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“It is a mystery to me. It is a wonder”: In Conversation with Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind discusses identity, design competitions and why architecture is truly ‘the art of memory’ in the lead up to his keynote address for the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning’s Centenary Gala.

One hundred years is an astoundingly – almost unfathomably – long time. The period of a century is enough to bring to effect changes both great and small; to make and break the people, projects, and ideas that drive and shape our cultural landscape. The past hundred years in particular comprised an era of evolution that has seen unprecedented advancement in the arts and technology and subsequently in the ways that we live and work. Particularly in today’s fast-paced design and construction industry, in which stars burn brightly and briefly, anything with the staying power to withstand a hundred years of change and evolve is nothing short of remarkable.

The University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning is one such entity. This year, the School celebrates its Centenary and marks the appointment of Leslie Wilkinson as its inaugural chair with an immersive symposium of events culminating in a keynote presentation by the inimitable Daniel Libeskind of Studio Libeskind.

An architect requiring no introduction and whose body of sensitive, idiosyncratic work speaks for itself, Libeskind is beyond doubt one of the most thoughtful and intriguing architects of our time. Indesignlive recently had the pleasure of catching up with him for a candid discussion of the unique capabilities of architecture, the state of architectural education, and why it is critical for designers to look farther afield for inspiration.

Daniel Libeskind will be presenting a keynote at the University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning’s Centenary Gala from 6.30PM on Friday 3 August. Tickets to the keynote lecture and subsequent cocktail reception are available here.

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Indesignlive: From the Jewish Museum Berlin to your recently completed National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, “memory” is a key theme pervading your practice. What makes architecture such a unique and potent medium for preserving stories and memories?

Daniel Libeskind: Architecture is the greatest documentation of memory because you can’t use a mouse to erase it, to click off the memory. It’s part of the city – of the urban fabric – whatever the scale. In many ways, architecture really is the art of memory because windows (for instance) orient us – so too are we oriented by doors, by streets, by views. Without architecture, we would not know where we are and we would not know where we are going – it’s not a minor thing.

Memories are closely entwined with identity: in order to relate to a memory, people must be able to relate to a collective point of view. When designing for a new city, how do you ensure that your building or master plan relates to the sense of place and identity of that locale?

It’s really about the genius loci, the uniqueness of place; each place is unique, it’s not interchangeable, and of course the histories and traditions of a place are not always obvious. Many of them are inaudible and invisible, and architecture can tell these stories by revealing them – by creating a sense of community and communication.

I believe that architecture is probably the greatest communicator of all of the arts because it doesn’t depend on a known language, it doesn’t depend on ethnicity, it doesn’t depend on nationality… it’s an open-ended space that is opened by the architecture for others.

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“[T]he histories and traditions of a place are not always obvious. Many of them are inaudible and invisible, and architecture can tell these stories by revealing them…”

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And that space transcends different cultural contexts.

Absolutely.

In relation to that, then, what would you say has been the most challenging context or environment that you’ve had to respond to?

Oh, I’ve built in some very complex contexts. When I was building my first building – the Jewish Museum in Berlin – the question was, you know, how do you build a building in a place in which genocide happened? Not just in terms of the millions of Jews, but also millions and millions of others [who suffered] as a result of schools of thought underpinning genocide. So Berlin is a very complex city that has gone through devastation, but it’s also a city of renewal, of hope, of the people.

Similarly with Ground Zero in the centre of New York City: a catastrophic terrorist attack affected everybody globally, and especially everybody who lives in the city. But I would say that even a greenfield site – such as where I built a house in Connecticut – is also a site of memory because I thought, “What happened to the native peoples on this site? Who lived here before this was a piece of real estate?” And my building – even as a house – relates to those ideas.

As you said with Ground Zero and the World Trade Centre, obviously events like these affect everybody around and beyond the site. What kind of process do you undertake to make sure that your finished project is faithful to that local narrative or memory?

It’s hard to explain – it’s not a linear process. It’s not just pulling people aside and asking them what they like, what they want. You have to immerse yourself in the space, into the desires of those who were affected. At Ground Zero I started, of course, with the families of those who perished. Even though the client was very complex and included private developers, Port Authority, the Governor of New York, the President, the Mayor… I started with really the core of the site, which is people.

In Berlin, I had to start with the unknown, with those whose names we don’t even know who lived around the site, who worked around it. It’s always… the work of memory is part of rediscovering what a place can be.

On this thinking about identity, obviously you’ve been in practice for many years and your work has such a strong visual identity – it’s immediately recognisable. What advice do you have for designers who are seeking to find their own visual identity and develop a distinctive style?

That’s a very good question, one that is not easy to answer. I would say that people whose works are always changing are looking at their environment and at what other people are doing. People whose works are more integrated are not looking elsewhere, because they have nobody else to copy except for themselves. That’s why you recognise… you know, the music of Mozart always sounds like Mozart; Nabokov’s books sound like Nabokov and nobody else. He’s not copying others around him – he’s himself.

So to answer your question, I think that requires integrity and ethical commitment, a sense of what you want to do, a passion for what you do, intensity, and – of course – faith.

So I suppose a degree of introspection is necessary. Having said that, is there anyone – still practising or in the past – or anything from whom you draw inspiration?

Of course, there are so many people! They might not even be “architects” in the normal sense. Bach is probably one of the greatest ‘architects’ by whom I am inspired, or Philip Roth, whose books are ‘architecture’ in time. And of course there are great architects practising today and yesterday. But one has to take all of liberal arts – all the fields from the stars to poetry and music – and really fall in love with it in order to create something that is cultural and not just some concrete and glass.

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“Bach is probably one of the greatest ‘architects’ by whom I am inspired, or Philip Roth, whose books are ‘architecture’ in time.”

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Over the years you’ve had incredible success with design competitions, which have lately been subject to a lot of critical discussion in the architecture media. The Architects’ Journal in the UK recently commented that competitions often result in winning projects that are “unbuildable and unaffordable.” What’s your view on that, and on the competition model generally?

You know, it’s such a strange thing for architects to have to compete: dentists don’t compete, lawyers don’t compete, and mathematicians don’t compete… it’s a strange thing, this mechanism of the society we’re in.

But I do think there’s a difference between commercial competition – who’s going to win, who’s project is best? – and really artistic, poetic competitions, which are not about prize money or about winning but about the quality of the work. Of course, it would be much nicer to not have competitions but to select work by its own merits.

Though I suppose it’s difficult to imagine at a large scale how a merit-based selection process – without the competition model, that is – would work.

True, but in fact, competitions are also not really fully transparent. They do depend on points of view, politics, on who knows whom… it’s a system, and of course I’m grateful to it because I would have never had a career as an architect had I not won three or four competitions relatively early, even for a late bloomer – I was not young when I did my first building.

The truth is that you need luck. You need good luck. It’s not just talent and hard work. Yes, you need good luck.

That’s a very refreshing response.

I know it sounds very strange in the 21st Century to say that. In Renaissance and medieval times, they used to call it fortuna – you really do just need good luck.

Going back to the competition model, that’s a big question in Australia right now as well – we’ve got a lot of public projects that are being built without competitions and without an open tender process.

Well, that’s bad. What I love about competitions is that they give a chance to people who’ve never built before, or people who are kind of anonymous and don’t have much except for a competition.

So I welcome competitions that are really public, really transparent… where people can really see and understand what’s happening.

I love that you describe yourself as a “late bloomer”. You had a long career in academia before you moved into practice: what was it like to make that transition?

It was so strange. Even for the years that I drew I did nothing but draw architectural drawings. They were not drawings of buildings – Micromegas, Chamberworks, other things – but I always thought I was doing architecture, even when other people thought I was wasting my time. They said, “What are you doing? Why are you not doing architecture?” And I said, “But I am doing architecture.”

When I had the opportunity to build my first building – I’d never even built a small building before the Jewish Museum Berlin – it was an extension of that continuum. I didn’t see the vast difference between drawing and building because, as far as I understand, all architecture comes out of drawing. You have to make a plan, you have to make a section, you have to draw a perspective: it all comes out of drawing.

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“In architecture, everything is existing inside of a drawing, which is a mystery to me. It’s a wonder.”

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Architecture is the only art in the world where everything is inside of a drawing. Sculpture, art, all sorts of other things that are visual don’t exist in a drawing. They exist elsewhere. In architecture, everything is existing inside of a drawing, which is a mystery to me. It’s a wonder.

Very much so, and that wonder stays with you. One of the first things I saw when I started architecture school were your Micromegas drawings and they’ve really stuck with me, which leads to my next question: as an educator yourself, what do you think about architectural education today? Do you think today’s graduates are entering the industry with the skills they need?

I think graduates are very sophisticated today, with access to computer technology, AI, and so on. I think that’s all fine and good and necessary, but I think it’s most important to develop one’s spiritual approach to architecture, one’s creative approach. That doesn’t really depend on the instruments that you have: it doesn’t depend on the pencil and it doesn’t depend on the computer. It depends on the cultural sense of what role architecture plays in life and in history.

To me, that’s really an important part of architectural education often neglected. We concentrate on techniques and how-to, but it’s the what and the why which are so important.

Do you prefer hand drawing or computer drawing?

I don’t use a computer. Personally, I’ve never used a computer. I use an iPad because I like to draw with my finger – it’s like drawing in the sand, in a way. I love drawing, and of course I would not be able to do the work if really fantastic, talented people who do use computers did not surround me – but to me, the computer is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is to create a beautiful place, something fantastic.

Is there anything in particular that excites you about today’s architecture and design industry?

Well, I think there has been a renaissance in architecture and urbanism where people have rediscovered the vulnerability of the earth. I think that’s a huge achievement. We might need more time to register the results but I think there’s a huge change in how people are thinking, and to me that’s very positive.

Plus in the public realm, people have rediscovered that architecture belongs in a democracy: it’s not made by just an elite group to be imposed on people. People have the right to steer their environment to their own desires. Those two things – democracy and possibility – really are immense today.

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People have the right to steer their environment to their own desires. Those two things – democracy and possibility – really are immense today.”

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That reminds me: you’ve commented previously on social or ethical obligations of architects with respect to not building in countries with governments that might be considered repressive. Could you explain this position further?

I’m not moralising to anybody: everybody has to do what they want to do. What I really mean to say is that you just have to work with people you like to work with, where you feel comfortable to be free to speak and act truthfully. I don’t mean to tell people what to do. Everyone has to make that decision for him or herself.

Next week you’re coming out to Sydney for the Centenary celebrations of the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design, and Planning. In keeping with this idea of the centenary, are there any works of contemporary architecture that you believe we will continue celebrating in 100 more years?

Oh yes, there definitely will be. We can find great works of architecture on every continent, whether they are big or small, whether they are modest, vernacular, or large-scale projects. It’s hard to mention all of them but there are many significant projects that have been built in the last 100 years which will certainly remain because they were not just moments of fashion, they were not just done for commercial projects, they were not just speculative.

These are works that were built by architects who had a sense of poetry and expressed it in space and in building. There are many such works that I admire and visit all over the world.

Are there any specific ones that come to mind?

I was recently on a highway from Milan through Florence to go to Rome, and I stumbled upon the amazing Chiesa dell’Autostrada – the Church of the Highway – built by Michelucci in the ‘50s. What an amazing idea, to build a church for people on the highway. And what a church! Probably as brilliant as Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, but not as well known. That is a work not celebrated enough because it shows Michelucci as a true genius of architecture.

Hopefully that finds its way into the collective memory in future.

Absolutely.

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Tickets to Daniel Libeskind’s keynote presentation at the University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning’s Centenary Gala – to be held at Carriageworks on Friday 3 August – are available here.


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