Daniel Libeskind: Architecture is ‘l’chaim’

Daniel Libeskind: Architecture is ‘l’chaim’

World-class architect Daniel Libeskind, whose work graces cities from Europe to America to Asia, will speak Tuesday evening, May 5, at 8 p.m. at Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

“New Jewish Architecture from Berlin to San Francisco” is the subject of this year’s visual arts program at the synagogue. Libeskind’s name was in the news in recent years as one of the key architects in the master plan for the World Trade Center memorial reconstruction.

A centerpiece of his work, however, is the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for which he was chosen in a competition in 1989, and Libeskind’s life and work has a special Jewish resonance.

He was born to Holocaust survivors in a troubled land – Poland in 1946, just emerging from the Nazi nightmare. He was then reared in another turbulent environment – the newly formed State of Israel, where he spent his childhood.

Daniel Libeskind Courtesy Studio Libeskind

Libeskind was brought to the United States as a youngster and became a citizen in 1965. He put down roots in New York, graduating from the Bronx High School of Science and Cooper Union in Manhattan. He holds a master’s degree in the history and theory of architecture from the University of Essex in England.

His designs include those of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, built on the structure of an old power plant, and the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen.

He is the principal design architect in the firm Studio Libeskind in lower Manhattan, coincidentally two blocks south of the WTC site. In another coincidence, on visits to lower Manhattan in the 1960s the young Libeskind watched the Trade Center towers being built.

Libeskind’s team includes his wife, Nina, chief operating officer and partner.

Before turning to architecture, Libeskind studied music. He began playing the accordion in Poland, then switched to the piano when the family moved to Israel. In 1958 Libeskind won an American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship and the Libeskinds moved to the United States.

There is a common thread in the two disciplines, combining artistic expression with a technical underpinning. “A building has to be technically sustainable, but it has to have more than that,” Libeskind said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan studio. “It has to have cultural value.”

Does being Jewish influence his work?

“Totally,” he said. His “sense of Jewishness is inseparable” from his work, he said.

“Architecture is the most optimistic of professions,” Libeskind said. “It’s a belief in life despite all obstacles, it’s l’chaim. Building a better life is the most important thing.”

Libeskind’s first building was the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for which he was chosen in a design competition. It is described as being a “flattened, rearranged version of the Star of David.”

The museum opened to the public on the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001.

After working at various architecture firms and teaching Рhis r̩sum̩ includes heading the school of architecture at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Рhe turned to his own first project at 42, the Berlin museum.

Since then, his projects have left his imprint in England, Spain, Korea, Israel, Canada, and Poland. In the United States, his works are in Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Covington, Ky.

There is irony in that someone so touched by the Holocaust – 85 members of his family perished – should be so marked by his work in Berlin. The central structure of the museum is actually a void, an empty space, a powerful tribute to those who can’t be there. In a podcast interview at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, he dealt with that issue.

“The Holocaust stemmed from Berlin,” he said. “Six million Jews died because of the horrors of that place,” he said. “The extermination cannot be undone, but what can a city do? What can a country, what can Europe do to not just remember that history but deal with it effectively today?”

In the same interview, he answered his question:

“As an architect … you’re always building something for a better world. Whenever you construct something, the very notion of constructing is about a faith that the world can be a better world.”

At the Teaneck lecture Libeskind will show slides of his work and sign copies of his book, “Counterpoint.” The lecture is sponsored by the Alfred and Rose Buchman Endowment Fund, and is free and open to the public. The synagogue is at 354 Maitland Ave.

If you go, bring your questions. “I like to interact with people, I will take questions,” Libeskind said.

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