Sky-High Dreamer; THE IoS PROFILE: Daniel Libeskind ; It Was His Emotional Speech about Arriving in New York as an Immigrant That Clinched Him the Job. Well, That and a Stunning Design for the World Trade Centre Site. Now All He Has to Do Is Get It Built

By Field, Marcus | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), March 2, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Sky-High Dreamer; THE IoS PROFILE: Daniel Libeskind ; It Was His Emotional Speech about Arriving in New York as an Immigrant That Clinched Him the Job. Well, That and a Stunning Design for the World Trade Centre Site. Now All He Has to Do Is Get It Built


Field, Marcus, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


There was a time when Daniel Libeskind, 56, thought he might never complete a building. Now, with the announcement last week that he had won the competition to design a scheme on the site of the World Trade Centre in New York, he could end up as the architect of one of the most significant projects of the 21st century.

The proposal - a ring of towers around a sunken "Ground Zero Memorial" contained inside the original fire-scarred basement area - has already caused controversy. Herbert Muschamp, the respected New York Times critic, called it "predictable kitsch". But Libeskind, a Polish American who now lives in Berlin, captured the hearts of New Yorkers when he appeared live on CNN during the final stages of the competition and said: "Like so many others, I arrived by ship in New York harbour as a teenager and as an immigrant. The Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline made an unforgettable impression, and this scheme is all about that."

"The minute he said that, he had the job," says Doris Saatchi, the New York art collector. "It's not showmanship. He just expresses emotion so well." Libeskind's charm and populist appeal is legendary. The small, fast-talking architect always draws a crowd on the international lecture circuit (a virtuoso pianist, he was last year's guest speaker at the BBC Proms). Last Monday he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and he has already given interviews to the New York Times about his trademark cowboy boots and spectacles and to Rolling Stone about his five "coolest" things (among them are a volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry and the Bible).

So charm may have played its part. But to be awarded the job to build on the World Trade Centre site is still a remarkable turn of events for a man who, only 14 years ago, had settled into a comfortable career as an academic. In that period Libeskind lived a transatlantic existence, dividing his time between teaching jobs in Milan and at Harvard and Yale in the US. Although he entered competitions, his Deconstructivist schemes were highly conceptual (many considered them unbuildable), and he had no office or staff.

Then, in July 1989, everything changed. Libeskind was in the process of moving from Italy to take up a prestigious Getty scholarship in Los Angeles - his possessions were already on the ship - when the call came to say that he had won the competition to design a new Jewish Museum in Berlin. It was a tough choice: he could continue with his plans or he could move with his wife and children to Berlin, set up an office and keep the pressure on the authorities to realise his project. Libeskind chose to build.

The decision changed his life. The Jewish Museum, finally opened in 1999, thrust him into the front rank of international architects and made him a prime candidate for projects such as the extension to the V&A Museum (a competition he won in 1996 with his as yet unbuilt Spiral scheme) and the design of the Imperial War Museum North in Salford, which opened last year.

This latest win represents another landmark in what has already been an extraordinary life. Libeskind was born in 1946 in Lodz, Poland, to Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust by escaping to the Soviet Union where they were interned in camps. Between them they lost 85 relatives. The family emigrated to Israel in 1957 and then, two years later, to New York where Libeskind's mother became a seamstress and his father was employed in a printworks. Meanwhile, the young Daniel attended a school in the Bronx and trained as a musician. He later switched subjects to study architecture and graduated from New York's Cooper Union in 1970. He became a US citizen in 1965, but has since lived and worked in Britain.

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Sky-High Dreamer; THE IoS PROFILE: Daniel Libeskind ; It Was His Emotional Speech about Arriving in New York as an Immigrant That Clinched Him the Job. Well, That and a Stunning Design for the World Trade Centre Site. Now All He Has to Do Is Get It Built
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