It’s crass. The shabby seating area, a carpet that’s seen better days, two wobbly tables – a motley ensemble, carelessly thrown together. A gigantic plant blocks the large window sloping across the corner that might have let some daylight into this unconventional space between two university buildings. Daniel Libeskind is all smiling dismissal: “That’s architecture. Afterlife. You build something and that’s it.”
Walking through the first story of his small extension to London Metropolitan University completed in 2004, he presents it to me now, in 2016. The architecture is the most down-to-earth of all the arts, he tells me – full of compromises. As a composer, say, he would have an easier time of it. Composers are free to do as they please. And that’s how things almost turned out for him: In his youth, Libeskind was an extremely talented musician. His instrument? The accordion.
The accordion… of all things!
We were still living in Łódź at the time. With the suspicious eyes of our anti-Semitic neighbors on us, my parents did not want to bring a piano to the courtyard. So what I got was a mini-piano in a suitcase.
You achieved a certain degree of virtuosity on the accordion. Why did you stop playing?
When I was 12, I won a scholarship. The famous violinist Isaac Stern was one of the jury members. He took me aside and said: You need to change instrument now, you’ve already exhausted all the possibilities of this one. My entire future fell apart! But he was right. And that’s how I came to architecture.
Your concert project One Day in Life is coming up in Frankfurt any day now. The musicians will be playing in all kinds of venues, including a moving tram, a swimming pool, and an operating room…
It’s a displacement of habituality. You come back to places you’re familiar with but hardly notice anymore. Then you hear music that normally wouldn’t be there. That might give you a different perspective on everything else. It alters your sense of orientation. For sure.
Couldn’t people just wear headphones while walking in the city?
Sure, but then they’d be cut off from the world. The sounds of a city are music, too! I have very good headphones at home, but I hardly use them. If I’m listening to a symphony and a fire engine passes by, that’s all part of the listening experience to me. You can tell every city by its sound.
You always have a number of projects on the go at once. Do you ever actually get to listen to any music?
My mornings always begin with music! I make coffee for my wife and myself; then I pick something from my collection or from Spotify and spend around an hour listening. For me, it’s not just background, but an activity – and it makes a difference to the entire day.
In the evening, they listen to jazz. His wife, Nina, likes to cook five-course meals even when she doesn’t expect him home much before ten. Then they light candles and enjoy a glass of wine. Sometimes, when daughter Rachel brings friends home, they ask what the pair are celebrating. Perfect harmony? Nina, says Libeskind with evident pride, is his exact opposite. What she likes, he tends to find terrible – and vice versa. And that’s exactly how it should be, he says. “I have never understood how people who never fight can live together.”
You have to imbue the spirit of the earth
When Libeskind laughs, his eyes almost close completely. And he likes to laugh. The hugely successful architect is friendliness itself and a thorough optimist. Even at 69, he finds it hard to suppress a certain childlike euphoria – which sends his voice curving upward. Not that he is one to avoid a battle when the cause requires. And there’s usually trouble brewing somewhere because even in the buildings he designs, Libeskind aims to take people out of their comfort zone.
The most frequent criticism: His distinctive buildings burst in on evolved structures like foreign bodies. Although Libeskind indeed has little time for misplaced nostalgia, he would not want to force something alien on a place; he has no desire to conquer. That’s why, at the very start of a project, he pays a lengthy visit to the proposed site, and the way Libeskind describes it, there’s almost an air of ceremony to it. “You have to somehow imbue the spirit of the earth, put your head into the place, get into the vibrations,” he says, searching for words that won’t sound all too nebulous. “I have to experience some kind of revelation.” If he doesn’t, he turns down the job.
You see yourself as a recipient?
Oh yes! Many people think that ideas come from within us. But that’s not the way it is. They come from the place. And you can’t force it. Scientists in Harvard once tried to determine exactly what innovation was. They failed because only the opposite can really be defined: imitation. When I design a building, I try not to imitate, but instead create an experience in which things are slightly shifted.
Your style has become very distinctive, as a result. Are you sometimes worried about imitating yourself?
Losing one’s naivety is the biggest threat. When I started out, I did not know how a window is made. So I thought: Why don’t I turn that by three degrees to get a different view? When you’ve made thousands of windows, you have more experience, of course, but your creativity may suffer. Particularly the experts know everything. Don’t listen to them!
How do you preserve your naivety?
I try not to spend too much time thinking and preparing. Just do something! That may sound primitive, but it’s true. Computers are wonderful tools that can give you 1000 designs in just ten minutes, but they only simulate – they reveal nothing.
For an architect battling nostalgia, that’s sounds remarkably old school…
I am old school. And new school! Some things don’t get old. I can draw a line in the sand with a stick or on an iPad with my finger. But that one line, however humble, is already the origin of architecture.
Libeskind usually starts drawing on that first visit to a site. It’s often just a simple thought that needs to be captured immediately, on a notepad, an air ticket, a newspaper, on the page of a book – “whatever works.” Little by little, he develops the idea, and later creates modest, small paper models.
When Libeskind emigrated to New York with his parents in 1960, he was assigned to a remedial class because he didn’t speak the language and given typing lessons so that he would be able to find an office job. He has nursed a profound aversion to all things mechanical ever since – even to computers. And for all the technical advances that have been made, he says, ultimately architecture is about one thing and one thing only: Each of us needs a place for ourselves.
People are on the move more than ever these days; cities are rapidly growing. What can be done?
I’ve been an immigrant all my life – my parents, too. We have to learn that we are not owners of the world or the city we live in. We are all only passing through.
But that doesn’t provide today’s refugees with a roof over their head…
What we need is a good plan: How can we give these people a place where they can live in dignity? How can we integrate them? And that has a lot to do with bringing them into the center of the city. They should not disappear without trace in the outskirts.
But it’s the cities that are getting more and more crowded.
Density is the greatest challenge architects face. There’s a real boom going on in the centers of Manhattan, Paris and elsewhere these days, but who can afford the prices? Not the people who work there, but global corporations. Glossy buildings do not make a good city.
What would your master plan look like?
I already have one – for Yongsan, a neighborhood in Seoul. The city is 700 years old, so you cannot simply impose a new artificial grid. I took what had evolved historically, but created a new idea of the city: a very high density of life, work, culture and transport, all connected by parks. People need open spaces to encounter each other.
Cities are exhausting. Why are so many people drawn to them?
It’s not only because of the jobs. We would still live in villages if there was not an natural impulse to gather. And gathering is: culture. I think it was Leonardo da Vinci who said that small spaces make us intelligent – because we have to think about where we are and what we are doing.
Although the furnishings of his apartment in Manhattan are on the sparse side, says Libeskind, he has plenty of books and CDs there – as many, at least, as his wife allows. And there are flowers. Lots of flowers. He goes to the florist’s several times a week and simply asks for the freshest specimens, because to this day he knows their names only in Polish. So, Libeskind has in no way renounced color – his uniform notwithstanding: black glasses, black top, black pants, light-black leather jacket.
At a reception given by the U.S. Secretary of State, a woman belonging to the diplomatic corps recently took him for a priest, he says, laughing, “and in a way, we architects are priests.” Be that as it may – Libeskind does not have to waste a thought on matching colors, perfect patterns or proper footwear. He always wears cowboy boots; “It’s very liberating.” The first question on any given day is not: What shall I put on? But rather: What music will I listen to today?