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Though little of the power of Daniel Libeskind’s original vision for the World Trade Center site has survived, he has skillfully leveraged his moment in the global media spotlight.

His Studio Libeskind is remaking skylines worldwide — from Korea to Las Vegas to Milan — using many ideas deemed too radical or too expensive for Ground Zero.

Architectural genius or canny marketer? Libeskind showed some of both in a recent interview in his Lower Manhattan office.
His passion electrified New Yorkers and television viewers worldwide when he presented an ambitious master plan for Ground Zero in December 2002.

Timid bureaucrats have shriveled the memorial’s emotional power in favor of a vast, bland, tree-dotted plaza that’s crept over most of the site. All of the buildings now planned for the complex are designed by other architects, yet Libeskind continues to advise the project. He staunchly defends what the design has become. He still wears his distinctive black-framed eyeglasses and architect’s basic black sweater and slacks.

“The plan had to evolve,” he said. “Who would be mad enough to think a project done in three months in a city as complex as New York would not change?”

I feared in 2002 that Libeskind’s plan would lead to a memorial that was too grandiose. Yet I admired the dynamic way he meshed the isolated 16-acre site back into the city: The crystalline shapes that tumbled over each other locked themselves into the jumble of surrounding streets. He extended the city’s energy rather than fending it off, as the World Trade Center’s bleak plaza did.

That dialogue with the surroundings has largely been lost. Libeskind’s engaging, sculpted shapes have been stripped down to characterless boxes.

He doesn’t see it that way, explaining that the symbolic elements remain key.

“It’s still a spiral of buildings that descend from the Freedom Tower with its symbolic height of 1,776 feet,” he explained. “It puts the memorial at the center of the composition.”

In a memorable image, he juxtaposed the spire of the Freedom Tower with the torch of the Statue of Liberty (a view available only from across the Hudson River in New Jersey). Yet does that make up for a straitjacketed streetscape?

“It is right that the composition of buildings emerge at the scale of the skyline,” he said. “Symbols are real.”

Symbols lose their meaning if what people encounter is a plaza to nowhere and extremely large and mediocre towers. I was distressed that he would endorse today’s bowdlerized plan precisely because his original design had insightfully shaped the real ebb and flow of the city.

“I did not win every battle,” he said. When the site is completed, “I think people will see something very interesting and important.”

In his early projects, especially the moving Jewish Museum in Berlin, his sharp-edged, menacing imagery was intrinsically tied to the building’s difficult subject matter. It was a risky venture because emotionally charged architecture usually fails. In the Jewish Museum, it succeeds unforgettably.

Now the same visual gestures are applied to shopping centers and college buildings. If they don’t usefully transform what goes on inside, aren’t they just jazzy visual gestures?

“It’s my language,” he responded. “It’s people identifying with my language and seeing it as meaningful…”

Libeskind was once that rare architect who wasn’t afraid to reach for peoples’ emotions and let architecture exude passion. As his output has become more prodigious, what was once risk- taking too often looks merely attention-getting. I hope he’ll still dig deeply as he savors his well-earned success.

James S. Russell
Bloomberg.com

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Slow Painting filters a variety of media to find evidence of the transformative power of visual art, often spilling over to include architecture, poetry, philosophy, science, nature, music.

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. — Robert Hughes
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Deborah Barlow, editor

Other Slow blog sites:

Slow Painters, a selection of artists who are creating their work for and from a transformative place

Slow Muse, Deborah Barlow’s personal blog on art, art making, and the contemplative