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Libeskind: nothing but a populist in academic clothing?

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Daniel Libeskind has assumed his rightful place in the architectural firmament: a showman, a populist and a public relations dream.The Libeskind who has been liberally splattered across the media over the past eight days is a slap-happy mish-mash of prodigious genius, personal tragedy and snappy soundbite.Little wonder that several publications have eschewed the usual photographic portrait in favour of a caricature.

This is a man who bears little or no resemblance to the Libeskind who, until recently, enjoyed a reputation as the thinking architect's architect, a pioneer at the vanguard of architectural theory.Armed with a serious academic career and a portfolio of impenetrable line drawings dotted with snatches of Dadaist text, he was one of a select band of thinkers deemed too brilliant to convey their ideas to less educated minds.

Yet here he is, single-handedly transforming sections of the media into a 'bluffer's guide'to architectural theory.Overnight, vast sections of the populace have become au faitwith the symbolic use of light and shade, the use of form as metaphor, even elementary mapping - think of the 'Paths of Heroes', a permanent record of the routes taken by New York firemen during the rescue operation.Libeskind has tapped into the popular conscience with a collection of gimmicks so blatant as to be verging on kitsch. Could it be that he has managed to design a building that, like the stories of CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien, can be read at two levels: a simplistic fantasy that is masterfully grafted on to an exploration of lofty ethical concerns? Maybe, maybe not. I have heard Libeskind talk theory to a supposedly 'knowing' audience on numerous occasions and have never understood a word he's said.Obfuscation, in academia in general and in architecture in particular, is often a smokescreen for either incoherence or simplicity. It could well be that the layman's understanding of Libeskind's ideas is pretty much all there is - and that the need to garner widespread appeal has forced the revelation that his true genius lies simply in tapping into popular opinion and translating into a suitably populist response.

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