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Family business

review - Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture By Daniel Libeskind (with Sarah Crichton). John Murray, 2004. 288pp. £20

It used to be said of Daniel Libeskind that he had risen from the avante-garde to the architectural establishment without ever having built a building. This was still almost true in the 1990s - as the architect is the first to acknowledge in this entertaining book - but not for very much longer. By the dawn of the new millennium, such thoughts were no more than forgotten footnotes to a dazzling career.

Appropriately, for a man destined to revolutionise his field, Libeskind was born into a Jewish family in a country that was undergoing its own revolution. In 1946, at the end of the Second World War, Poland was in the throes of an extraordinary rebirth.

Its 1939 frontiers had been moved west to the line of the Oder and Neisse rivers to give it 40,000 square miles of what had been Germany, while 70,000 square miles of what had been Poland in 1939 were surrendered to the Soviet Union.

It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic backdrop to the birth of a genius than the uprooting of his birthplace. Isn't a dramatic parallel already taking shape in the mind of the reader? A link between the explosive character of Libeskind's built architecture and the circumstances of his birth?

Yes, there is just such a link, and it is made clear in this book when he writes: 'I've sought to create a different architecture, one that reflects an understanding of history after world catastrophes? I find myself drawn to explore what I call the void - the presence of an overwhelming emptiness? Born in the post-Holocaust world to parents who were both Holocaust survivors, I bring that history to bear on my work.' The strangest thing about this explanation is not so much that Libeskind does exactly what he says for the next 200 pages, but that he does so with such little success. Whatever the architect may say about the importance of history to his work, he is certainly a posthistorical figure himself, living in an eternal present, flirting with celebrities, quoting with approval Philip Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright on the overriding importance of being able to get commissions, and criticising critics for having too much power.

The technique is more successful when it is applied to the 'adventures in life' promised by the title. Here, Libeskind uses a series of flashbacks, sewn into the episodic structure of the book, to tell the story of his early life and family. A visit to the 2002 Venice Biennale reminds him of an earlier voyage from Venice to Israel in 1957, which in turn reminds him of the night the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 - also witnessed by the Libeskind family.

These coincidences are occasionally pushed to extremes, especially in the case of the destruction of the World Trade Center, which happens - you've guessed it - 'only hours' after the public opening of the architect's Jewish Museum Berlin.

Nonetheless, further Libeskind moments come thick and fast as soon as he enters the lists to rebuild Ground Zero. He buries his head in his hands theatrically at the lectern and calls for memory and history, or perhaps just more Libeskind, to stop the epic commission falling into the hands of 'commercial' SOM. Who is really an authentic New Yorker becomes the next burning issue, and the doors of memory are opened upon the family Libeskind again.

This time it is 1959 and they are sailing into New York harbour after wandering from Poland through the USSR and back again, and then again to Israel and back again finally to New York, where they settle down. Happily - we hope - ever after.

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