Stephen Gardiner

From the Bottom Up

Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture

By

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This is an important and interesting book; important because it gives an insight into how Daniel Libeskind’s imagination works and what the sources are that drive it, and interesting because of the originality of his architectural ideas. It is, moreover, far from the kind of autobiography one might expect from an architect – a chronological list of commissions, plans, buildings, and awards. There is nothing conventional here, and plenty that’s packed with feeling, in particular the author’s love of family and of the art to which he has devoted his life. At times, it’s as though one is in the presence of a polished conjuror doing fascinating tricks with a pack of cards, making incidents in his life, and in the world, appear and disappear, effortlessly managing to evoke the terrors of the Holocaust, the family’s travels from Poland to Israel to the United States, and his struggles with committees, most notably those he has had to confront on his latest work, his magnificent winning proposal for Ground Zero in New York City.

Libeskind was born in Lodz in 1946 to Jewish parents, and, while they escaped the monstrous massacre, relations of theirs did not, a fact that underlies much of his work, and especially his Jewish Museum in Berlin. Amazingly, he says that his first building was completed when he was fifty-two. The Jewish Museum was finished when he was fifty-five, and in it he captures, in a literal and truly frightening form, an image of the terrible plight of the Nazis’ victims. This he does by creating, separate from the main body of the Museum, the Holocaust Tower, containing a space he calls the Memory Void, from which there is no clear way out, and which is only dimly lit by a slit of glass high in the flat roof above. This huge, very tall white concrete shaft stands by the Museum like a tombstone, coldly commemorating the millions of dead, dominating the foreground.

Although he had such a late start as an architect, by the time he had reached the age of fifty-eight in 2004 Libeskind had built two further museums – as well as, in 2001, a single pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens, a small yet exceedingly prestigious commission which received immense publicity – and had thirty-five other projects under construction around the world. As he says, he’s a lucky man, but only on account of a unique flair and energy, which led him to be a competition winner. And, despite his luck, it has not always been easy for him to see his work built. At one point, for instance, having settled in Berlin in 1989 to start getting the Jewish Museum off the ground, he was suddenly informed that the project was to be scrapped. The decision was subsequently overturned by the Parliament of Berlin, a victory for the courage of Libeskind and the energy of his wife, Nina. It seems there were many problems, whether to do with bias, prejudice or jealousy, that he had to overcome. The building was finally opened on 10 September 2001, the day before the Twin Towers catastrophe, which led to the biggest battle of his life so far.

Libeskind’s story is indeed an extraordinary one, of an architect who resembles an artist of the past, at times vividly reminding me of the great sculptor Jacob Epstein, also an American Jew of Polish origin, also a New Yorker, and a man who, like Libeskind, broke all the established rules of his profession and took sole responsibility for the conception of his commissions. With Libeskind, a building is his building, not the work of someone in his office for which he is taking the credit. One has the impression of a creator who is unstoppable: if he’s not solving architectural problems, he is teaching, in charge of departments at universities; he held a glamorous post at the Getty Center when he won the Jewish Museum competition in 1989, and in the mid-1990s he won three competitions in a row, all in Germany. No wonder he was taken up and became a worldwide name, and was commissioned to design the extension to the V&A, the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, the pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery. It was no surprise to learn that he was one of a list of architects selected to compete for the brief to replace the Twin Towers.

Libeskind’s book begins and ends with this, his latest winning scheme, still under discussion, and it makes fascinating reading, showing the lateral thinker in action, his unique sources of inspiration, the depth of his research. The outline of the Statue of Liberty is echoed in the profile of his Freedom Tower, which, at a height of 1,776 feet (the measurement recalling the date of American independence), is the tallest building in the world. Libeskind’s conceptions need space. That is why his design for the V&A, squeezed into a recess, fails, in my view; and why his design for the spacious site in New York succeeds. Let’s hope this unique opportunity for that fine city will not be squandered as a result of the petty jealousies of local architects.

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