Interview: Daniel Libeskind

Libeskind

You might not guess it from his architectural style, but Daniel Libeskind is an optimist. This is a useful quality, given that hardly a day passes without the New York press expressing doubts about the works at Ground Zero and forecasting that deadlines for the $14bn (£7.4bn) World Trade Centre project will not be met.

The latest setback came last week when the design was recalled by the state governor, George Pataki, after the New York Police Department questioned the safety of the structure. This was the signal for an excited babble of opinions in the New York press calling for everything from minimal tweaks to a complete rethink of the entire site. At one extreme was New York Sun critic James Gardner, who wrote: “It will no longer be torqued, will lose the spire, probably won’t be faceted, and will alter its position relative to the rest of the site. Other than that – ha, ha – it will be much like Mr Libeskind’s inspiring vision.”

Building had interviewed Libeskind shortly before this latest twist in the story, so we made a hasty call to the architect to get his take on announcement. He was unavailable, but Nina Libeskind, his wife and pugnacious business partner, took time out from organising his 59th birthday party to dismiss the rumours. She said: “Because of increased security criteria, the tower will have to be more slender than it was. It will be made in a different way. We’re working on that.”

She confirmed that neither the symbolic 1776 ft height nor any other piece of the 6.5 ha masterplan would be revised, and that the 2009 completion deadline would be met. “Maybe not January but September 2009. What this proves is how resilient the masterplan is.”

All of this lay in the future when Building met Libeskind in his studio overlooking the Ground Zero site, and although he knew the decision to redesign had been made, he was sanguine about it and the rest of his high-profile difficulties with the press and Larry Silverstein, the site owner. This, he said, is to be expected and accepted when the creative process takes place in a – and this is certainly one of his top five favourite words – democracy. The other favourite terms in the Libeskind lexicon are “think about it”, “meaningful” and “significant”, which is a bit of a clue to the man’s tendency to turn buildings into symbolic narratives.

What is even more striking is Libeskind’s unruffled enthusiasm. His wide smile stretches across his face whether he is dismissing critics or spilling his Starbucks latte. “It’s a very important process. Think about it. We’re building something that’s going to last 100 years, 200 years … If you really think how much has been accomplished in such a short time to bring consensus, to bring a plan, to bring feasibility, economy and spirituality to the site, we’ve accomplished a lot.”

Libeskind is sure he will meet the five-year construction deadline set by the state’s governor. This includes the completion of the 2 ha memorial to the victims, the Freedom Tower, a subway station, a cultural centre and a resuscitated neighbourhood.

Some observers point to the fact that the steel structure of the Freedom Tower has not been ordered yet as proof that the project is not going to plan. Libeskind responds that “an incredible amount of work” has been done so far in the 75 ft between the bedrock and the surface. “Think about it. Originally there were discussions about a bus parking under the memorial and I fought against that, and I fought for the memorial going down 35 ft and the footprint going down the bedrock and the slurry wall. And it will. You have to figure out everything before you can see the steel above it.”

Libeskind insisted on the slurry wall of the former WTC being exposed as a remnant of the tragedy. His competitor for the commission, Rafael Viñoly, derided this decision: “Libeskind is turning the whole thing into his own personal Wailing Wall,” he said.

The accusation of self-appropriation is perhaps unfair. Libeskind’s Memory Foundations intends that the whole masterplan commemorate the 2749 people who perished on 9/11. And Libeskind is proud of New York. His family arrived in the city when he was 13 and he has been a US citizen for 40 years, overlaying a rapid-fire New York accent on his native Polish. As soon as he won the design competition for the WTC, he left Berlin, where he had opened his first architectural studio in 1989, and settled in the city of his youth. “Being here in New York is very meaningful. It’s not just a place to live. I believe in it,” he says.

He also trusts New Yorkers to see past the critics. Without stopping for breath pauses, he declares: “It’s a democracy and everybody has an opinion. I believe in democracy and I think the fact that this project with all the forces has taken place in a democracy with all the interests and with all the struggles makes it meaningful and that why it’s not going to be like projects that are completely artificial.”

Such sentiments could easily feed his detractors’ arguments. They have attacked Libeskind for his overzealous patriotism.

The well-publicised fact that he read the declaration of independence and the American constitution for inspiration has been decried as schmaltzy opportunism.

Libeskind is unapologetic. As “a grateful immigrant”, his faith in democracy stems from his own family history. His parents survived Stalin’s gulags and now he is living the American dream: more than 50 built projects around the world and a fast-growing business of 100 employees.

He credits Nina for much of his achievement: “She brings love and light to the projects. I am lucky to work with her. I would never be able to do what I do without her.”

In our phone call later, she displays some of this steely will. No, she says, her husband is not dispirited by the latest events. “He’s not worried. This is the beginning of a new design. Things change. That’s life in New York.”

Daniel Libeskind was originally published in Building magazine (2006, issue 42).