Profile: Daniel Libeskind - Philosopher Who Creates Buildings That Perform to the Public

By Street-Porter, Janet | The Independent (London, England), July 6, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Profile: Daniel Libeskind - Philosopher Who Creates Buildings That Perform to the Public


Street-Porter, Janet, The Independent (London, England)


Yesterday the Imperial War Museum North opened in Manchester, the first building in this country by the distinguished architect Daniel Libeskind. At last, without any help from the lottery, Britain can boast a world- class piece of modern architecture, something to rival Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao or IM Pei's extension to the Louvre in Paris.

In Britain, successive governments have been strangely reluctant to realise that cutting-edge architecture is not only an essential part of urban regeneration, but it will also act as a monument to a political regime. We seem to be obsessed with putting new buildings inside old ones, from Tate Modern to the British Museum to the Baltic in Newcastle (which opens soon). Sir Richard Rogers, our leading architect, even lives in a Georgian house in Chelsea, albeit one he has made over dramatically. And the Royal Family endorses ghastly quasi-classical work like the new Queen's Picture Gallery by John Simpson.

However, with the Imperial War Museum, Daniel Libeskind has laid down a marker - and this is only the third building he has completed, at the age of 55. A philosopher, intellectual, brilliant draughtsman and uncompromsing modernist, this Polish-born maverick has kick-started the debate about how we want our cities to be in the 21st century - and it's not about pedestrianised area, traffic flow or skyines. We are talking about blood- and-guts architecture, unforgettable buildings that you cannot ignore.

Libeskind hit the headlines here in 1996 when he won the competition to build the extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington. Condemned by residents, his uncompromising design - the Spiral - won the backing of English Heritage as well as planning permission in a notoriously conservative (in more ways than one) area.

In The Times, Lord Rees-Mogg called the design "a disaster for the V&A in particular and for civilisation in general... we are all being invited to take a walk in the desert with the Devil". Six years later that seems, like so many of Prince Charles's pronouncements about modern architecture, hysterically over the top. Libeskind demands that we create a better way to live in the present, and stop mimicking the past. And there's no better place to demonstrate that than at the V&A. The museum, a jumble of Victorian and Edwardian buildings over 12 acres, is a nightmare to navigate. Libeskind describes his proposed extension as a "chance to reorientate visitors so they can see just how great this museum is... the Spiral is a reminder that the museum was originally a contemporary structure".

Bursting on to Exhibition Road, the Spiral doesn't so much link the old and the new as scream the presence of an institution that is firmly in the 21st century. It will contain public spaces, a roof- top restaurant and galleries for contemporary collections, but more importantly it places modern architecture right at the centre of things. Libeskind describes it as a 21st-century icon, and he is right, as its purpose is political rather than practical.

In the cultural war of premier league museums, he is the Sven Goran Eriksson - the brilliant philosopher, excelling at fundraising and public relations. The new director of the V&A, Mark Jones, is determined that the Spiral will be built, and fundraising is under way, the building having been denied lottery money. It is already being rebudgeted to cost less than the original pounds 75m.

Libeskind, who was born in Poland to parents who had fled eastern Europe and married in America, studied music in Israel and New York, graduating from the accordion to the piano, becoming a virtuoso performer who played professionally at Carnegie Hall. Switching to architecture at 16, he studied in New York and at the University of Essex. Subsequently he lectured and taught at many universities, including my former college, the Architectural Association, in London.

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