CLAD interview

Daniel Libeskind

The renowned architect reflects on the defining museum projects of his career


You’re working with paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey on a museum about human evolution. What can you tell us?
The museum is one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on. When I met Richard to discuss it, there was not a question in my mind that I wanted to be involved. He’s a visionary and not many architects are lucky enough to work with a genius like him.

The site, on the banks of Lake Turkana in the Kenyan desert, is unlike any other place. It’s got a beautiful range of mountains, the desert, 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.

What challenges do you foresee?
The challenges are huge – how to present that entire history through a spatial experience. And it is not just a standalone building; it is a developing city. It’s 400 miles north of Nairobi, near the border with Ethiopia. There’s oil, a growing population. It’s a seed of a city, which will develop.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin – its zigzagging plan evoking a broken Star of David – still has the capacity to shock. How did you reach this idea?
The idea for the design struck me suddenly, like a lightning bolt, the first time I visited the site. I realised that in the houses and apartments next to this Baroque building, Jewish Germans had once lived. And 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 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, your master plan for Ground Zero and the World Trade Center in New York, has been a long and complicated journey. Would you take on another project like that?
Look, my first project was the Jewish Museum and I won the competition in 1989. That building, believe it or not, was to open 11 September, 2001. That day. I told my colleagues how I was happy that I didn’t really have to think about the museum any more. And of course, the news of the attacks in New York came in. The museum opening was delayed for three days. I realised you can never know what history is.

The process became contentious, but how do you feel now?
The result is fantastic. It’s very close to my drawings. I was very practical in the way I planned it. I didn’t compose a mega structure. I proposed to put the buildings on the periphery of the site and make the most of the public space and put the buildings in a descending series, from Freedom Tower, Tower Number One, 7076, down to building number four. That is what has happened.

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, quarter of a million people have moved there as a result of us creating a public space that has a dignity and interest.

We were criticised in the newspapers. Every day, somebody was photographing the garbage we threw out, trying to find a story. You need a thick skin. But I grew up in the Bronx; people there don’t give up easily.

Is that resilience something you learn on the job?
You have to have a collaborator. I’ve been so lucky to have a collaborator in my wife, who shares my values and has always supported what we’re doing. She has worked with me running Studio Libeskind since the beginning. We’ve been married for 48 years. She is a fantastic chef. We end almost every night with a three course meal at home and a bottle of wine. She’s not an architect, but believe me, she is a much harsher critic of my work than the New York Times.

Daniel Libeskind was interviewed by Kim Megson.

Read the full article in CLADmag issue 4 2017

Libeskind’s Museums

Kurdistan Museum
Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
Expected opening: TBC
A planned museum dedicated to Kurdish culture and the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attack on the Kurds in the 1980s

Human Evolution Museum
Lake Turkana, Kenya
Expected opening: TBC
Early sketches 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. The museum will be built using traditional Kenyan construction methods and materials

Amsterdam Holocaust Memorial
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Expected opening: 2019

Modern Art Museum
Vilnius, Lithuania
Expected opening: 2019
Dedicated to the modern Lithuanian artists, the museum will feature a new public piazza, interior courtyard and a dramatic staircase leading to a public planted roof and sculpture garden

Zhang Zhidong and Modern Industrial Museum
Wuhan, China
Expected opening: 2018

Military History Museum
Dresden, Germany
Opened: 2011

Contemporary Jewish Museum (extension)
San Francisco, California
Extension opened: 2008

Royal Ontario Museum (extension)
Toronto, Canada
Extension opened: 2007
The extension is known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal and it’s inspired by the crystalline forms in the museum’s mineralogy galleries

Denver Art Museum (extension)
Denver, Colorado
Extension opened: 2006
The Frederic C Hamilton Building, which doubled the size of the facility, serves as the main entrance to the rest of the museum. The design was inspired by the sharp angles of the nearby Rocky Mountains.

Danish Jewish Museum
Copenhagen, Denmark
Opened: 2004

Imperial War Museum North
Greater Manchester, UK
Opened: 2002

Jewish Museum Berlin
Berlin, Germany
Opened: 2001
When the museum opened, there were no exhibits inside, but visitors still flocked in their hundreds of thousands, drawn by the building’s emotive, visceral, divisive design

Kurdistan Museum, Erbil, Kurdistan / PHOTO: HayesDavidson
Kurdistan Museum, Erbil, Kurdistan PHOTO: HayesDavidson
Modern Art Museum, Vilnius, Lithuania / PHOTO: Studio Libeskind
Modern Art Museum, Vilnius, Lithuania PHOTO: Studio Libeskind
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada / PHOTO: Royal Ontario Museum
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada PHOTO: Royal Ontario Museum
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company profile
Company profile: Robert D. Henry Architects + Interiors
Robert D Henry Architects (RDH-Architects) was founded in 1990 in New York City by Bob Henry, known as the “sensuous architect of serenity.”
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