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passionate times

For Daniel Libeskind, with projects in six countries around the world, nowhere is home but he is attracted by the 'new cultural impulse in architecture' in the UK and the exciting atmosphere of London in particular by robert booth

When the plane touches down for his next site visit to the Imperial War Museum - North in Trafford, Daniel Libeskind could be forgiven for mistaking the Manchester tarmac for half a dozen other runways around the world.

The on-going construction of the startling £28.5 million museum dominates the current thoughts of the Berlin-based Libeskind, but new projects in Kuwait City, Guadalajara, Denver, London and Pittsburgh are ensuring his passport remains well thumbed.

Libeskind's practice, formed with his wife Nina, is currently hot property and projects are flowing in fast to its Berlin office. Increasingly, these are a departure from the museum format with which he made his reputation - at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. This month he was in Kuwait City to discuss a vast new shopping and entertainment complex and he is designing a 5,000-student campus in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara. Closer to home, he has won a commission for the headquarters of a building company in Dresden. And for an architect interested in the destructive impact of the Second World War there is irony in this commission for a construction company in a city nearly destroyed by the RAF. Despite having practised for 10 years, it is his first office building, but then his has not been a standard career.

Libeskind was born into a Jewish family in post-war Poland and began playing the accordion at the age of six.His parents did not want to buy a piano for fear of appearing affluent in a still antiSemitic country, so he transcribed the baroque music he loved for the squeeze box. 'It was a radical act and people loved it, ' he says. 'By the time I was a teenager, I was more than a virtuoso.'

He switched to the piano and studied to become a concert pianist first in Israel and then New York, but soon quit to pursue architecture as an academic and he eventually started his own practice in 1990.

Libeskind says he cannot explain the career change and now claims that even his days at the piano were part of his architectural career. The constant factor in both jobs is performance and communicating with an audience, ' he says.

Now, Libeskind is viewed as an intellectual heavyweight, whose written and design work has been described by the philosopher Jacques Derrida as 'breathtaking', and Derrida's own writings can be difficult and dense. But he is far from elitist in his view of buildings and is an evangelist for architecture that people can enjoy through their senses, rather than through their intellect. In person, he comes across as charming, fast talking and lucid and his understanding of architecture is extremely accessible.

'The text of architecture is not read just by the eyes or the mind, it is read by the body and the feet and the ankles and the hands, ' he says. 'Buildings have to communicate vitality, life and interest to the public. Nobody has to explain to anybody the mathematical structure of a fugue by Bach because you can just sit and listen. If there is enough substance in a work and it is not just a one-liner then it will have a life of its own.'

And indeed, Libeskind's first major building, the Jewish Museum, already has a life of its own and visitors have flocked to the building despite the fact that not a single exhibit is yet in place.The trustees of the Imperial War Museum - North are hoping for the same public response on Trafford's industrial wastes.

'This is one of my favourite projects ever, ' he says of the Imperial War Museum - North. 'Of course it's about creating a great iconic building, but it's also about regeneration and about transforming the whole perception of Trafford.'

Indeed, its 55m tall tower will be seen from Manchester City Centre, reminding shoppers that Trafford has more to offer the city than just Manchester United Football Club.

Libeskind's other major project in the UK is the Spiral, a stunning, but controversial, £80 million extension of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It has such verve that it looks likely to bring a new lease of life to South Kensington. The proposed building is a series of asymmetrical, interlocking blocks sandwiched between parts of the original Victorian museum, but Libeskind rejects the suggestion that it is provocative.

'It is on the same wavelength as the boldness of the Victorian architecture, ' he says. 'It communicates with the Victorian, it doesn't try to blend and present itself as a copy. It has the bold ideas that the Victorians had: structure, how detail goes with large scale, and how space interlocks in terms of its use.There is a deep affinity to the logic and the poetry which made these buildings rise in the first place.'

His work on both schemes has given him a taste of a better climate for architecture than the one he left behind him in 1972, following a postgraduate degree at Essex University. 'There is a new cultural impetus about architecture which is very profound in England, ' he says. 'The architectural scene is changing from a place where everything has been done and everything has been discovered, to a place of new possibilities.

'The key players might not even have been architects, but the people in the Lottery who made architecture an important issue. That is a great shift from when I was in London and building was not at all discussed in the same way as cinema or business or fashion. Like all great cities, there are temperate times and more tense, passionate times. I think in London we are living through the latter.'

But Libeskind's favourite London architect is not from the brave new era of British architecture.

Libeskind, like many others, is keen on Sir John Soane, and spends quiet moments leafing through books of his works.

'I hope to have an exhibition at the Soane House soon, ' he reveals. 'He's a brilliant space maker and he is an architect who is ever living in my own experience. I always look at contemporary architects but I don't often find them the most inspiring.'

Inspiration also comes from cinema, and in particular the Marx Brothers. Their film, The Big Store (1941) has become his inspiration for a competition for a shopping centre in Switzerland.

Libeskind used the film to express to his client how he wanted to address the shopping centre.

Although he is currently based in Berlin, Libeskind has not built a home there and lives in a rented apartment. He pledged to the city's governing senate that he would remain there until the contents of the Jewish Museum were installed.

That is due to happen next year and he will not rule out either a move to the US or London. The Spiral will be ready to go on site and London clearly attracts him.

'We will be opening an office and you won't be able to keep me out of London because it is so exciting to build in that environment, 'he warns.But one question still nags. When he arrives, will London be ready for him?

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