. citizen. He believes, however, that it was part of his destiny to work in Berlin.

Asked about the current racist violence in the country, Libeskind said: “In my case, I feel these events underscore the necessity to be here, particularly when construction on the museum is being carried out….I don’t think there’s anything that alters public attitudes more than a big public building which is part of a city. Architecture of the city has a tremendous impact on people’s thinking and attitudes.”

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