Son of Holocaust survivors. Libeskind was born in the Polish city of Łódź, the second child of survivors of the Nazi regime. In his youth, he was an accordion virtuoso, to which appearances on Polish television testify. In 1957, his family moved to a kibbutz in Israel, where he was taught the virtues of a life in accordance with nature. Later in his career, Libeskind would make his name as an advocate of “green architecture.” In 1958, the Libeskind family moved to New York. Under the mentorship of star architect Richard Meier, Libeskind embarked on his own career, a path that would lead him to become one of the leading architects of his time. Apart from the masterplan for Ground Zero 42, Studio Libeskind realized monumental projects that included the New Academy of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the London Metropolitan University, the MGM Mirage City Center in Las Vegas and the National Holocaust Museum in Ottawa, Canada. One of his most recent projects is an apartment complex in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district in Brooklyn. Oversized pictures of all these architectural masterpieces adorn the walls of Libeskind’s open plane office in New York. The day of OOOM’s visit, Libeskind exudes energy, is full of life. His reaction to compliments is modest: “Well, you know, it’s probably because all this is not work for me, this is what I love to do.” Then he asks us into his library, a room lined with shelves stacked with hundreds of volumes of all genres.
New York City has one of the most famous skylines in the world. What impresses you, as an architect, most about it?
It’s strange that this beautiful skyline is a product of money. Purely of capitalism. When Louis Sullivan, the father of American architecture, came to New York in 1900, he said: “The only god that is worshipped in New York is Mammon, the god of money.” And nothing has changed since. Everything is dense, space is scarce, we are on an island. And constructions were not aestheticized, with the exception of some beautiful bridges, or, for example, the Chrysler building: the head of this building was added after construction was finished, a kind of surprise, to give it a symbolic quality.
When it comes to modern, daring architecture, New York was long lagging behind other global metropolis. That has changed more recently.
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but Ground Zero ushered in a new era of functional, ecologically sustainable architecture in this city. It is not something you see from the outside, but those buildings are really advanced in terms of reducing the carbon footprint. For the first time, we are beginning to see architectural innovation in New York.
What are your thoughts on the so-called billionaire’s towers, those extremely high skyscrapers built for the richest people in the world?
They are what they are, and I think people are right. The only thing that drives those constructions is speculation, and that’s not a great way to design a city. But again: this is the nature of this island. It’s all about money. An unlike in European cities, buildings tend to grow higher and faster. There is a huge momentum.
How much of your original design for the “One World Trade Center” complex has survived into the construction phase?
Almost all of it. The size and height of the towers, their positions and outline. The footprints of the fallen towers, the waterfalls. And the fundament below the complex. There were many controversies, but when I pass the site now—I walk by it every day on my way to work—I am proud.
What are the biggest challenges in architecture today?
The biggest challenge in the world right now is how to reconcile the growing gap between the rich and the poor—and that challenge also encompasses architecture. To have a democratic city, you need citizens to participate and have equal access. It starts with affordable housing, access to public spaces.
By the way, Ground Zero is the biggest public space ever created in New York. And then of course there are global ecological challenges. How can we build smart buildings that save energy and where recycling is utilized? I called my original design for Freedom Tower “Gardens of the World,” and I envisioned gardens on every level. Now that has become a trend: the integration of nature into buildings.
Urban spaces are thriving, growing at a fast pace in many parts of the world. Do you think this trend will continue?
Yes, and it will accelerate. Cities were created out of the impulse to be with other people.