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Virtuoso performance

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Daniel Libeskind: The Space of Encounter Thames & Hudson, 2001. 224pp. £22.95

Daniel Libeskind's first career was as a musician. A scholarship took him from Tel Aviv to New York, where he trained, and later fulfilled his promise, as a virtuoso performer.

However, his interests stretched far beyond music. Libeskind needed a field in which he could flourish and found that architecture offered the opportunities for expression he sought.

This book presents the opus to date. It combines letters, lectures, projects and built works. The text is sometimes analytical, sometimes descriptive and sometimes utterly impenetrable. There is a strong musicality in Libeskind's writing and an obvious enjoyment in manipulating language. Sometimes he seems to choose words more for their melody than their meaning.

The lectures are more conversational than the other texts and are the easiest passages to follow. The description of his Jewish Museum in Berlin is particularly convincing. If a project and an architect were ever perfectly matched, then this could be the occasion. This was far from a normal architectural problem and Libeskind's cultural sensitivity and originality produced a solution which has rightly won him universal recognition.

The book includes numerous projects with a Holocaust theme, and the uniqueness ofthe Jewish Museum in Berlin seems diluted by their similarities. Regardless of Libeskind's various descriptions of cultural rationales and site-specific determinants, the overwhelming impression is that, stylistically, these works are identical.

The book includes the full breadth of his output, including the fantastic early drawings and some of the worst prose imaginable. Libeskind's convoluted and largely unpunctuated sentences soon begin to irritate. The occasional randomness of phrases takes on a comic quality, as if they were the result of a poor translator overreaching the scope of his vocabulary. I have yet to entirely banish from my mind the image of the 'donut of desire' after reading Libeskind's 'Short treatise on the difference between the meat and the signature'.

Several of his 'texts' are reproduced as plates, one with letters barely 1mm high.

Even this miniature scale dwarfs some of the drawings, which are included at sizes so reduced that they are unreadable. In a book which is otherwise so meticulous in its content and composition, the failure to include drawings at a legible scale is remarkable.

Fortunately, the book has some compensations.With the Victoria & Albert Museum extension, the Spiral, Libeskind has found another problem which he seems peculiarly well suited to solve. Not only the design, but its audacity, deserve admiration. Unlike many illustrious predecessors, Libeskind was able to disarm those organs of the British planning system which helped keep London devoid of world-class buildings for 30 years. To think that his proposal was one of only 4 per cent of projects which the Royal Fine Arts Commission felt able to recommend unaltered leaves you in no doubt that this is a performer who can win over his audience.

In this book Libeskind displays a unique and insightful appreciation of the problems and possibilities of the world around him.As with many in the avant garde, he is at his best when railing against convention. His criticisms of architectural education, practice and procurement are wonderfully unrestrained and viciously accurate.

Libeskind's practice is far from conventional and is described accurately as 'a laboratory of ideas'. His preoccupations are certainly not those of architects in the master builder tradition and he does not appear suited to the more mundane building types.

Nevertheless, when the appropriate opportunity arises, he has proved that he can be inspirational, and it is reassuring that architecture can still attract people like him.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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