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By Heidi Kingstone
Daniel Libeskind emits a little laugh when asked how he feels about having been called architecture’s Pol Pot. Not only is he untroubled by the comparison, which was made by the Times of London, he notes that the same editorial lumped him together with Mao Zedong and Jean Paul Satre. All three, according to the generally sanguine paper, bear responsibility for wrecking modern culture.
The Times’ attack came in reaction to Libeskind’s winning entry in an architectural competition for an extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of London‘s great landmarks. Of the vast number of articles that appeared in the deeply traditional British press dissecting the pros and cons of the Spiral, as the controversial extension to the museum of design is known, a fair number, amazingly, have embraced Libeskind’s radical plan, which planning authorities in London’s Kensington and Chelsea districts fought vehemently.
In Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, the mood has been for change. The Spiral, slated to cost 75 million pounds sterling won the competition but only months after did it receive planning permission. A layman with some imagination might describe the uniquely radical design as an explosion of irregularly shaped cubes. Its supporters hope it will put the British capital on the world architectural map, much as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim transformed the undistinguished Spanish industrial town of Bilbao and the Opera House which has come to symbolize Sydney Australia.
Libeskind, the wunderkind who is still in his 50s, came into the limelight over a decade ago by winning the competition for the design – his first- of Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The stark, lightning bolt-shaped building, also representing a broken Star of David, opened in the 2002. Libeskind also designed the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabruck, Germany, which Time magazine selected as one of 1998’s 10 best design achievements and called it a ‘masterpiece of contemporary architecture.”. It is based on a system of interrelated lines, symbolizing Nussbaum’s exile and his search for orientation.
As former head of the architecture department at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy and a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Yale and other schools, Libeskind has inspired a generation of young designers. Today, the dozens of architects he employs are at work on such projects as the new Imperial War Museum in Manchester, the Bremen Philharmonic Hall, an extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, San Francisco’s new Jewish Museum and has recently had the winning design for the World Trade Center site in New York. Dressed in the architect’s requisite black – black collarless shirt, black shoes, black pants, black jacket, black watch and only a hint of very fine silver on his minimalist black belt and almost rimless glasses- even Libeskind’s once blond hair, now liberally peppered with silver, is the right shade of grey.
His accent remains elusive, which has much to do with the peripatetic nature of his life. Born in Lodz, Poland, Libeskind moved with his parents and sister to Israel in the late 1950s. After four difficult years, the family moved to the United States where Libeskind’s father’s only surviving sibling out of 11 had ended up. The son has continued as a vagabond, moving family and home 14 times back and forth across the ocean.
The American years have given Libeskind an open and unpretentious manner. His speech comes out in rapid gunfire fashion, as if there is too much to say, too little time. A deep thinker, he is almost evangelical in his passion and delivery, as he summarizes his philosophy of architectural:
“Being a Jewish architect means that I bring to my work a way of understanding the world that has to do with humanity and how human beings are related to one another. It is the driving motive of my work. It has to do with form and space and proportion and all these things. Architecture is about community and memories and a certain future that is tied to it. It is also something that contains all our desires and dreams and aspirations.” Libeskind moved to Berlin when he took on the Jewish Museum project. It was a difficult decision for him as a Jews, and one that alienated him from much of his wife’s family and some of his own, although he says his father understood. He remained in Germany until the museum was fully installed. With the commission for the Spiral, he spent more time in London. And now with the New York City commission, that city will probably become home. He looks on his stay in Germany as a mission. In less than a decade he has become a public figure there, one whose views on Jewish culture are sought, from the Chancellor down. This, too, has made him an easy target; when he first arrived the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, in a deeply anti Semitic article, accused him of being an Israeli agent, partly because he does not blend in, and speaks about things the Germans find uncomfortable.
Despite the importance he attributes to place, Libeskind has, as noted, never really put down roots, preferring to traverse the world with his Canadian born wife Nina, his business partner and manager, whose father, David Lewis, once lead Canadian’s socialist party, the New Democrats. The two met as kids at a Yiddish-speaking summer camp in New York State. Today, they have three children, the oldest is in the mid twenties.
Libeskind’s mother, an anarchist descended from Hassidic aristocracy, escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland only to be rearrested in the Soviet Union, and was promptly dispatched to a gulag. His father, a Jewish socialist Bund member, who came from an extremely poor working-class background, also escaped Poland and spend the war in a camp on the Volga. The couple met on the China-Tibet border as they moved east, trying to escape. Eventually they returned to Lodz, only to discover the full horror and devastation of the Holocaust. It was in Poland that Daniel was born, and where he lived until age seven. There are likely even a few Poles who still recall him as a musical wunderkind, one of the first performers on Polish TV. “I started playing the accordion when I was six, which is a joke in itself,” says Libeskind, who actually used his earnings from his playing to help support his family. He even played New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“There were many contradictions,” he says of the accordion. “It’s a very bizarre instrument on which to play classical music. My parents told me this story of why I played the accordion instead of the piano, which was what I wanted. They were too afraid to bring the piano through our courtyard in Poland, because of the anti-Semitism. They were just physically afraid to bring a large object into the house.””
Libeskind could have pursued a career as a musician having won the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Award for music in Tel Aviv, playing Toccata in D-Minor by Bach and Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov- on the accordion. There cannot be many world class architects who can also claim to have won a music prize judged by Isaac Stern, with Itzhak Perlman as a fellow finalist.
Libeskind takes every question from this reporter with complete equanimity until he is asked if he has ever returned to Poland. Suddenly the animated Libeskind seems stunned, literally at a loss for words. Finally, he says” “I haven’t dared to go back, but maybe I will one day.” His father has, perhaps three times. “He grew up there and has good memories.”
He was willing to live in Germany, but hasn’t allowed himself to even visit Poland? Libeskind explains. “Germany has made an attempt to acknowledge its role vis-a vis Jews: Poland has not. I seem still to have an ambivalent relationship with the country I was born in.”
Regardless, Poland continues to remain part of this world citizen. For one, it’s marked in his US passport as his place of birth. And when he won the competition for the Spiral, the British tabloids screeched, Polish architect wins over Brit.. Would he like to build something there? “It’s very abstract question,” he says vaguely. In fact, a few Decembers ago in New York, the Polish government awarded him an honor as a Polish architect, although he has been a US citizen since 1965. “Reality,” he says, presumably referring as much to the totality of forces that have affected his life as to the irony of the Polish decision, “is what you cannot control.”
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|Print article||This entry was posted by Barbara Kingstone on January 17, 2011 at 10:26 pm, and is filed under Europe. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|