Architect of his own great rise: Daniel Libeskind's chatty memoir details frustrations and triumphs
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 November 2004)

In the 1960s dora libeskind and her family were living in the bronx housing co-op of the amalgamated clothing workers' union. They were immigrant jews from poland, glad to be in america but anxious about establishing a secure place. While her husband worked at a printing firm, dora spent her days dyeing fur collars and sewing them on coats in a sweatshop, using chemicals that (her family later decided) brought on the cancer that eventually killed her.

Her determination and wide-ranging intelligence provided a model for her son, the architect Daniel Libeskind. At the factory, she was a fierce advocate of workers' rights. At home, she delivered her views of the world in a mix of Yiddish, Polish and English, supporting her arguments with quotations from Nietzsche and Spinoza.

Her son remembers that, "Her tiny, fragile body -- stunted by starvation, oppression, longings, regrets -- concealed a titanic power." She claimed direct descent from Judah Loew, the 16th-century Prague rabbi who, according to legend, transformed mud into a powerful monster, the "golem," defender of the Jews. Daniel doesn't doubt it. "My mother did have magical strength."

Among other accomplishments, she directed her son into architecture. He was drawing obsessively and heading toward a career in art. Dora didn't like the sound of that. "You want to end up in a garret somewhere, not even enough money to buy a pencil?" She pointed out that architects are also artists but often make a living. "You can always do art in architecture, but you can't do architecture in art."

She emerges as the most compelling character in Libeskind's engaging and readable memoir, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture (Penguin), written with Sarah Crichton. Libeskind has lived one of the great stories of recent cultural history, full of surprises, frustrations and triumphs. He tells it by shifting back and forth between his present life as a world-renowned architect and the earlier struggles of his family, in particular his parents' escape from the Holocaust.

For a long time after taking his mother's advice and graduating, Libeskind taught architecture but seemed unlikely ever to put up a building of his own. In fact, he built nothing till he was in his 50s, when his Jewish Museum in Berlin was finished and his reputation made. That led to many more commissions, including the World Trade Center rebuilding in New York (he did the master plan) and the new version of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

His career so far looks like a persistent campaign against modernist architecture. He finds strict modernism (the new Museum of Modern Art, for example) heartless, cold and simple-minded even when it's elegant. "The tyranny of grid!" he writes. "I fight against it all the time: buildings like checkerboards."

But the first broad attack on modernism, by postmodernism in the 1980s, produced a kind of whimsical historicism whose charm soon wilted. That doesn't deter Libeskind.

He believes buildings should carry a sense of the past, though he obviously doesn't think they should look like the past. He wants to reintroduce historical symbolism without making obvious references to cathedrals or Chippendale chairs.

At his Jewish Museum a sense of tragedy, acrid and inescapable, fills the air, conveyed through Libeskind's own design vocabulary of sharply angled spaces, zigzag lines and rough materials like zinc. He turns buildings into metaphors and individual rooms into theatres of history.

Breaking Ground is a surprising and often inspiring book, quite unlike the self-justifying collections of pious cliches that most architects produce when they try to tell their stories. Those who don't enjoy it may agree with the Times Literary Supplement that "it has the glib chattiness of a sports biography." Other readers will be grateful, as I am, for that same chattiness, and for the candour that bubbles up within it. It seems to me an exceptionally truthful book about architects and their lives in the world of expensive buildings and lottery-like competitions. The intimate tone and a certain boyish quality in the narrative create spaces through which interesting truths peek out.

Architecture may be the bitchiest of the arts. For one thing, it often creates anxiety and anger among its practitioners by putting them too close to big money, a danger rarely faced by other artists. Success in architecture seems to require the temperament of an artist and the financial drive of an entrepreneur, a combination unlikely to produce generosity of spirit. Many architects consider the business a zero-sum game in which anyone's success diminishes everyone else's chances.

Libeskind tells us that when he offered a few criticisms of some early proposals for the World Trade Center site, one of the architects involved, Fred Schwartz, approached him with fire in his eyes: "I'm a New Yorker ... Don't tell me how to build my city ... You think you can stomp all over us?"

Later, after Libeskind's master plan for the site was accepted, Larry Silverstein, the property developer building most of the new World Trade Center, forced Libeskind into a miserably unhappy collaboration with Silverstein's favourite architect, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. After Libeskind held meetings with Childs, he compared their tense, largely pointless discussions to the slow, orchestrated border confrontations between North and South Korea at Panmunjom. As for Silverstein, he knows precisely how much rentable office space he wants but, as Libeskind sees it, doesn't much care how things look. In these battles Libeskind's Canadian wife, Nina, has been his manager, cheerleader, lobbyist and peacemaker. He emphasizes that she deploys skills learned in left-wing Canadian politics as the daughter of David Lewis and the sister of Stephen.

Libeskind sees himself as a democrat, always glad to hear the opinions of others. He slips from that position just once, when he succumbs to the impulse that afflicts many defensive and egotistical artists. Explaining why some people don't like his work, he says they aren't emotionally ready for it. It "unnerves some critics, many of whom perhaps are more comfortable in an antiseptic world where emotions can be kept at bay and buildings can be discussed in purely aesthetic terms." That could be true, but it could also be true that they dislike his buildings for good (and not fearful) reasons. Libeskind is too talented to shelter himself behind shaky amateur psychology.

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