‘The Libeskinds’: His Bronx Story Fused With Hers

Call them Mr. and Mrs. Ground Zero: Daniel and Nina Libeskind, with their short gray hair, black ensembles, leather jackets and artsy glasses, are steeling themselves for what is perhaps New York’s hottest political crucible of the moment-the rebuilding effort at the World Trade Center.

The couple, who invite constant comparison to characters from Mike Myers’ “Sprockets” routine, do not look like the shark-suited developers or heavy-lidded bureaucrats who have dominated the downtown-redevelopment story.

But in the decade or so since Daniel, the distinguished professor, and Nina, who shares a starring role in Studio Daniel Libeskind as the driving force of its business side, have been designing actual buildings rather than promoting architectural education, they have become a political force to be reckoned with.

The couple has, since taking on commissions as politically volatile and public as the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the controversial addition to Britain’s Victoria & Albert Museum, come to know their way around a tricky commission-and both are essential to the operation.

“If they are inseparable and in some ways indistinguishable, they’re nevertheless absolutely night and day,” said Jeffrey Kipnis, an architecture professor at Ohio State University and an old friend of the well-coordinated couple. “Nina is a campaigner …. She’s a dogged fighter; she understands the difficulties and intricacies of everything from background negotiations to public presentations.”

Friends and acquaintances credit Ms. Libeskind with translating her husband’s talent into competitive bids for commissions all over the world, and with managing massive staffs and budgets.

“Danny,” as many of his friends call him, earned his chops as a teacher, and still gets rave reviews from students, who say nobody is as good at communicating the meaning of architecture to young people-a political skill of another sort, perhaps, and one that was very much on display at the Winter Garden on Feb. 27, when Mr. Libeskind sailed through an extemporaneous performance that pulled together his complex ideas about architecture, democracy and civic life. While his performance won raves, he has not yet won the battle for public opinion: Polls conducted just before Mr. Libeskind won the commission showed that most New Yorkers preferred his plan to that of the rival THINK team, but a larger number wanted something else entirely.

Still, the first hurdle had been surmounted. Two days after the announcement, at the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street, Nina Libeskind placed her hand on her husband’s cheek, softly but briefly, as he lit up with enthusiasm talking about his architecture.

Ms. Libeskind will take the lead role in relocating their headquarters to New York. As the company grows and takes on more and more commissions around the world, Ground Zero will become its most closely scrutinized and uniquely challenging endeavor.

At the recent meeting over coffee, a cell phone rang several times, and it was Ms. Libeskind who answered, speaking softly and seriously into the phone before closing it, smiling and rejoining the conversation, at times with an affectionate squeeze of her husband’s hand.

It has always been that way. When Daniel and Nina took the stage in the small German city of Osnabrück to accept the commission for a museum dedicated to the work of Felix Nussbaum, a painter who perished during the Holocaust after hiding out in a basement studio, the mayor turned to Mr. Libeskind and said softly, “This will never get built.”

“You want to bet?” came Ms. Libeskind’s swift retort. The museum opened in 1999.

On to Berlin

At the time of the Osnabrück encounter, the couple was already based in Berlin. It’s a story they like to tell: After seven years as the head of the architecture school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Mr. Libeskind had, from 1985 to 1989, worked at a school in Milan, the Architecture Intermundium, which he founded. (He borrowed the term “intermundium” from Samuel Taylor Coleridge.) An institute rather than a school, it gave no degrees, but achieved a significant reputation in avant-garde architecture circles and gave him a place to work on his rather theoretical sketches, which were making the rounds in Europe.

With their possessions on board a freighter to California, where Mr. Libeskind had accepted a position as a senior scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the two went to Berlin to attend the announcement of the Jewish Museum design-competition winner. It was Mr. Libeskind’s first design for an actual building, and the couple never expected to win the commission, even though their work on paper was being greeted with great enthusiasm in Berlin. When they won the commission, Nina turned to Daniel and said, “If you want to do this, we have to stay here.”

As they checked into their hotel in Berlin, the concierge asked how long they were staying. Mr. Libeskind responded, “Until this thing is built!”

But the adjustment to Berlin wasn’t easy for the two. Their young sons already had been moved all over the United States and Canada and had become comfortable in Milan. They feared the prospect of their infant daughter identifying as a German. Mr. Libeskind’s father, still living in the Bronx, couldn’t understand why he would move his family to the capital of Germany.

They established some rather eccentric family policies. Germans over the age of 60 weren’t allowed to speak with their children. Mr. Libeskind, who spoke no German but could get by on Yiddish, nevertheless used only English in public. Ms. Libeskind never learned German-a combination of a conscious decision and laziness.

“Absolutely not!” she exclaimed when asked if she spoke German. “I might have a vocabulary of 100 words, but that’s only to go shopping …. It was an understanding that I was not a German, and I was not going to become a German.”

It took 10 years for the museum to open to the public-and even then, the process was mired in politics, and it was decided that no exhibits should be placed in the building until the mission of the museum was clear. A year and a half later, half a million visitors had come to the bare-walled museum just to see Mr. Libeskind’s design for the space, before the first exhibition opened.

For that event, the Libeskinds brought friends and family, in what has become something of a family-gathering tradition, to Berlin-two days before the terrorist attack that razed the World Trade Center and took 2,800 lives.

At the time, the Libeskinds were already planning to come to New York, but weren’t sure whether it was wise to pull their daughter out of middle school.

“We thought a clean break would be better,” Nina said.

Settling down to coffee, the couple admitted to being jittery after a night of celebration on Feb. 28.

“I got home at 1 a.m. last night, but she didn’t get home till 3!” Mr. Libeskind enthused. “It was nice,” Ms. Libeskind admitted, after describing how they had had a family dinner before receiving visitors at the bar at the Tribeca Grand hotel. There was a lot to celebrate.

Their daughter Rachel, who is about to turn 14, was in from Berlin. Sons Lev Jacob, 25, and Noam, 22, had arrived earlier from travels in England and Israel to get a tour of the site from their father. Ms. Libeskind’s relatives from Canada also joined in the party. And lastly, their many contacts in the architectural world, as well as family friends from Mr. Libeskind’s childhood in the Bronx, also made the party.

It’s been a long time since New York was the center of gravity for the Libeskinds. The couple met at a summer camp for the children of Holocaust survivors near Woodstock, N.Y., while Mr. Libeskind was between his freshman and sophomore years of architecture school at Cooper Union in the Village. Nina Lewis was not the daughter of survivors, but she was a counselor at the camp. Daniel was the camp’s arts-and-crafts director, and Nina would later tell friends “her bunk had a lot of arts and crafts.” They married in 1969, just before Mr. Libeskind entered his senior year. Nina packed up her things from college at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and moved into an apartment in the Bronx with Daniel. The two have been inseparable ever since.

Their backgrounds were surely different.

Nina was the daughter of David Lewis, a Russian-born immigrant to Canada who founded the New Democratic Party, a party with labor support and a social democratic formula. Born in Ottawa, Nina moved with her family to Toronto, where she attended high school before moving to Vancouver to take classes at Simon Fraser University. Her brother Stephen later entered politics, becoming Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. in the 1980′s. He’s now serving as a U.N. special envoy in Africa, concentrating on the AIDS crisis there.

A Shared Life

Ever since she met Daniel part-way through college, Nina’s path has largely been shared with him. It’s been noted that they look alike: Mr. Libeskind’s crown of steel-gray hair matches his wife’s, though it’s a bit longer. His glasses are thicker-framed, though hers look no less artsy for being delicately perched on her soft-featured face; his face is as prone to wide, comic smiles as to serious, pointed attentiveness.

It is rare to see them apart. They say they are eager to become a part of the life of the city beyond Ground Zero, and it looks like they’ve got a pretty good start. They’re looking for an apartment, though the serious search has not yet begun and they’re not sure where to live.

“I want [our offices] to be right there [at Ground Zero], and I’d actually like to live down there,” Mr. Libeskind chimed in, “but Rachel has her friends, and she says the Upper East Side. That’s where she wants to live more than anywhere else.”

Home, to Mr. Libeskind, is already a suspect category, as well it might be. His parents, who came from different walks of life-his mother was from a well-regarded family in Hasidic society; his father from a family of urban socialists-met similar fates in the war, being sent to work in prison camps when the Russians came to Poland. Liberated in a deal with the Polish exile government in London, the two made their way to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, a Soviet-controlled area on the Chinese border with a largely Muslim population. At times the harsh climate offered little more than grass to eat, Mr. Libeskind’s parents would tell him. Still, in that distant era, the Muslims who lived in Samarkand gave them the warmest welcome they’d seen since the days before Europe turned on the Jews.

When they returned to Lodz, in Poland, they found that 85 relatives had perished in the Holocaust, including most of the couple’s brothers and sisters. They made their home there anyway. The end of war hadn’t brought an end to the virulent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and the young Daniel Libeskind, who showed signs of being a piano prodigy at school, was given an accordion-a piano, his parents felt, would have marked them out as Jews in their apartment complex.

After years of effort, his parents were able to break past the Iron Curtain and, in 1957, made their way to Tel Aviv. The family lived in Israel for two years before booking passage to New York on the U.S.S. Constitution . Mr. Libeskind was 13 years old.

It’s that voyage which Mr. Libeskind uses to illustrate the connection of his design to something fundamentally New York, the city where his parents eventually settled (in the Amalgamated buildings, just south of Van Cortlandt Park) and took jobs (in the garment industry). Mr. Libeskind’s mother organized protests against both the management and the unions, often saying that each was as corrupt as the other. But Daniel Libeskind was the eternal optimist: The spire in his design mirrors the angles of the Statue of Liberty’s torch-bearing arm and repeats the message of promise that the harbor represents for so many immigrants, before and since.

Critics Lash Out

But it has also earned him that hated epithet: kitsch. The New York Times , endorsing his proposal, nevertheless worried over what the paper called its “worrying literalism.” The Times ‘ architecture critic was the first to use the K-word, and also called the design militaristic. And in the pages of the New York Post , real-estate reporter and columnist Steve Cuozzo hasn’t relented in his attacks on Mr. Libeskind’s design.

How do they feel about all of the criticism?

“A 1,776-foot-high tower kitschy? Nostalgic? The Declaration of Independence?” Mr. Libeskind railed incredulously. “If somebody thinks that’s kitschy or nostalgic, then what do you think of what it stands for? Even if somebody calls me a warmonger, no! I’m not! I was the first architect to win the Hiroshima Peace Prize” (actually the Hiroshima Art prize).

Seeming to calm down, Mr. Libes-kind said of his critics: “I appreciate them. It’s good to hear the voices of opposition, because it forces you to refine your position. You hear the left and right ideologies, and you have to try to stay in the middle …. This is what makes it a civic art!”

After early criticism, Larry Silverstein, who owns the lease on the site, has signed on to Mr. Libeskind’s plan and vowed to finance the tall tower that is its defining element. “Why?” Mr. Libeskind asks. “Because we took him seriously!”

When Mr. Libeskind came to New York to visit Ground Zero for the first time, it wasn’t Jacques Derrida or Robert Caro that he packed in his suitcase, but the collected works of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence-a primer for the sort of ambitious, distinctly American market populism that he somehow seeks to reconcile with the ambiguities of the 21st-century scholarship of which he’s so fond.

“That’s really the mission: How to do that?” Mr. Libeskind said. “And how to create a vital city that is the best and most fun city, and the most creative city, without obliterating the memory and without neglecting it and without just making it a footnote-some green and some plaques and some statues.”

His site design breathes that paradox. The Libeskinds’ ability to hold their own against criticism, to lobby disparate interests in their own behalf, and to be willing to make the political maneuvers that will be necessary to bring everyone on board with one plan, have impressed the rebuilding powers mightily.

He doesn’t see the novelty.

“Architecture is political!” he exclaimed excitedly as his wife looked on with approval. ” Politeia -that’s ‘the city’ in Greek. It’s about the city! And people think architecture is art for art’s sake-you show the drawings in museums. Architecture is in the marketplace! It has to respond to all the forces of the marketplace and still be true and beautiful, be humane, have intimacy of scale and communicate something to the public-and provide spaces that are functional, that people will need.”