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  • 10.09.14

Freedom Tower Architect Daniel Libeskind: “Ground Zero Is Very, Very Close To My Original Idea”

The renowned architect talks to Co.Design about how he works, embracing failure, and why he’d love to design an airport.

After more than a decade of development, 1 World Trade Center, the 1,775-foot colossal tower that has risen from the depths of Ground Zero, is finally ready to open (probably). Due to security concerns and meddling developers, the grandiose skyscraper that has slowly climbed high above the rooftops of lower Manhattan is strikingly different from the Freedom Tower New Yorkers originally thought they were getting.

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Once upon a time, world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind, the designer of that original spiky, daring design, would refer to himself as “the people’s architect.” Chosen as the master planner of the site, he was soon after shunted out of the design process of the tower in favor of developer Larry Silverstein’s choice architect David Childs. In response, he feuded. He filed a lawsuit. The various parties eked out a truce, and a subdued skyscraper, far from Libeskind’s vision, rose. Yet somewhere along the way, Libeskind changed his tune. Co.Design caught up with the 68-year-old Polish-American designer, who now describes his work as the master planner of the World Trade Center as something a bit different–more symphony conductor than star soloist.

In advance of his keynote appearance at Dwell on Design in New York City later today, Libeskind–whose completed work ranges from world-famous museums to memorials to the Holocaust and 9/11 to private homes and a Las Vegas shopping mall–spoke to Co.Design about his architectural process, dealing with failure, and why design is all about patience.

How do you feel about the new 1 World Trade Center, which is so radically different from what you had originally envisioned?

Daniel Libeskind: I’m the master planner of the site. As the master planner I had to give a vision of what the site is. You know, how high the buildings are. Where do they stand? What is their value? What is their significance? How do they create public spaces? I feel great, because I feel Ground Zero is very, very close to my original idea.


Of course, there are different architects interpreting the score that I wrote, but that’s all for the good. I often say master planning is like writing a composition and being able to conduct it. The person who writes the composition and conducts it, he’s not visible. The audience sees the violinist and the tubas and the clarinets and the cellos, and sees maybe only the back of the conductor. And the score–which is the master plan–has to be not only interpreted but arranged for the players to be able to put their own creativity in it. Otherwise, it would just be a mechanical piece of music for a player piano.

So when you do master planning, do you design in that wiggle room to allow the creativity of the other people involved?

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Absolutely. I think in a democracy we need pluralistic architecture, we need variety. We really need to concentrate on things that are not so obvious, which [at Ground Zero] is public space for people who are not going to be in the towers. I designed it [to be] not just about the buildings. It’s the spaces, what you see when you walk on the street. That’s by the way, why I didn’t do a megastructure. Most of my colleagues and great architects design very large buildings. I decided to put the buildings on the periphery and devote most of the site to public space.

I think of my parents, who are working people, in New York. They would never be in those towers. But they’d be on the subways, on the PATH trains, running to work on the street.

So you’re not the type of architect who really wants a grand monument?

No, I’m not Ayn Rand. I never liked that book. [Laughs]

Co.Design: Do you have a way that you approach every new project?

Walk around it quietly. With no one there–none of my associates, no clients–just walk by myself. Then, I think the next step is, I always grab a piece of paper at some point, not necessarily on the site–a sketchbook, an airline ticket, a napkin, whatever is available–and I sketch something that is inspired by that experience. When I come back to the studio, I build a humble little model from cardboard, or something not very sophisticated–later of course translated to a more precise computer model or physical model. Then, after that you know I sit together with the very creative people in the studio. It’s an interactive process, once you begin to see what has emerged.

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It always starts in a very solitary way. It goes through a sort of personal echo. At a later stage, it cannot be moved ahead without a client. I never show the client a ready-made thing and say, “Do you like it?” It’s very important for me to hear, after this initial exploration, what the client thinks, what is their view, and to listen very carefully, because I think great clients are partners in the process.

Can you give me an example of something you initially found at a site that later inspired your architecture?

When I was in Berlin, for my very first project, [the Jewish Museum]. There were about 200 architects who were invited to the site after the colloquium, all with cameras. I was not interested in photographing the site. I was not interested in just looking at the obvious street elements. I was interested in what lay behind the site, below the site, up in the air over the site, in the smokes of the chimneys that went over the clouds. So I was in a completely different world in some way, which I thought about in the sense of the invisible streets of Berlin, which were changed after the devastation of Germany. I didn’t start the project by immediately drawing the building–not at all–but drawing the matrix of what happened there. What was it across the abyss that connected us today to that site?

Ground Zero was the same thing. I didn’t start by creating tall buildings and looking at street patterns, but really going into that bedrock and touching that space where people perished. And really being affected by something that is not so obvious, which is what the site really means in a sense of culture/spirit, not only in its technical response to rebuilding a whole urban neighborhood.

You’ve done quite a few of these projects that have quite a bit of emotional weight behind them, in terms of Holocaust memorials, and World War II museums.

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I have to tell you, I did a house recently in Connecticut. It’s a beautiful greenfield site. I also thought about other things, you know, what transpired on that site. Native Americans lived there. That had a lot to do with my response formally, in terms of creating the shape of that house. Even a greenfield site, and even a program which is as humble as a private house should, in my view, refer to other things, not just to the apparent, but let’s call it the less visible, the less audible, which is part of this context.

Sketch of Connecticut house, 2010

What is your dream project?

I have to say, I never dreamt about projects, from the very beginning. I never dreamt of clients, I never dreamt of “I wish I could do this.” But probably if I were to fantasize, I would love to do an airport, because I truly dislike most airports. And I travel so much. They’re to me so horrible in general, that I’d love to try to do an airport.

Do you have any particular habits that help inspire you and help you stay creative?

You have to find the unexpected. I think Heraclitus said that the most important things in life are unexpected, but the unexpected is difficult, because it happens so quickly that you mostly miss it. So how to find that unexpected moment of what a site really means, which means who lives there, what happened there, and what might happen in the future. It’s a kind of topography of the imaginative. I can’t define inspiration, but without inspiration you should give up the project.

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You have to find an inspiration in a blade of grass, in a shadow falling obliquely on a site in an unexpected moment, in the eyes of a passerby, in a flight of birds. Vitruvius recommended, if you want to understand a site, look at the birds flying over the site. It wasn’t just about omens but about ecology sustainability, what is a good site, how do you develop it in a sustainable way?

You also do furniture design as well. How does that inform your work as an architect?

It happened to me by accident, like everything else. Someone said to me, “Mr. Libeskind, would you like to design a door handle?” And I thought that was the funniest and silliest thing I’ve ever thought about. Then I thought about it for another minute. I said, “Why not? I’ve never even thought of a door handle.”

It’s equally challenging, because it’s so prosaic, and it requires so much intuition, knowledge and ingenuity to do something that people would like to have. And it’s affordable! It’s easy to design expensive objects. It’s relatively easy to design expensive buildings, but I’ve never been impressed by it. Because most people don’t have that money, and how do you do something that is affordable? That’s what I call democratic design. A concert hall that’s not $600 million but $60 million, which I did in Dublin. Or a chair which is not $10,000 but $600. That’s important to me.

How do you learn from your failures–when a client doesn’t work out, or you don’t get selected for the project, or when your project completely changes over the course of building? How do you deal with those roadblocks?

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You have to embrace change. No project has stayed exactly as I first drew it. Every project has undergone a transformation. And I think that’s what gives life to a project. If a project as it doesn’t change to me–it’s the same in the first drawing and it’s built in exactly the same way–it’s just dead on delivery.

You learn that design is not some sort of a folly that you just have in your mind. A lot of ideal designs are follies to me, even when they get built. They’re not really interesting. Interesting projects are projects that go through transformation, that run out of money, that have a change of clients, that have a lot of public discussions, that have a whole committee that have politics.

You have to have a lot patience to do good design. That’s what I’ve learned. You can’t just do it quickly. You just have to go with your patience, and struggle to accomplish what you set out to do.

Ottawa Holocaust Monument

You’ve done quite a few Holocaust memorials and museum designs. Why do you return to these projects?

It’s not something that I choose very lightly, because it’s very difficult, but I believe that it’s very important.

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My first finished building was the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück, [Germany]. It was a very small, very low-budget museum. But I learned that to communicate even in a very, very small way can change really how people think of not only the past–which we cannot change–but of the future. Do something positive, do something hopeful, something that moves us beyond just the darkness and gives us something positive. That’s why I’ve always thought you’ve got to be an optimist. Even when it comes to the memory, you can’t just dwell on the irreversibility of the tragedy. You have to have something hopeful. You have to inspire and you have to move people to look at different things.

With so many genocides going on around us . . . There was now a competition for a project for Rwanda. It’s no longer just limited to this topic [of the Holocaust]. Others are realizing that this memory is important in the world, to teach and also to experience, that “never again” is not a slogan, but something that we have to embody in our spirit.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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