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Architecture's Ever-Optimistic Daniel Libeskind

Posted by: Michael Arndt on April 29, 2010

I met Daniel Libeskind in a big conference room in his studio in Lower Manhattan. His profession was in deep decline—one in four architects had lost their jobs over the past two years, including 11 of his own employees last year—but Libeskind was unflappably upbeat as I interviewed him for the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. He was wearing dark blue jeans, a long-sleeve black T-shirt, a dark brown leather jacket, and cowboy boots. He leaned back in his chair and talked fast. His sentences zigzagged as sharply as his designs. He smiled a lot.

Earlier, as Libeskind huddled at a worktable with some of his staff, his wife and business partner, Nina, showed me around their chicly utilitarian loft, with its concrete floors and exposed ductwork. Studio Daniel Libeskind has occupied the 19th floor of the Class B office building since 2003, a year after Libeskind’s master plan was chosen for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

Every raised surface—each desktop, table, storage shelf, and file cabinet—seemed to provide the foundation for a scale-model building, handcrafted from plastic, wood, and cardboard. The models were Nina Libeskind’s point-of-interest stops as she took me on a tour.

Here’s the Libeskind-designed shopping mall in the CityCenter project in Las Vegas, which opened last December. Here’s a $3.1 million prefab villa built last fall in Germany. Here’s a four-tower residential/hotel complex in Busan, South Korea, scheduled to be completed in 2011, and a 58-story condominium high-rise that just got underway in Toronto after a two-year hiatus.

And here’s what being even a star architect also means in 2010: A 54-story residential skyscraper in Warsaw, halted after 16 floors of construction. A mixed-use seaside development in Monaco, canceled. A 43-story condominium high-rise in Los Angeles, delayed pending financing. The World Trade Center redevelopment, scaled back after delays.

But Daniel Libeskind, 63, was as hopeful as Willy Loman in his Act 1 daydream. “Architecture is about confidence,” he said. “It’s about bringing something that has never been to life. It’s about confidence in the future. Of course, you’re sad if a building doesn’t get built. You’ve worked so long on it. And finally because of money—and it’s always because of money—it’s a sobering thought. But even if that project was not built, you haven’t wasted your time because there are creative discoveries that you made. You’re able to take that research and apply it to the next project.”

Has the recession affected his own lifestyle? “No,” he answered and smiled. “Not at all. It’s true.”

If it has, he said a little later, it’s been in a positive way. He has more time these days for listening to music—Nina gave him the complete works of Bach on 185 CDs—and reading. We got up and walked to his private office. The floor-to-ceiling shelves in the adjacent library hold 10,000 books, he guessed, and he said he probably has twice that many at home. Currently, he’s reading the Dialogues of Plato.

“I don’t think you can be a pessimistic architect because even if you have no work, you are still working with drawings; you are still working on future ideas. Those buildings get built later.” He added: “Of course, the downturn has affected everyone. But we are very fortunate to have new possibilities. People are still knocking on our doors.”

Maybe he’s right to be so positive. Libeskind became an overnight sensation when his sharply angled design was chosen for the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 1989. It then took 12 years for the museum to open. But there it is, and here he is.

Reader Comments

Martin K

April 29, 2010 2:01 PM

In her tour of the office, Nina deftly avoided mention of the Denver Art Museum, currently recovering after three years of leaks due to a badly-designed roof, or of the Royal Ontario Museum, lately anointed by the Washington Post as "The Worst Building of the Decade", describing it as "both ugly and useless". - One good thing about the slow down of work and loss of commissions at Studio Daniel Libeskind is that he and his staff will have less opportunity to dump their technical failures and aesthetically repulsive work on the world.


April 29, 2010 3:03 PM

He has 20,000 books at home? I wonder if he was able to design his own bookshelves. According to the New York Times, Libeskind had to pay Alexander Gorlin Architects to design his own home. What kind of "starchitect" can't even design his own home? He seems like a fast-talking huckster to me.

Denver Art Lover

April 29, 2010 5:30 PM

If any of those 10,000 books happen to be about waterproof detailing for buildings, maybe he should be reading that instead of listening to 185 Bach CD's. If he'd bothered to pay attention to important details like this he wouldn't be losing staff and commissions. For a guy who thought he was too good to intern and learn basic skills in a professional office after he graduated, he has no one to blame but himself for his fading reputation.

Ted Rawson

April 29, 2010 10:56 PM

So the Denver Museum leaked for three years. The Toronto Museum overran its budget by a huge margin and still performed poorly as a place for showing art. And Libeskind famously tried to charge an extra $1 Million "Genius Fee" for his World Trade Center Design even though that whole "Wedge of Light" nonsense was proven not to work, and there were many other failings in his design warranting his replacement by another architect. But Libeskind is optimistic? About what? Hardly his architecture. I haven't heard such empty and unwarranted hubris since Ken Lay told everyone that Enron stock was doing just fine. And we all know how Enron's clients fared.


April 30, 2010 9:48 AM

The writer saw Libeskind wearing jeans, a black teeshirt and cowboy boots. I count myself among those who see that this particular Emperor was wearing no clothes.

D. Hunniwell

April 30, 2010 10:39 AM

Glib optimism and a supercilious smirk are no substitute for aesthetic ability and technical expertise. Given the choice, I'll choose a talented but pessimistic architect, one who is concerned enough about potential problems that he will pay appropriate attention to all the details and not leave me stuck with a pretentious unworkable pile of scrap metal masquerading as progressive architectural design.

D. Sharp

May 3, 2010 8:57 PM

It's ironic to hear Libeskind say that many of his projects get canceled "because of money". Maybe if he tried to design to budget or stopped trying to gouge extra monies out of his clients as so-called "Genius Fees" some of these projects might have been built. Did he ever think of that?

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