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Daniel Libeskind: ‘I’m not interested in building gleaming streets for despots’

James Pallister speaks to Daniel Libeskind who, soon to reveal designs for the notorious Maze Prison, is well versed in emotionally sensitive projects

Daniel Libeskind is set to reveal plans for an £18 million ‘conflict transformation centre’ on the site of the former Maze Prison in Belfast, where he is working with local firm McAdam Design. The architect behind the Imperial War Museum North in Salford Quays, Manchester, and the ditched Spiral extension to the V&A, talks to the AJ about working on politically difficult projects and looks back on his extraordinary career.

You’ve worked with very many places which are charged with emotion and raw memories: the Jewish Museum, Dresden Museum of Military History, and now the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. How do you approach sites with such charged histories?
We became involved in the Maze project after being approached by the local architects. It’s an extremely well-known, notorious site. Everyone knows about it in New York City, not just in Northern Ireland, England, the UK. It’s known globally. It has such a meaningful, difficult history. It goes further back from its days as a prison too – prior to that it was a military airfield. For me the project is about building the peace and about reconciliation, and also about creating a place for discourse and moving the place forward. Architecture doesn’t work alone, but it should be part of the process of going towards a better place.

The project isn’t just a formulaic building type, it’s a series of spaces which respond to the local context

The project isn’t just a formulaic building type, it’s a series of spaces which respond to the very local context. It’s important buildings belong to the art of communication and go beyond a conversation about what are crudely called icons – they should be about opening up conversations and improving our world.

If local context is so important to influencing the building, can you explain why your projects share a formal vocabulary, be they in Toronto, Dresden (pictured below) or Shanghai? They have very different contexts.
Architecture isn’t just a product you choose in a store. It’s not like a set of clothes. You don’t change your architecture like you change your suit, it has to follow a creative path. If you have a strong feeling about your work, then you must pursue a certain path.

Daniel Libeskind’s has completed the redesign of the Dresden Museum of Military History

Source: Bitter Bredt

People like a strong sense of authorship. You go to a concert because you want to hear Debussy or Mozart, not something composed by committee. It’s the same with architecture – you don’t want something that was designed by committee. The strong works of art have a strong sense of authorship. We go to see a Vermeer because it is a Vermeer and we enjoy his work. We enjoy reading James Joyce because of his strong style.

But a novel is self-contained. It doesn’t have to relate to its context in the way architecture does.
Ok, then let’s talk architecture. Borromini’s buildings share the same formal vocabulary, and Mies van der Rohe’s buildings share the same formal vocabulary, which they are known for and develop. They have a signature style, and people love them for that.This isn’t just about a superficial facadism, it should be about developing spatial ideas which make people think and raise debate and shouldn’t fall victim into forgetting local contexts. When I built a tower in Singapore it took into account the challenges of building in the tropics and was fitting for the weather there.

How is the Ground Zero site shaping up?
The tower is going very well. It’s becoming the heart of the city and the area is coming back to life. It’s a great site; I see it every day and it’s fantastic to see the life going on there.

Lots of architects have struggled since 2008. How has the recession been for you?
I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to work in different places around the world. So we managed to not be hit by it too much. If you are producing work which is just froth, then you are in danger [of feeling the] highs and lows of the market. But if you are genuinely doing something else, producing work which is truly sustainable and taps into memory and culture, then you are in a much better position.

It’s more than 20 years since the influential ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’ exhibition at MoMA. Looking back now how does Deconstructionism seem as an architectural style?
Yes, it’s amazing. At that point I didn’t have any architecture built and people wrote me off as a paper architect. Not now. Architecture comes from drawings, if you go back to Vitruvius’s Ten Books,that’s evident. It has a lot to do with geography and history but it is communicated in drawings.

I didn’t go through the established career path but somehow I’ve been lucky to forge a path and build several buildings. Who would have thought? But, you know Vitruvius said that a good architect can draw and they can play music. And nothing has changed since then.

In London there have been several memorials built recently which have been criticised for their use of abstract language – for example the 7 July 2005 bombing memorial by Carmody Groarke (AJ 11.12.08). Some find them difficult to identify with and the story which they mark. What’s your view on this?
I’ve thought about this quite a lot. Architecture which deals in memory solely through the use of abstraction won’t work. It’s about telling a story. You can be abstract to communicate something, but that is different. I think abstract language can be valuable but it needs to be used among a palette which may include more explicit references. Unless the building or memorial communicates something then people won’t identify with it. Memory is so important and so vulnerable in our culture. Architects should delve into the depths of a place and try to express the memory.

What advice would you give to young architects starting out today?
I don’t think I’m wise enough to give out advice. I’d say that architecture is about ideas and poetry and not just building. It’s a cultural and spiritual discipline and not just a mechanical one. Architecture shouldn’t be reduced to a product, it shouldn’t be treated as if it were a car or something expendable. I would encourage them to delve into the humanistic tradition of architecture. The challenge is about creating architecture for human beings: when cities are expanding greatly how do we celebrate the individual? How do we create a connection with nature that is meaningful? It’s about poetry and the arts, not just building.

Architecture shouldn’t be reduced to a product

The humanistic side of architecture has been under attack by ideologues who believe that architecture can solve all our problems, and who want to reduce architecture into a tool or a machine subordinate to people. One has to struggle against this. But it’s a struggle which takes place within a democracy and it’s not about an Ayn Rand-type individualistic stance, it’s about working to and helping create a consensus.

What would be your guidance to architects considering the ethics of working – or not working – for certain clients?
Everyone has to respond to this individually. First one has to ask whether the project is legitimate – should it be built? That’s a very important question, which all good architects ask themselves. Architects can sometimes be used to serve purposes which aren’t very desirable and they need to be wary of that: whether it’s fascist or communist architecture, or any architecture that is to do with sheer oppression. We need to remember the words of Winston Churchill, that in a democracy liberty cannot be taken for granted.

So are architects society’s moral arbiters?
They’re not moral arbiters but they should have morality. Even if they produce gleaming towers, if they are morally questionable, I’m not interested. I’m not moralising – it’s in Vitruvius. Architects have to take responsibility for their work. I’m not like the Kriers, who may admire some of the Nazi architecture, or Karl Marx Allee, because of its aesthetics. I can’t separate the formal geometry from the context of who they were commissioned by and the morality of those states. I’m not interested in building gleaming streets for despots; I prefer making work in the challenges and constraints of a democracy than working in a homogeneous system.

One of the debates in London is whether architectural education is becoming too abstract?
You might be interested in something I ‘m doing called Think Tank Cities. I’m taking architecture to non-architects. I think it’s important that architecture isn’t an elite hobby . I’m contributing to an online course which is free online and through social media which is meant to give the tools of architecture to people and to help empower people and move on from the myth-making which surrounds architecture. It’s very hands on; people draw and make models and decide what things should look like. It’s a myth that only certain people are creative. Everyone can be creative, they just need to develop their skills. I really believe we are moving into an entirely new era where people will not be happy to sit back and wait for the architect to design something. They will be able to participate in a meaningful way.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Daniel Libeskind was a very poor choice for this important commission in Northern Ireland. Despite his spurious claims to the contrary, he really has no appreciation for the nature of the struggle or the way in which the conflict is understood culturally within the local community. The man could care less about the Irish people so long as he gets to concoct another gimmick-laden shard form. We’ve seen it in Germany, Britain, the Far East, anywhere people have bought into his pretentious rhetoric. More to the point, Libeskind’s racist opinions about Catholics and Protestants (which he proudly published in his rather ridiculous book of “poetry” called Fishing from the Pavement), clearly mark him as an insensitive, divisive and dangerous figure. http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/207372/shred-libeskind-blueprints/deroy-murdock - Don’t be fooled by that supercilious grin Libeskind dons for the cameras. It’s always been about his ego.

    Not least, Libeskind’s forms (in addition to being banal one-liners), are inherently hostile, brutal and aggressive. It’s hardly the formal vocabulary for expressing peace and hope. It says something about how much of a fast talking con man he is, that his buildings are so widely despised by the public, so commonly the subject of ridicule and derision in the press. Smugness is no substitute for talent.

    Libeskind was kicked off the World Trade Center projects after his shallow and superficial ideas were found to be offensive to many people. And it is with good reason that over a decade later he has yet to get a single commission in his home town of New York where he is widely known to be a charlatan and buffoon. So why is the Maze wasting money on his formulaic ideas? Why would they risk invoking the disrespect that invariably become associated with Libeskind’s work?

    Perhaps Mr. Pallister could ask Libeskind a few more follow-up questions regarding these troubling matters.

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  • FYI - Daniel Libeskind is NOT a winner of the Pritzker Prize. That said, I would not be surprised if he claimed he was. In his own mind, I'm sure he's won the Pritzker and the Nobel Peace Prize (and probably sees himself as a candidate for the Papacy as well). Libeskind lied about designing his apartment in New York, even though he paid architect Alexander Gorlin to do it for him. Lying about the Pritzker Prize would be a logical next step for Libeskind. Truth does not figure largely in his ego-driven world.

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  • Why was Libeskind, a known hatemonger with despicable sectarian views on Christians, allowed to participate in this process? His involvement makes a mockery of the lives of people lost in Northern Ireland's struggle. I'm saddened to think that this opportunistic hack will merely exploit this situation as another excuse to create one of his stock solutions with clashing forms and empty rhetoric. It is disgraceful that such a disgusting, polarizing and selfish personality will sully and degrade all the good work that has come to pass in Norther Ireland. If Libeskind had any decency he would resign.

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  • Shortly after being appointed to the Ground Zero job, Libeskind decided to milk the tragedy for every penny it was worth. He wrote a self-penned biography extolling himself in language rarely seen, and totally at odds with his very limited skillset as an architect. In lieu of expressing any humility, he exploited the forum to diss just about every other architect in New York, even though Libeskind himself had never built anything there. Most disgustingly, he asked his publisher to release his book on the 3rd anniversary of September 11 so he could tie in some book signings with memorial events going on around the city. And, inadditionto fes he was paid, Libeskind demanded almost a million dollars extra as a supplemental "genius fee" - No surprise then that New Yorkers abhorred the always pompous Libeskind and he was quickly ousted from the project and has never gotten another commission in New York. That he passed himself off as an architect even though he failed to sit the licensing exam only confirmed his arrogance and lack of respect for the standards of professionalism most architects hold in high regard.

    At the Maze, I predict formulaic wedges and shards, aggressive shapes and plenty of the trite and asinine "symbolism" that Libeskind ascribes to his superficial and meaningless designs. Whatever the site gets, it will NOT be about the Maze or the Northern Ireland conflict. His design WILL be about Libeskind, his ego, and his craving for attention. I hope it is not too late for Northern Ireland to learn from New York and get rid of this guy before he degrades the process as he surely will.

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