Born in Poland and raised and taught in New York City, Daniel Libeskind has blossomed into one of the country’s most visible architects. From the Jewish Museum in Berlin to the launch earlier this year of his own housing line, “Villa Libeskind,” the 64-year-old so-called starchitect has been involved in myriad projects across the world. None, however, have brought greater attention than his involvement in rebuilding the World Trade Center. Mr. Libeskind spoke about his efforts there, his own architectural style and the unveiling of “A Hanukkah Project: Daniel Libeskind’s Line of Fire” at the Jewish Museum.
The Commercial Observer: You’re currently involved in several dozen projects across the globe. How much of your time right now is spent on elements of the World Trade Center project?
Mr. Libeskind: I was just there yesterday, for example. The master plan is being built. It’s an incredible thing to see the ongoing construction and a fantastic project developing. People, I think, will understand, despite all the delays, how important this project is. So, of course, my work is no longer day-to-day, but we still have studies and particular questions to address from time to time. So it’s ongoing.
Has it been difficult to bring consensus to a project that involves so many players?
In the beginning it was–of course. There were so many conflicting interests. There were so many political things that happened. There were so many emotions involved that I’m happy to say that they’re long in the past, those disputes and controversies. The consensus has allowed the site to develop exactly in the manner that my master plan has sort of suggested. I think what is being built is amazingly close to the original drawings and the original concept: there’s a visitors’ center, the museum, the slurry wall. The streets, the connections of the PATH terminal to the World Financial Center on West Street; it’s amazingly inspiring as it’s constructed.
From the moment you were tapped to work on the project, is there any one thing that you’re most proud of regarding the design or the rebuilding itself?
Well, it’s not a matter of pride–it’s a matter of total commitment. You have to have faith in the democratic process. I’m not one who runs to tabula rasa kind of sites where there’s a decree about building. This is in the center of New York, and New Yorkers, as we all know, are all tough, and that’s what makes New York one of the best cities in the world.
So it’s the commitment to the project, it’s the long-range vision. It’s not about a little thing here or a little thing there. It’s fighting for what you truly believe the space should be–which is both a space of memory, of course, but at the same time making sure this is a vital 21st-century city that’s sustainable in every sense, smartly built and something that will be part of the diversity and the energy of New York. We don’t want to create a sad connection to that event.
If this project were in, say, Chicago, do you believe it would have already been built?
I don’t think a layperson can possibly fathom the complexity of this project. It sounds kind of obvious what I’m saying, but people look at a building here or a building there, they think everything is fine. When you think about how we have 75 feet of bedrock below the street, there was a discussion about putting parking below the street and all sorts of ideas about infrastructure. I fought to make the memorial from bedrock right up to really the skyline, and to do it in a way that got in touch with the visceral quality of what happened. All of that takes time and consensus.
But New York also has a complex public-review process, unlike a city like Chicago.
Look, it’s never fast enough. We all want it to be faster, it’s human nature. But the site is under close scrutiny. Every penny being spent has to be accounted for in a responsible way. And we know how long it’s taken, and what incredible problems were posed by the Deutsche Bank coming down. So we know how important every single decision on the site is. Every piece of steel brought there. Every screw. Every piece of stone that’s put into the memorial, the waterfall. I mean, there are so many elements here that have to ultimately work together. I’ve often thought it was kind of like the Rubik’s Cube: You can’t put one thing without turning all the other things.
How would you describe your signature architecture style?
It’s an abstract style. It has to do with emotion. It has to do with meaning. It’s not just creating nicely glazed facades. It’s about telling the story, and I believe that’s the important thing about city planning and architecture: You have to tell the story, and the story is an ongoing story.
So what’s the story behind the World Trade Center, and how is it reflected in your architectural decisions?
Well, the story is of the enemies of freedom. It’s a story of destruction and death and the fact that this was a war against New York. New York, after all, is kind of the capital of the free world–let’s face it. And it was chosen as a target …
So we’re organizing the buildings in a way that there’s light at the center of the memorial. The number of feet: 1,776. That’s not just the tallest building in New York, or to be taller than some other building, but it says something about the Declaration of Independence–a document that has given freedom to all people, not just people from America. All the elements organized around the times of the attack, 8:46 and 10:28, which are organized around the Wedge of Light entrance. And the memorial site itself will not be built upon. It’s sacred ground. It’s part of New York.
Then the slurry wall. So there’s so many things to be told and so many things to think about.
You recently unveiled ‘A Hanukkah Project: Daniel Libeskind’s Line of Fire.’ How has the reception been?
Hanukkah is a very important holiday. It’s not just lighting candles. It’s what the holiday stands for, and it stands for, as we all know, a struggle for freedom. In that case, it was against the Syrians and so on. Today, it’s a struggle against other dictators, totalitarians and enemies of freedom. That’s why this holiday is such an important holiday because it’s forever relevant–this struggle with darkness. And it’s always taking place in the winter when it’s dark. It’s about light. It’s about liberty.
So I love it and I was happy to work with the Jewish Museum to create an installation for the incredible menorahs, which come from different eras and countries–North Africa, Europe, the Revolutionary War in America and so on.
How did you spend your own Hanukkah this year?
The first day of Hanukkah, I was probably traveling from Europe back home. And, of course, at home I spent it by … I was actually re-reading pieces of the Talmud, which I have in my great Steinsaltz edition.
Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
My only New Year’s resolution is to continue having as much fun and seeing the world change in positive ways. Because the world doesn’t change by itself–it changes through participation. So you have to do more than just diet, or work for fewer hours. You have to will something that’s important in life. So, yeah, you have to will yourself to work on projects with meaning and things that mean something.
So nothing like resolving to eat fewer doughnuts in 2011 or anything like that?
[laughs] I’m not a doughnut eater myself, but those kinds of resolutions … Maybe if I was to really, really wish for something, it would be to spend fewer hours in the air, a few hours more on earth. But the life of an architect moves on, and the world is big, and you can’t just do architecture by remote control–and some architects do. You have a formula and you send it over. But if you think that each place is unique and each place deserves the utmost attention and care, then you also have to travel.