Daniel Libeskind Takes Home the Prize: After a Bruising Competition, a World-Class Avant-Garde Designer Wins Architecture's Commission of the Century: The Remaking of the World Trade Center Site
McGuigan, Cathleen, Newsweek
Byline: Cathleen McGuigan
You have to catch Daniel Libeskind on the fly these days. The once obscure architect--a revered avant-garde theorist who spent the first 20 years of his career without building so much as a birdhouse--was a besieged New York celebrity last week. Right after the press conference where his winning design for the World Trade Center site was praised by Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other public officials (most of whom probably hadn't heard of him six months ago), Libeskind disappeared into a thicket of TV cameras and microphone booms, then was whisked away by a phalanx of PR guys, as if he were Puffy Combs encircled by his entourage.
When he emerged from his bouquet-filled hotel room, even the desk clerk offered congratulations. He leaped into a Town Car and headed to Fox TV for a live appearance, then squeezed in a phone interview with The New York Times. He did admit he was enjoying the fuss. "Yes, yes," he nodded, his eyes bright behind black-framed specs, his cropped gray hair sticking straight up. Not bad for a man so shy of recognition that once, approached by a design buff on a London street, he denied he was Daniel Libeskind. But he did tell the guy he'd been mistaken for Libeskind before.
Who would have thought a year ago that a world-class radical architect would be chosen to design the WTC site? Forget for a moment that things could get ugly as politics, a lousy economy and competing stakeholders vie to drain the plan of its Libeskindicity. (And forget for a moment the eleventh-hour behind-the-scenes controversy over his selection. We'll get to that.) This is New York--a place with fewer great examples of contemporary design than any major Western metropolis, a place where development decisions are made by big-shouldered moneymen. The selection of someone of Libeskind's caliber for this historic project is a turning point for architecture and for the city, and it sends a clear signal that the public has an appetite for innovative design. It was public passion that forced the design competition from which Libeskind has emerged victorious.
In the past few weeks there's been a nasty duel between those who favored Libeskind's proposal--the memorial void and soaring spire--and those who wanted the plan by the team THINK, led by Rafael Vinoly and Frederic Schwartz. Detractors of Libeskind's scheme, which preserved the slurry walls that hold back the Hudson River, deemed its focus on the ground where so many died "tasteless" and "ghoulish." But similar interpretations were flung at THINK's pair of open latticework towers: they were termed "skeletons"--by Libeskind, among others--and some feared they'd be constant reminders of the vaporized Twin Towers. Still, THINK's compelling scheme was picked by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's site-planning group. But last Wednesday, their recommendation was overturned by a committee including LMDC representatives, the Port Authority (which owns the site), the city and the state. The mayor and governor personally joined in the discussions; Pataki had to split early, but phoned Bloomberg on his cell to keep his oar in--and everyone seems to know he preferred Libeskind.
At the big press conference the next day, Libeskind displayed another of his talents: he's one hell of a pitchman. For a guy who wrote highfalutin theory, he knows how to connect to a crowd. He'll start by spinning his own remarkable story: the classic immigrant saga of arriving in New York by boat, when he was 13, awestruck by the city skyline. He was born in 1946, to Polish Jews who'd survived World War II--barely--and immigrated briefly to Israel, then to the Bronx. His father worked in a small Hasidic print shop near Wall Street. Libeskind was gifted in math and music; his first instrument was the accordion. ("I was actually the first performer on Polish television at the age of 6.") He graduated from the elite Bronx High School of Science, and studied architecture at Cooper Union. …