Architect Libeskind builds politics, emotion into designs

November 7, 2009

Optimistic vs. pessimistic. Radical vs. conservative. Complex vs. simple. These conflicts with the status quo were how Daniel Libeskind, the renowned architect who created the winning design for the new World Trade Center, described his work at a Nov. 4 presentation in Lewis Auditorium during a talk sponsored by AAP's Department of Architecture.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Libeskind described how his experiences growing up in post-war Poland, his immigration to America as a teenager and his identity as a Jew have shaped his architectural vision.

Libeskind, a Gensler Visiting Critic at Cornell, first rose to prominence when he designed the Jewish Museum of Berlin, which opened in 2001. The building's architecture reflects the Jewish experience in Europe. It takes the form of a stylized Star of David with severe angles, harsh lighting and a large spatial void that evokes the Holocaust.

"Everybody likes cool buildings. I don't like cool buildings. ... I like buildings with a built-in emotion, an emotion that disturbs the balance of your feelings," Libeskind said.

He criticized contemporary architecture for "playing it safe" and relying on pre-established formulas. Libeskind urged architects to be more politically active, lamenting, "Some architects think we shouldn't do that, to leave politics for politicians, but architecture is inevitably political."

Too much contemporary architecture is neutral — "I don't like anything neutral," he said, pointing out that many of his projects, such as the War Museum in Dresden, Germany, are political by nature. Libeskind added that he will work only in democracies, noting that he is perhaps one of the only leading architects not to work in China. He mused that this was a missed opportunity, but necessary for his principles.

The design for the Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site calls for a spiral of four towers, each one taller than the next. The tallest would be the Freedom Tower — 1,776 feet tall. Because his work seeks to "respond to the past," his design calls for leaving the footprints of the two destroyed towers as a memorial, with a waterfall lining their perimeters and retaining walls and exposed bedrock from the foundations of the original World Trade Center.

The project, he said, is a tribute to his love for New York City and how the city itself was his inspiration for becoming an architect. "There is nothing to prepare you for the power, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty and the Light of the Oppressed," he said of his first memory of the city when he arrived by boat.

"New York is about liberty, it's about freedom, it's about everything that makes life worth living."

By Jordan Walters
(Jordan Walters '11 is a student intern for the Cornell Chronicle.)

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