You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Daniel Libeskind’ tag.

Denver Art Museum

Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Two American museums designed by one world-famous architect have evoked two very different reactions from visitors and critics alike.

The Denver Art Museum and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum were both designed by Daniel Libeskind. They are part of a trend of ambitious museum architecture projects — the American Association of Museums reports that the amount of money spent on museum construction has gone up five times in the past 15 years.

Both Libeskind museums are seen as architectural standouts. But in buildings designed to showcase art, can form impede function?

The new addition to the Denver Art Museum stands out from the more traditional boxy buildings around it. Its gray, titanium walls meet at odd angles and reflect back the light of the Colorado sky. It looks a bit like a piece of a distant mountain broke off and landed in downtown Denver.

Libeskind says he conceived it as a “dialogue” between the 21st-century culture of downtown Denver and the surrounding Rocky Mountains…

Hundreds of miles away, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco — another Libeskind-designed building — received a very different reception…

t’s not immediately apparent, but the forms are pieces of Hebrew letters. They cut through the building and spell l’chaim or “to life.” Libeskind says he wanted the design to be an homage to the past and to the survival of the Jewish tradition.

“You discover the old and the new in a constant conversation with each other,” Libeskind says. “I think that is also part of the Jewish tradition. To do new, but always in conversation with an age-old history.”


Laura Sydell


Thom Mayne’s design for a corporate headquarters in Shanghai. (Courtesy of Morphosis)

Four months ago the architect Daniel Libeskind declared publicly that architects should think long and hard before working in China, adding, “I won’t work for totalitarian regimes.” His remarks raised hackles in his profession, with some architects accusing him of hypocrisy because his own firm had recently broken ground on a project in Hong Kong.

Since then, however, Mr. Libeskind’s speech, delivered at a real estate and planning event in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has reanimated a decades-old debate among architects over the ethics of working in countries with repressive leaders or shaky records on human rights.

With a growing number of prominent architects designing buildings in places like China, Iran, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where development has exploded as civic freedoms or exploitation of migrant labor have come under greater scrutiny, the issue has inched back into the spotlight.

Debate abounds on architecture blogs, and human rights groups are pressing architects to be mindful of a government’s politics and labor conditions in accepting commissions.

The ideological issue is as old as architecture itself. By designing high-profile buildings that bolster the profile of a powerful client, do architects implicitly sanction the client’s actions or collaborate in symbolic mythmaking?

Or in the long run does architecture transcend politics and ideology? If the architect’s own vision is progressive, can architecture be a vehicle for positive change?

For the most part, the issue is not a concrete one for the field’s top practitioners; no architect interviewed for this article except Mr. Libeskind has publicly rejected the notion of working for hot-button countries. Yet the debate underscores the complex decisions that go into designing architecture — from the basic financial imperatives, to public access, to the larger message that a building sends — and is prodding architects to reflect on their priorities.

“It’s complicated,” said Thom Mayne, the Los Angeles architect, whose projects include a corporate headquarters in Shanghai. “Architecture is a negotiated art and it’s highly political, and if you want to make buildings there is diplomacy required.”

“I’ve always been interested in an architecture of resistance — architecture that has some power over the way we live,” added Mr. Mayne, who said he had recently been interviewed for projects in Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Middle East and Indonesia. “Working under adversarial conditions could be seen as a plus because you’re offering alternatives. Still there are situations that make you ask the questions: ‘Do I want to be a part of this?’ “…

Some architects argue that architecture is more important to them than politics. “I’m a guy who has on my wall a picture of the guy in front of the tank,” said Eric Owen Moss, a Los Angeles architect, referring to the famous photograph from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. “But I’ve never turned down a project in Russia and China”…

Architects like Steven Holl cast their decision to build in China as a way of promoting a connection between East and West. “Certainly I question working anywhere,” Mr. Holl said. “But my position as an architect is to work in the spirit of international civilization and cooperation. You have to make a contribution.”

He cited his two-million-square-foot Linked Hybrid housing complex in Beijing, which will be heated and cooled by a 660-well geothermal energy system. “We are making the largest green total community in the history of Beijing,” Mr. Holl said. “This is an example for many kinds of urban work.”

Others go even further, arguing that their projects will be an emphatic force for social change. The Swiss architect Jacques Herzog has asserted that by supplying acres of public park space to city dwellers in the long term, his Olympic stadium in Beijing, designed with his partner, Pierre de Meuron, “will change radically — transform — the society.”

“Engagement is the best way of moving in the right direction,” he said.

Robin Pogrebin
New York Times

When deciphered, the jagged lights on the sloping lobby wall of the new Contemporary Jewish Museum that opened here on Sunday form four Hebrew letters that spell out pardes. That word has the same Persian root as the English word paradise. It alludes to a park, a garden, an orchard, and thus invokes the pastoral promise of Eden as well.

This is the kind of esoteric symbol much beloved by the museum’s architect, Daniel Libeskind. In the heart of downtown San Francisco, his $47.5 million building, with its skewed blue-steel structures jutting out of a landmark 20th-century power plant, may not live up to the word’s impossible promise, but it will certainly gain attention for the institution.

Like so many other new museums, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is dedicated to a hyphenated American identity, in this case one that has flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a Jewish population of 200,000 that ranks third among United States metropolitan regions. Jews lived in San Francisco from at least its early boom days, when they streamed in with other settlers during the Gold Rush. So their sense of belonging is not tentative; they are comfortably at home in a Western pardes…

And while other identity museums celebrate the particular, this one actively avoids anything that might seem too particular, seeking instead to leap into aesthetic or cultural realms in which Judaism is an element or influence. The museum, like its audience, is interested in assimilation, even in the ways in which the larger culture assimilates Jewish ideas and associations. It focuses not on the substance of Judaism, its laws, or history or ritual objects, but on perceptions of them.

Edward Rothstein
New York Times


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