ISPA Conference & Expo
ISPA Conference & Expo
ISPA Conference & Expo

Interview

Daniel Libeskind

Renowned architect Daniel Libeskind met Kim Megson in London to reflect on some of his career-defining projects, discuss his latest commissions, and share his passion for music


The renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is planning to build a museum like no other, located on the remote shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

The site is not far from the spot where, in 1984, Leakey and his team discovered the 1.6 million-year-old Turkana Boy – the oldest and most complete early human skeleton ever found.

Now he wants to establish an attraction dedicated to no less a subject than the origins of our species. To design the museum, Leakey approached an architect who has built his reputation creating cultural institutions and public buildings that convey concepts of identity, memory and belonging.

Articulating history
Daniel Libeskind once summed up his work as “meaningful architecture that articulates history,” and few architects have so openly, and at times confrontationally, used form as he does to explore abstract ideas. His buildings – from the Jewish museums in Berlin and San Francisco to Dresden’s Military History Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto – welcome visitors into a world of sharp angles, interlocking volumes, fractures and voids.

Studio Libeskind, the New York practice the Polish-American leads alongside his wife, Nina, has over 20 major projects in the pipeline. However, it’s the Leakey museum that is occupying Libeskind’s thoughts when I meet him on a warm afternoon in London. He’s in an animated mood – his wide smile, friendly laugh and rapid-fire delivery a contrast to his trademark all-black outfit – and he’s keen to talk about the Kenya project.

“This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. When I first met Richard to discuss it, there was not a question in my mind that I wanted to be involved. He’s a true visionary and not many architects are lucky enough to work with a genius like him.”

Early design sketches for the museum complex show a footprint that echoes the shape of the African continent. A cluster of buildings, including a chamber of humanity, a planetarium and a dinosaur hall, are shaped to loosely resemble Stone Age tools and are organised around a central hall that rises 15 storeys into the sky. The museum will be built using traditional Kenyan construction methods and materials “to use local genius to create a space worthy of the theme.”

“Until about 8,000 years ago, we were all Africans. This project is about Africa, but it’s also about every human alive, contemplating what accidents of nature and what adventures brought us here, and where we’re going next,” says Libeskind.

“The site is unlike any other place in the world. It’s got a beautiful range of mountains. It’s got the desert. It’s got the lake. There’s no light pollution so you can see all the stars. My idea was to connect the building to that earth and that sky because it is all interconnected in the greater story of humankind.

“Inside, the museum is about time, but it’s also about space. We’ll use materials, proportions and spatial constructs to capture moments of revelation as people pass through the building. It’ll be as if they’re on a pilgrimage exploring the memory of humanity.”

Provoking imagination
For Libeskind, the physical presence of a museum is every bit as important as the exhibits stored inside. A favoured maxim is “a building has to be meaningful and it has to tell a story.” Perhaps his most famous museum, also his first, is the best example of this.

Twelve years passed between Libeskind completing his design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the building finally opening in 2001. When it opened, there were no exhibits inside to see, but visitors still flocked in their hundreds of thousands, drawn by the building’s emotive, visceral, divisive design.

Almost 20 years on, the space still has the capacity to shock; its zigzagging plan evokes a broken Star of David divided by “a straight line whose impenetrability becomes the central focus around which exhibitions are organised”. You enter through the city’s former Court of Justice and descend into a network of intersecting, slanting corridors and voids that connect underground with Libeskind’s museum.

“The idea for the design struck me suddenly, like a lightning bolt, the first time I visited the site,” Libeskind remembers. “In the houses and apartments next to this Baroque building, Jewish Germans had once lived. Because they were erased from the history of the city, along with many others – the Romani, political prisoners, the infirm, the sick – I sought to construct the idea that this museum is not just a physical piece of real estate. It’s not just what you see with your eyes now, but what was there before, what is below the ground and the voids that are left behind.

“I needed to explain, through the design, what Berlin once was, what it now is, and what it can be in the future. It’s not some redemptive thing and equally it’s not a finished story. It’s a museum that provokes thought and imagination, and I think that is my function as an architect.”

Memory Foundations
On 11 September, 2001, Libeskind was preparing for the public opening of the Jewish Museum later that day. By 2.30pm Berlin time, he and his team watched in horror with the rest of the world as the Twin Towers fell.

A year later he entered, and won, the high-profile ideas competition to develop the area in Lower Manhattan destroyed by the terrorist attack.

Called Memory Foundations, his masterplan had to achieve a fine balance: to mark the memory of the tragedy while fostering a vibrant working neighbourhood. In the end, half the 16-acre site was dedicated to public space, including the Memorial and the Memorial Museum. High-tech offices were planned to re-connect the historic street-grid, while the streetscape would be revitalised by above-ground retail, a transportation hub and a performing arts centre.

Over the years, the project became contentious, marred by battles and legal challenges between Libeskind and the site’s developer, Larry Silverstein. Silverstein had his own ideas about how the new towers should be built and brought in a star-studded and diverse team of architects to build them. Supporters of Libeskind’s scheme felt he was being pushed out of the process and his concepts lost.

Now though, bridges have evidently been rebuilt and Libeskind is reflective about the results, which he says are very close to his original drawings – crucially retaining his idea for large areas of public space.

“It is fantastic,” he says. “When I moved to New York from Berlin to start the project, Lower Manhattan was empty. People didn’t build, office buildings were being given away for free, people left their belongings and never wanted to come back. Now, almost quarter of a million people have moved there as a result of us creating a public space that has a dignity and interest.”

He admits he often found himself “under huge pressure”, dealing with multiple stakeholders – a carousel of mayors, governors and transport officials – while trying to do justice to the victims of the families who lost their lives in the attacks.

“There were times that were very complex and we were under high scrutiny. Every day we were criticised in the newspapers and every day somebody was photographing the garbage we were throwing out, trying to find a story. You have to have a very thick skin. But I grew up in the Bronx, and people there don’t give up so easily,” Libeskind says.

He describes the process he went through as “writing a large-scale score, and you’re the conductor, with your back to the audience. You need total precision, while also giving interpretive freedom to the musicians. Music and architecture are totally linked in my world.”

Music and architecture
As a youngster, Libeskind was a gifted musician.

“I played the accordion. I was the winner of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Prize for Music playing that strange instrument. And I played it because my parents were afraid to bring the piano to the courtyard in Poland and draw attention to us, because of the anti-Semitism they faced. It was a dark era. So they bought me the accordion, which is a piano in a suitcase. For the competition, I was the only one – out of hundreds of kids – who had their father carry their instrument because it was too heavy for me.”

Such was his prodigious talent, a 12-year-old Libeskind was advised by the violinist and conductor Isaac Stern that he had exhausted all the possibilities of the accordion and should instead master the piano. Libeskind had his doubts, and soon found a better outlet for his creativity in art and, eventually, architecture.

“I didn’t give up music,” Libeskind says. “I just changed my instrument to architecture.”

Last year, the architect was invited by Frankfurt’s opera house to create “an architectural work without architecture”. Called ‘One Day in Life’, he curated 24 hours of musical performances held across the city, with nearly 200 musicians taking part.

“We reconsecrated spaces that have never had music, like a surgical room in a hospital, the city’s big swimming pool, the stadium, the subway station. We filled them with ancient music, classical music, contemporary music. Thousands took part.

“Most people think you have to build something to be an architect, but architecture is more about bringing people into life than just material into life.”

The Kurdistan Museum
Back in 2009, Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan – Iraq’s only autonomous region – approached Libeskind through an intermediary and invited him to come up with a design for a 150,000sq ft (14,000sq m) museum. Located in the historic city of Erbil, it would be dedicated to Kurdish culture and prepared to confront the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attack on the Kurds in the 1980s.

Libeskind accepted the commission, but due to the political and religious sensitivities surrounding the project, he agreed to keep it secret. For seven years, he was only able to share details with senior members of staff. The silence was finally broken in April last year, and with the recent overthrow of Isis forces in nearby Mosul and the Kurdish people voting in favour of independence in a referendum held in September, hopes have been reignited that the project may one day proceed in an atmosphere of peace and stability.

“It was hard not to tell anyone,” Libeskind says, “because this project is not just a fantasy. We’re discussing it with experts, the clients and local authorities. It’s a very meaningful and hopeful project.”

His design is composed of four irregular sections corresponding to the four countries where most Kurds live – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – with each section taking inspiration from the respective topographical maps and population densities. The volumes are intersected by a line broken into two angular fragments, representing the past and future of Kurdistan.

“I visited the site several times to interview the people there,” Libeskind says. “It was really a genocide in our time. Saddam Hussein tried to kill all the Kurds. There were deportations, murders. Many of the same stories you hear about the Holocaust happened there too. So we have to tell this story, but we also want to include a new sense of freedom and hope to reflect the reality of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish nation, because there is an ongoing story. All my work – whether it’s the Jewish Museum, Ground Zero or the museum in Kenya – is at heart about the future.”

Democracy and design
As the conversation turns to politics, we inevitably turn to the subject of a certain Donald Trump. Libeskind is one of many high-profile architects to have hit out at the US president for his policies, particularly his attempted travel ban of citizens from several Muslim-majority countries. I ask how he assesses the political situation in America now.

“It’s a throwback to a dark time – building walls, withdrawing from agreements, isolating the country, blaming others,” he says. “But I don’t think people in America really accept it. What it has done is to mobilise many people to be interested in politics and to have a voice. That means I remain optimistic.”

If anything, he says, the political climate has only strengthened his own drive to create public buildings that can be unifying spaces, which allow people to learn about each other and to be more tolerant.

“Consensus and unity are needed to challenge the xenophobia, misogyny and fundamentalism in society. When it comes to the built environment, I think one of the biggest challenges is the lack of public participation in the design process.”

Libeskind adds: “Architecture can only thrive in a democratic environment, and that means through involving people. More than just voting whether they like it or they don’t like it, people should be actively encouraged to engage in conversations about architecture itself. I’m a true believer that given some tools and the right discourse, people are very creative. We see it in art. Why shouldn’t people have that same chance to participate in architecture?”

Nina Libeskind

Nina Libeskind manages all aspects of Studio Libeskind, from financial planning to administration and human resources, as well as public presentations, contract negotiations and communications.
She co-founded the practice with her husband, Daniel Libeskind, in 1989, after he first proposed his design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

“Nobody believed such a building could be built and so we left the meeting and stood at this crossroads,” he says.

“I said, ‘I’m going to stay in Berlin, but under one condition: you join me.’

“As she is not an architect, I had to learn how to explain my ideas. And believe me, Nina is a much harsher critic of my work than The New York Times.”
“I’ve been so lucky to have had a collaborator in my wife, who shares my values and has always supported what we’re doing. We’ve been married for 48 years, but we still end almost every night with a home-cooked meal, wine and flowers on the table.”

 / PHOTO: Amandade Beaufort
PHOTO: Amandade Beaufort

In the pipeline

Five of Studio Libeskind’s forthcoming cultural projects

The Occitanie Tower in Toulouse, France

The Occitanie Tower / Image: Luxigon
The Occitanie Tower Image: Luxigon
Set to be the first skyscraper in the city, the 150m-high tower’s curvaceous form is interrupted by a spiral of greenery that rises from street level up to the 40th floor. A Hilton hotel, commercial space for shops and a restaurant with panoramic views of the Pyrenees are among the leisure aspects of the project. Integrated into the overall form of the building, the facade and public platform is conceived as a continuous vertical landscape, inspired by the winding plant-filled waterways of the city’s Canal du Midi.

The Modern Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania

The Modern Art Center / Image: Studio Libeskind
The Modern Art Center Image: Studio Libeskind
Dedicated to the exploration of works created from 1960 to the present by Lithuanian artists, this 3,100sq m museum is set to be surrounded by a new public piazza located close to the medieval city of Vilnius. Two volumetric white concrete forms will intertwine to create a structure that flows between inside and outside. The interior courtyard will cut through the entire form and feature a dramatic staircase that leads to a public planted roof and sculpture garden. Completion is slated for 2019.

Tampere Central Deck and Arena in Tampere, Finland

Tampere Central Deck and Arena / Image: Tomorrow AB
Tampere Central Deck and Arena Image: Tomorrow AB
This urban scale development, currently in the design phase, will be built on top of existing railway tracks in the heart of the city. The mixed-use programme will include a multi-purpose ice hockey arena, four office blocks topped by residential towers, a practice field, a wellness centre and a hotel. The arena, which occupies one fifth of the complex, will have the capacity to accommodate 11,000 fans and will feature a shopping arcade, bars and restaurants at deck level.

The National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, Canada

The National Holocaust Monument Image / Doublespace Photography
The National Holocaust Monument Image Doublespace Photography
The Canadian government commissioned this permanent, national symbol that will honour and commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and recognise Canadian survivors. The Monument, which opened on 27 September, is located across from the Canadian War Museum. It is conceived as an experiential environment comprised of six triangular, concrete volumes configured to create the points of a star – a symbol that millions of Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis to identify them.


The Zhang Zhidong and Modern Industrial Museum in Wuhan, China

This museum, dedicated to Zhang Zhidong – a 19th-century leader in government who inspired the movement towards modernisation that established China’s steel industry – is nearing completion. The structure features a steel-clad, curved arc sweeping upwards, suspended by two steel and glass footings that provide space for the entrance lobby.
Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Polin Waterparks
Design, engineering, manufacturing, installation of waterslides, waterparks and waterplay attractions. Polin has perfected hundreds of exclusive and successful projects all around the world: outdoor parks, indoor parks and hotel/resort packages, regardless of the project’s size.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
Sharapova
Meis has helped design some of the world’s most successful stadiums
"It’s one of the tragedies of the US that so many of our stadiums get replaced after 20 years"

The Everton and AS Roma stadium architect talks through the challenges and rewards of sports facility design

The 85m-high sloped roof at the Amager Resource Center doubles as a ski slope
Brian Yang
"You can be an intern on your first day and be expected to contribute to the design conversation. That’s something driven strongly by Bjarke."

How the idea of putting a ski slope on a factory roof was born

Aman Spa facilities include treatment rooms, relaxation rooms, studios, and two bathing suites available for exclusive use for up to eight guests
"This carefully choreographed interplay of room and courtyard extends through all scales of the masterplan"

The desire to save a threatened forest and historic buildings in China led to a truly unique resort, We speak to the people that made it happen

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
The new town square features a 
circular town hall designed by 
Danish architect Henning Larsen. 
The historic clock tower will be moved from its existing location and rebuilt
Viktoria Walldin
"how often do you get to move a whole town?"

White Arkitekter’s Monica von Schmalensee on how culture and leisure are central to plans to move the Swedish town of Kiruna to stop it being swallowed by its mine

Enea is responsible for the landscaping at the Genesis resort in Beijing. A Bulgari Hotel has just opened there
ENZO ENEA
"Sociology and functionality are the two most important aspects when we design – how an individual lives and interacts"

On saving trees, working with Zaha Hadid and changing the face of Miami

features
The Vo Trong Nghia-designed Roc Von restaurant opened in rural Vietnam earlier this year
"Without green design we’re finished"

Pushing green design practices and caring for the natural world

The museum’s first exhibition, Never-part, gathers stories told by Palestinians about their treasured possessions, investigating the connections between material objects and personal and collective identity
"This museum is not about being stuck in the past. It’s about inspiring the younger generation"

Kath Hudson takes a look at the many challenges of designing and building the Palestinian Museum on the West Bank ahead of its summer opening

The rooms, which were previously uniform in appearance, now each have their own identity
Jacu Strauss acted as creative director on the restoration of the hotel
"We were able to start from scratch and have the hotel create its own brand identity"

As the Pulizter Amsterdam is relaunched, creative director Jacu Strauss talks about working in a UNESCO World Heritage location

cladkit product news
Fabio Alemanno Design uses elegant semi-precious stones to create memorable spa experiences
Alemanno believes the stones are well-placed in the spa environment thanks to their capacity to positively support physical and mental health
Megan Whitby
Fabio Alemanno Design has expanded its collection with semi-precious stones to enhance spas, wellness facilities, hotels and private residences. The ...
Jaffe Holden helps bring Academy Museum of Motion Pictures alive
Jaffe Holden provided architectural acoustics for the Academy Museum
Magali Robathan
Acoustical consulting firm Jaffe Holden provided architectural acoustics and audio/video design services for the recently opened Academy Museum of Motion ...
Mather & Co and ITV unite to create Coronation Street Experience
Mather & Co has transformed the visitor centre into the ultimate haven for ardent Coronation Street viewers
Magali Robathan
Experience designers, Mather & Co, have orchestrated a remarkable collaboration with ITV to unveil the new Coronation Street Experience, a ...
cladkit product news
Alberto Apostoli designs tech-forward Wellness Therapy furniture collection for Varaschin
The furniture collection draws on absolute geometries, pure lines, neutral colours and strong references to nature
Megan Whitby
Furniture manufacturer Varaschin has unveiled the new Wellness Therapy range, designed by Italian spa and wellness architect and designer Alberto ...
Alberto Apostoli and Newform collaborate to launch the A.Zeta showerhead
The showerhead offers two modes; rainfall or waterfall
Megan Whitby
Italian architect Alberto Apostoli has renewed his partnership with Newform – an Italian wellness company – and designed A.Zeta. A.Zeta ...
Koto Design introduces wood-fired hot tub
Koto is known for crafting modular, energy-neutral cabins and homes
Katie Barnes
A striking wood-fired hot tub has been unveiled by Koto, an architecture and design studio which has a passion for ...
cladkit product news
Eden project uses drones to spell out climate change warning
Magali Robathan
Almost 300 drones were used to signal an environmental message above the Eden Project’s biomes, during the UN Climate Change ...
Siminetti unveils iridescent decorative panelling range inspired by plants
The Clematis design
Megan Whitby
The Botanicals is Siminetti’s newest Mother of Pearl decorative panelling collection, inspired by the distinctive patterns found in botany and ...
Codelocks develops new glass door smart lock
The new lock model allows facilities and building managers to create and manage access via an app or online portal
Megan Whitby
Codelocks has launched its first glass door smart lock to bring intelligent access control to modern spa, leisure, fitness and ...
x
Email this to a friend or colleague
I am happy for Leisure Media to contact me occasionally by email and understand that I can opt out at any time.
Interview: Daniel Libeskind
Daniel Libeskind on how his buildings explore mood, memory and identity
ISPA Conference & Expo
ISPA Conference & Expo