Daniel Libeskind is an architect and artist of international renown. He has designed buildings and other projects in cities throughout the world: New York and Berlin; Dublin, Denver and Dresden; Copenhagen and Manchester; and many more. Daniel kindly agreed to do this interview for normblog, and I'm honoured to be posting it here today.
1. Your parents were Holocaust survivors. Can you tell us a little about what happened to them and to your wider family during World War II? Do you see any large parental influence on the course of your life and on your artistic work?
My parents lived for the first few months of the war under the Nazi occupation of Poland and then, separately, escaped to Russia. They were immediately arrested; my father sent to work camps on the Volga and my mother to the Gulags of Siberia. When the Russians were forced by the Allies to release the Poles who refused to take Russian citizenship, most Jews, amongst them my parents, fled to remote provinces of the Soviet Union – as far away as possible from the war zone. My parents met in Samarkhan, married, and made their way to Kirgistan, where my sister was born in 1943. At the conclusion of the war in Europe, my parents journeyed by slow train back to Lodz in Poland, having little to no knowledge of what had transpired over the previous three years. I was born in post-war Lodz in 1946. My parents discovered that virtually all of their family had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Growing up in Communist Poland as a Jew, with parents who were not assimilated or Communist, was not easy. And of course, my sister and I had no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Our life was culturally vibrant but, in terms of extended family, desolate. For sure, this environment had a great influence on both my parents and me. Memory and history formed the basis upon which I thought about architecture and realized architectural projects. When I began to study architecture in New York at the Cooper Union, I realized how important those formative years in Poland were to the outlook and direction of my work.
2. How important to you is your Jewish heritage? Has it had a significant influence on your work?
I have never felt that I could divide who I am from what I do. Those years in Poland, followed by two-plus years in Israel and then New York City, are all framed by Jewish thinking, Jewish tenets and Jewish heritage. I often wonder if there's such a thing as 'Jewish architecture'. The conclusion for me, at least, is that it's not just about a building housing a Jewish organization or synagogue or college with a sign above the door. It is more about how one approaches a project and how to incorporate, within the built form, ideas about remembrance, history, aspirations, optimism and hope. That is why, I guess, many of my buildings are so fully expressive; whether they be cultural, public, residential or commercial ones. Each project site tells a story and even if the history of the ground is not self-evident in its real estate, I try to 'listen' to the site; listen to those who had been there before and listen to those voices that will come after.
3. You have said more than once that a spirit of optimism is essential in creating new buildings. Could you enlarge on that?
By its very nature, architecture is an art of optimism. Music can be written in a minor and melancholic key; writers can write of despair and tragedy; film-makers can produce films which are dark and apocalyptic; but the mere act of constructing a building is one that propels you into a better future. As I draw and sketch, and then see physical models and computer renderings emerge, I am constantly reminded of how consequent every line must be. Before millions of dollars are committed, and years of many people's lives, you have to know, really know, that the building that results from all the money and effort will be worth the investment, will be a source of pride, and will far outlive you. In the end, architecture, in a way, is built on faith.
4. Must there be an ethical dimension in architectural creation, and if so how would you characterize it?
Of course there has to be an ethical dimension – in all areas of life, including one's work - in my case, an architectural practice. I am not a moralist, but I do believe that one has to stand up for what one believes, within a political context. I have chosen to work in certain countries and not in all countries. Personally, I am particularly interested in emerging democracies; those countries which may be struggling, but are nonetheless aspiring to create a society with democracy, liberty and social justice. I would find it very hard to stand up and describe a project and advocate for a project in a country which did not share certain fundamental values which I believe in. That is not to say, of course, that political systems can't change or that any country is perfect. But I think that everyone has a choice that they can make.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin
5. You were trained as a musician. Do you think this has affected your approach to architecture?
I never really thought that I ever left music! Music and architecture are so integrally intertwined; the composition of music has a score with lines and notes which are completely precise. Similarly, architectural drawings are a kind of score with lines and points and openings; these, too, have to be completely precise and accurate. Both music and architecture need a large group to make them possible; to bring music to the ear and architecture to the sky. Architecture is, of course, also sensitive to acoustics and to balance, which, we all know, comes from the inner ear. I have always been intensely interested in the sounds that a site emits. In the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the last Void, which I call the 'Memory Void', was my architectural attempt to complete the music of Arnold Schoenberg's 'Moses and Aaron'. Schoenberg composed this piece while he was still living in Berlin. But then, after his flight from the Nazis and his exile to America, he could not finish the music of the last movement of the opera. So I tried to complete that opera with the music of the footsteps and whispers of those visitors to the Void.
Both architecture and music are arts which, if done properly, should affect one's emotions. Music is totally abstract but what we hear touches not only our intellect but our hearts. Architecture has the opportunity to touch at our spirit and our soul.
6. Is it accurate to describe your work as deconstructivist, and what does this mean to you?
Deconstructivism has a profound meaning in philosophy, literary theory, legal studies and so forth. However, in architecture, although this word has been used in a ground-breaking exhibition in which my work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, I believe it is not a good term. Deconstructivism implies the taking apart and redistributing of structure, whereas in architecture it is all about construction. The term 'Decontructivism' has to be used with great caution when applied to architecture, and I personally don't feel it's a helpful term. At the same time, deconstructivism opened up the world of architecture to expressive forms. And I am a believer in the expressive.
7. In the light of the Holocaust and other humanly-created catastrophes, isn't the spirit of optimism bound to be qualified?
It is precisely because of the catastrophes that befell the world in the 20th century (of which the Holocaust is surely the culmination) that there has to be a way forward that reaffirms humanity. The 20th century showed the dead ends, which denied the individual, through ideologies of both the left and right. These ideologies dehumanized reality by use of violence to create the future, and created a general loss of liberty in the world. In face of these facts the way forward is to reaffirm the sanctity and humanity of life, which we better appreciate by understanding and never forgetting the realities of the 20th century.
8. You have referred in earlier interviews to the difficulties posed by the project of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Could you say what some of them were?
There were many difficulties posed by creating a Jewish Museum in Berlin. Initially, right after I won the competition, there was opposition; particularly to my design, which was neither sentimental nor nostalgic about a vanished Jewish culture in Berlin. However, the debate which began in Berlin in 1989 and continued until the building was almost finished, was one which dealt with the question of how to address the new capital of Germany, with regard not only to the Holocaust but also to the two-thousand-year-old Jewish history of Germany. There was a point in 1991 where the Senate of Berlin voted unanimously to scrap the project because money was needed for building infrastructure in the now-unified Berlin and for an Olympic bid and so forth. These obstacles to the building of the Jewish Museum were not minor ones and required many debates and worldwide discussion to create a consensus that the Jewish Museum was a key and integral component of developing the German capital of the future.
9. Could you also say something of the difficulties, as you perceived them, of the 9/11 memorial?
At Ground Zero there were initially many different voices: emotional, political, urbanistic, and architectural. Tensions existed between the shareholders, the Port Authority, the developer, the Governors of New York and New Jersey, the Mayor and the families. There were questions about what should be built on the site and how it should be planned. Perhaps the most fundamental difficulty for many was the fact that my master plan left almost half of the Ground Zero site for the memorial and public space, believing that the site was no longer simply a piece of real estate but a place of memory to reflect on the future. This thought had to garner support from many competing factions, who did not see the site in the same way I did. Ultimately, the difficulties were overcome by the master plan in proposing to bridge memory and the future of New York by laying memory foundations. The master plan I believe ultimately presented an exciting future for New York City in a way that also provided a balance between the memorial within a neighbourhood of vitality and optimism.
One of the two memorial pools for 9/11
10. In your TED lecture you say that architecture is the asking of questions. Why is it?
We have seen the positivist and technocratic notions of architecture as an engineering of social reality and the failure of it. Contrary to this I believe architecture, just like science, philosophy and art itself should be directed to ask fundamental questions and refrain from giving false answers. Questions in architecture can be raised in terms of the horizon it offers and the light that befalls it and the connections between past, present and future. In this sense, architecture can become, once again (though always part of technology), the true centre of the humanities.
11. What is your relationship to Israel? Are you hopeful about its future?
I always felt that I was fortunate enough to experience two paradises - Israel and America! I have a very close relationship to Israel. It is still a young country which has faced numerous difficulties in its short existence. However, I am hopeful that this nascent nation, despite its geographic location and problems both internally and externally, will continue to grow and be a positive force for good and democracy in the region.
12. You have spoken on one occasion of the freedom represented by America to everyone in the world. Can you enlarge on this, please – especially in view of the fact that not everyone, I think, would agree with it.
While not everyone may agree, or like American policies, the United States is a country of extraordinary ideals which affirm freedom and liberty.
World Trade Center and Memorial