Daniel Libeskind surprised his audience in various ways when he spoke at Kean University on April 1. The strongest reaction came when he told them that the construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan — for which he provided the winning master plan — is progressing quite quickly.
Speaking in the first event of the university’s 12th annual Jewish Studies Lecture Series, Libeskind said that despite the enormous complexity of the political and emotional factors involved, “a lot is happening.” He pointed out that the original World Trade Center towers, destroyed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, also took a long time to complete and remained highly controversial.
When it is completed, he said, the new complex “will be very moving, very important, and very symbolic. It will provide a new understanding of Lower Manhattan and America.”
When a famous architect is asked about his work, one might expect esthetics to be the central issue. That wasn’t the case with Libeskind; instead the dominant theme was music, intertwined with the influence of Judaism. Where other designers might focus on technology and visually stunning surfaces, Libeskind said, he aims rather for an emotional impact, like that of a musical composition — at the same time honoring the humanism and idealism he sees in Jewish teaching.
Members of the audience who have been to one of his most famous creations, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, spoke of that power.
In his opening words, Kean president Dr. Dawood Farahi said of the display of faces on exhibit at the museum, “Nothing has ever touched me more, with the exception of the children’s memorial” at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Libeskind won the competition to design the museum and lived in Germany with his wife and three children during the complex, sometimes conflict-ridden construction process. Many people criticized him for taking on the project, but he had a moment of great satisfaction when his 90-year-old father came to see it. Libeskind said he recalled how his father, proudly surveying his son’s creation, said, “Under me the Nazis are disintegrating and I am standing here.”
Astonishingly, it was only the second design project of his career. Until he was about 50, he taught architecture but wasn’t involved in building. Asked why that was, he laughed as he said that perhaps it took that much time for his creativity to ripen.
Since then, he has been involved in an almost incomparable range of dramatically innovative projects around the world, many of them award-winning, ranging from huge commercial, administrative, and cultural complexes, to private homes. Asked if he ever experiences a creative block, he chuckled and said, “Not so far.”
Sam Norich, the publisher of the Forward and a friend of Libeskind’s, shared the platform with him, posing questions about his influences and goals. The two men have much in common, including being graduates of the Bronx High School of Math and Science and their Polish birthplace, Lodz.
Libeskind was born in 1946. His parents, who had married in the Soviet Union after fleeing the Nazis, had returned to Lodz, to find that 85 relatives, nearly their entire family, had been killed.
Norich mentioned that the world-famous architect was as a child a musical prodigy. Growing up in postwar Poland, Libeskind played the accordion. He might have preferred the piano, but his parents feared that if neighbors heard a piano, they would suspect them of the kind of wealth frowned on by the communist authorities. When he was 11, the family moved to Israel. There, at 13, Daniel won a prestigious music scholarship that brought him to the United States.
Years later, Libeskind said, he was told by one of the award’s esteemed judges that he was the only recipient who did not go on to become a famous musician. He gave a clear indication that having given up music as a career path did not cause him any particular distress.
However, he said, music — or what others might perceive simply as sound — is sometimes a deliberate part of the atmosphere of the spaces he designs. “Every building is a kind of instrument,” he said. As other designers focus on millimeters, he is attuned to vibrations, “messages to the heart, not the head.” That is true in the lower level of the Berlin museum, the area dealing with the Holocaust. He had in mind the opera Moses and Aron, composed by Arnold Schoenberg, “the greatest of the greats.” That work is said to be incomplete; “the shuffling sound of the footsteps of the people walking through completes the opera,” Libeskind said.
When he was asked why he left music for architecture, he rejected that notion. “Architecture has been a musical profession all the way back to the Greeks,” he said. The balance sought is not so much for the eye as for the inner ear, he said, referring to acoustics but also to a spiritual element that connects people with the past and refers forward to the future.
Asked how he would envisage the ideal reconstruction in Haiti, he said that is what he would want to see there — designs rooted in its past, even the painful parts, and yet also evoking aspiration to a better future — as he hoped the museum in Berlin did too.