You have to catch Daniel Libeskind on the fly these days. The once obscure architect--a revered avant-garde theorist who spent the first 20 years of his career without building so much as a birdhouse--was a besieged New York celebrity last week. Right after the press conference where his winning design for the World Trade Center site was praised by Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other public officials (most of whom probably hadn't heard of him six months ago), Libeskind disappeared into a thicket of TV cameras and microphone booms, then was whisked away by a phalanx of PR guys, as if he were Puffy Combs encircled by his entourage.
When he emerged from his bouquet-filled hotel room, even the desk clerk offered congratulations. He leaped into a Town Car and headed to Fox TV for a live appearance, then squeezed in a phone interview with The New York Times. He did admit he was enjoying the fuss. "Yes, yes," he nodded, his eyes bright behind black-framed specs, his cropped gray hair sticking straight up. Not bad for a man so shy of recognition that once, approached by a design buff on a London street, he denied he was Daniel Libeskind. But he did tell the guy he'd been mistaken for Libeskind before.
Who would have thought a year ago that a world-class radical architect would be chosen to design the WTC site? Forget for a moment that things could get ugly as politics, a lousy economy and competing stakeholders vie to drain the plan of its Libeskindicity. (And forget for a moment the eleventh-hour behind-the-scenes controversy over his selection. We'll get to that.) This is New York--a place with fewer great examples of contemporary design than any major Western metropolis, a place where development decisions are made by big-shouldered moneymen. The selection of someone of Libeskind's caliber for this historic project is a turning point for architecture and for the city, and it sends a clear signal that the public has an appetite for innovative design. It was public passion that forced the design competition from which Libeskind has emerged victorious.
In the past few weeks there's been a nasty duel between those who favored Libeskind's proposal--the memorial void and soaring spire--and those who wanted the plan by the team THINK, led by Rafael Vinoly and Frederic Schwartz. Detractors of Libeskind's scheme, which preserved the slurry walls that hold back the Hudson River, deemed its focus on the ground where so many died "tasteless" and "ghoulish." But similar interpretations were flung at THINK's pair of open latticework towers: they were termed "skeletons"--by Libeskind, among others--and some feared they'd be constant reminders of the vaporized Twin Towers. Still, THINK's compelling scheme was picked by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's site-planning group. But last Wednesday, their recommendation was overturned by a committee including LMDC representatives, the Port Authority (which owns the site), the city and the state. The mayor and governor personally joined in the discussions; Pataki had to split early, but phoned Bloomberg on his cell to keep his oar in--and everyone seems to know he preferred Libeskind.
At the big press conference the next day, Libeskind displayed another of his talents: he's one hell of a pitchman. For a guy who wrote highfalutin theory, he knows how to connect to a crowd. He'll start by spinning his own remarkable story: the classic immigrant saga of arriving in New York by boat, when he was 13, awestruck by the city skyline. He was born in 1946, to Polish Jews who'd survived World War II--barely--and immigrated briefly to Israel, then to the Bronx. His father worked in a small Hasidic print shop near Wall Street. Libeskind was gifted in math and music; his first instrument was the accordion. ("I was actually the first performer on Polish television at the age of 6.") He graduated from the elite Bronx High School of Science, and studied architecture at Cooper Union. "Architecture combines so many of my interests," he says. "Mathematics, painting, arts. It's about people, space, music." While he was in school, the World Trade Center was going up.
He wrote, he taught. Nothing got built. In 1988, he was included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, and the following year, he won a competition to design Berlin's Jewish Museum. With his wife, Nina, and three kids, he moved there and set up his first architectural office. The project took more than 10 years, but when it opened in 2001, the public and critics went wild.
The Jewish Museum is a slash, a wound in the cityscape--a zinc-covered zigzag, its windows diagonal slits. Inside, the spaces are haunting and disorienting. To generate the design, Libeskind mapped the historic addresses of key Jewish citizens of Berlin and created a matrix that generated the jagged abstract forms. This kind of pointed symbolism inspired his scheme for the WTC site (that 1,776-foot spire, for example) but Libeskind insists people don't have to get the underlying ideas. "It's like music," he says. "We all love Bach"--his favorite composer--"but few people will know how extraordinary the interior of the music is, both mathematically and philosophically." Even before the museum was done, clients began to seek Libeskind out. He's now working on museums in Denver, Toronto and London, a million-square-foot shopping center in Switzerland--and sets for Wagner's "Ring" cycle at Covent Garden. Late in the day of the WTC announcement, Libeskind was back at his hotel, sipping chamomile tea, when he was asked what he did the moment he heard he'd won the competition. "I kissed Nina!" he exclaimed. Anyone who hangs out with him even briefly knows his wife of 34 years, whom he refers to as his collaborator. Though not an architect, Nina Libeskind does almost everything else: runs his office, hires the staff, negotiates contracts. She's rarely far from his side these days, usually with a cell phone to her ear. "And she's my harshest critic," Libeskind says with a fond smile, though he's not entirely joking. She's also his fiercest defender. After the Times's architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, branded Libeskind's scheme as "kitsch," she told a reporter for another paper that she would've killed the guy on the spot.
So let's get down to the bedrock of Libeskind's scheme: that slurry wall and the void that will be a park, and home to the memorial. The wall will be shored up and covered in glass, but it's a technological wonder. We're not accustomed to the powerful image of ruins in this young country. But Libeskind's a European-born American who has spent a decade in a city where the bombed-out fragment of a neo-Romanesque church stands at one of the busiest intersections, and he sees our culture as rooted in antiquity. And that spire reflects another lesson he learned from Berlin--"that there is a future, you can't just look at the past."
Cynics were already circling last week, arguing that Libeskind won because his scheme is more malleable than THINK's: leave the void, plunk in a memorial, and developers can divvy up the rest. The powers that be paid lip service to Libeskind. The Port Authority, which operates Oz-like behind a curtain, plans a worldwide search for designers of a transportation hub who'll work with Libeskind. Of course. Developer Larry Silverstein, who holds a 99-year lease, loves the scheme--his architects will work with Libeskind, too. Of course.
Libeskind's scheme is beautiful and dynamic because of its total composition--it's not just a void and a spire. What a mistake--and a violation of public trust--it would be to begin marginalizing this architect's extraordinary talents. But no one even knows which entity will actually hire him. "Who's the client?" asked Dan Doctoroff, deputy mayor for Economic Development. So maybe the buck will finally stop at the top, with the one official who long had kept silent. Last week Governor Pataki came to praise the process and the Libeskind scheme. Now, governor, don't bury it.