Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

A Chance To Make Up Ground

April 10, 2009

Blueprint Magazine, Issue #226, Dec 04/Jan 05

On the 11th September 2001, Berlin’s Jewish Museum finally opened its doors to the public, marking the end of a 12-year struggle by architect Daniel Libeskind to realise his first building.  At almost the same moment, events were occurring in New York that would alter the course of history, and would also trigger a process culminating in the Polish-born architect’s masterplan for the new World Trade Center.

It is almost impossible not to have an opinion on the ubiquitous Libeskind: astute self-publicist or deconstructivist dreamer?  Expressive genius or consummate showman?  During his late-blooming career, he has made much of his background (a son of holocaust survivors who fled Poland for New York), yet his buildings have genuine popular appeal.

Libeskind’s memoir gives weight to the idea that portentous coincidences such as the 9/11 date are central to his approach, rather than lettable-space ratios. Each one of his buildings is deeply rooted in a narrative of emotions and ideas, although critics suggest that metaphors which work so well on his major projects – such as the Jewish Museum – are inappropriate when applied to less emotive commissions. His recent Graduate Centre for London Metropolitan University, for instance, apparently drew inspiration from the shape of the Orion constellation – an idea viewed by some as invalid and arbitrary.

Despite the criticism, Libeskind has a genuinely fascinating story to tell.  At 52, he was an architectural theorist and academic who had never built a single building, yet within ten years had almost forty major projects completed or under construction around the world.  Woven into the tales of these designs are recollections of his childhood and his clearly inspirational parents.

But the real story here is the fable of one man’s fight to defend his World Trade Centre masterplan against the onslaught of corporate interests.  Although Libeskind was declared the winner of the architectural competition, site owner Larry Silverstein exercised his right to employ gargantuan architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as chief designers.  In theory, Libeskind’s input was agreed as a bizarre formula where he controlled only 49 per cent of the design, against SOM’s 51 per cent. In practice, one suspects that he was ultimately less successful than he admits in retaining the fundamental aspects of his masterplan (a view supported in a recent Channel 4 documentary), but this is a tale yet to be concluded.  Only in retrospect will it become clear whether Libeskind’s masterplan for the World Trade Center site was the pinnacle of his career or a design compromised by vested interests.

‘To a generation steeped in fashionable irony, I’m sure much of this sounds hokey,’ Libeskind admits at one point, in response to the frequent criticism of his emotional and apparently naïve approach.  Yet he convincingly argues that no building is free of meaning – just that bad architecture fails to convey the design’s intended message.  There’s no doubt that Libeskind is genuine and, in the end, this reader was seduced by the clearly unique philosophy of a man who may one day be viewed, without dispute, as a great architect.