Daniel Libeskind's New York office is remarkably modest considering it is from here that he's masterminding the world's most challenging architectural scheme -- the US$10 billion-plus reconstruction of the 16-acre (hectare) World Trade Center site, which is located only a five-minute walk away. His studio is a makeshift space equipped with around 15 village-fete-style trestle tables groaning with plans and models of Libeskind's most ambitious project to date. \nBut then Libeskind, who sailed into New York in 1959, a Jewish immigrant accompanied by his Holocaust-surviving parents, and who has since lived in London, Milan and Berlin, is clearly used to transience. A life of survival and adaptability has rendered the trappings of an elegant office a cosmetic irrelevance. Libeskind, who talks in rapid-fire, staccato sentences, mentions unapologetically at one point: "We're in temporary offices. We don't have wallpaper. Just a wonderful spirit." \nOf his loyal team, which includes his diminutive but formidable Canadian wife Nina, he said: "People are here because they believe in what they're doing. It's not about how impressive your desk is or the accouterments on the walls." \nWith no reception, and an intimidating atmosphere of intense concentration and industry, this is no place to walk into as a stranger trammelled by British reserve. The only way for me to puncture this bubble is to propel myself into the space with a forthright introduction. We're in New York, after all, city of Teflon-coated self-belief and chutzpah -- qualities Libeskind possesses in spadefuls. He has stood by his consistently controversial projects with unwavering conviction. \nThe centerpiece of his Ground Zero scheme is the monumental Freedom Tower. Other elements include a Memorial Museum, a sunken Memorial Garden removed from street-level bustle and so conducive to contemplation, two cultural centers, retail outlets and a railway station that promises to be Lower Manhattan's answer to Grand Central Station, and which will provide a link from New York to JFK Airport. \nMost contentious of all is Libeskind's desire to retain part of the 21m-deep, 168m-long bathtub-like structure (otherwise known as the "slurry wall") in the bowels of the site that prevents water seeping in from the Hudson River -- symbolically, an emblem of resistance to terrorism and a powerful reminder of Sept. 11. \nThe competition for the scheme was speedily conducted in two stages. Last December, seven architectural practices submitted nine schemes in round one. By February, these had been whittled down to two -- Libeskind's and a design by Think, a practice headed up by Rafael Vinoly, which envisioned two translucent, ethereal towers made from scaffolding filled with cultural spaces. Libeskind's scheme was given the green light on Feb. 27. This despite the acid-bath vitriol heaped on it. \nRival architect Vinoly described Libeskind's design as "the Wailing Wall." In a tit-for-tat spat, Libeskind dubbed his opponent's scheme "two skeletons in the sky," and deemed its name, World Cultural Center, a sinister throwback to Stalin's "palaces of culture." \nNew York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, has called its retention of the slurry wall "astonishingly tasteless, emotionally manipulative and close to nostalgia and kitsch." \nLibeskind maintained Muschamp had become Think's unofficial campaigner and one of his team e-mailed fellow architects urging them to write to the paper to "get rid of this guy." The e-mail was leaked, making the vendetta public. \nMeanwhile, a recent survey revealed that the majority of New Yorkers wanted the Memorial Garden to be at ground level (so it can be crossed more easily) and thought that the height of the proposed tower was a red rag to terrorist attacks. There have also been countless political wrangles over how the project will finally look, and it still stands the risk of being compromised by powerful parties holding a stake in the site. \nLarry Silverstein, who owns the lease on the site and has the legal right to rebuild on it, is a hard-nosed voice of Mammon: he has pushed for it to be filled by a giant shopping complex to replace the Twin Towers' mall, formerly America's most profitable retail space. He is also opposed to the slurry wall, arguing that it is unsightly and would deter commercial tenants. He has talked, ominously, of wanting Libeskind to "inspire, not design" the site's buildings in collaboration with one of four architectural firms he has approached (including Foster and Partners). \nBut Libeskind cheerfully deflects such challenges by rationalizing that controversy is a vital ingredient of democracy. \n"Discussion is part of the civic process. If people don't discuss a building, they don't care about it. Architects have to be ethical, really mean what they're doing, and take the risk of that path. It's not the path of least resistance," he said. \nThis rational argument, however, is undoubtedly bolstered by unshakeable self-belief: "You have to believe 100 percent in what you're doing, you can't be victim to the whims of fashion." \nLibeskind's reputation was established by his first project, Berlin's Jewish Museum, commissioned in 1989 and completed 10 years later. Then came Osnabruck's Felix Nussbaum Museum, which houses the paintings of Nussbaum, an artist who died in Auschwitz; the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and his proposed Spiral extension for the Victoria & Albert Museum. \nLibeskind's theatrical, formally innovative architecture is a continuation of a tradition of sculptural architecture, epitomized by the Sydney Opera House, and revived and expanded by Frank Gehry, of Bilbao Guggenheim fame. Steeped in narrative and metaphor, it marks a major departure from the hi-tech, steel-and-glass edifices of Lords Rogers and Foster. But while Gehry's buildings are characterized by softly billowing curves, Libeskind's geometrically complex architecture is, less sympathetically, jarringly angular. \nSpiral is almost too serene, too calmly symmetrical a form to describe the twisting, lurching vortex of sharp-cornered planes of the planned V&A extension. Aesthetically, it recalls the jagged, fragmented abstract art of the Italian Futurists, Russia's Suprematists and Constructivists, and Vorticist Wyndham Lewis. The Spiral has echoes in Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, a leaning, spiral tower (the model for a building to house the Third International Communist Congress in Moscow, in 1921, which was never constructed). \nMatching these forms in their dizzying complexity is Libeskind's taste for highly wrought, often bafflingly Byzantine symbolism. The Freedom Tower's height, which measures 541m, is an allusion to the 1776 War of Independence. Set to be the world's tallest structure, its tapering form is an abstracted, stylized homage to the Statue of Liberty's torch-bearing arm. A proposed Heroes Walk will trace the firefighters' paths as they raced into the Twin Towers, while its Wedge of Light -- a triangular piazza the shape of which is defined by the angles of the sun between 8:46am, the moment the first plane hit the first tower, and 10:28am, when the second tower collapsed -- is designed to ensure no shadow falls on the site between those times, every Sept. 11. \nAt the heart of his labyrinthine, zigzagging, zinc-clad Jewish Museum in Berlin -- part celebration of Jewishness, part Holocaust memorial -- is a void chillingly symbolizing the absence of Jews in the city. More frustratingly abstruse is the museum's Garden of Exile with its 48 columns signifying the birth of Israel in 1948. Similarly obscure is the way the angles and plays of light and shadow in the museum all point, with meticulous geographical accuracy, to the homes of hundreds of Berlin's lost Jewish families. Another conceit underpins the Spiral: if laid end to end, its planes would measure the length of Exhibition Road (500m), where part of the V&A stands. \nBut Libeskind contests that he is obsessed with cryptic symbolism. He shrugs off any suggestion that the impact of his buildings is diminished if you can't decode their more esoteric symbols. \n"It's not important," he insists. "Architecture is about creating a multi-layered fabric of the city. The city has many stories. You can walk into a space in many different ways and pick up on many different narratives. It's not about prescribed things you should know about. People discover things on their own, discover architecture on more than one level." \nHis desire to create an open-ended, multivalent architecture is inversely proportional to his revulsion for crudely reductive buildings: "The reduction of culture in architecture has been an ongoing issue in totalitarian architecture, its reduction to some easy slogan like `people's architecture.'" This personal bugbear is deeply rooted in autobiography, in the painful experiences of his parents and their effect on him. And it sheds considerable light on his architecture which, cerebral conceits aside, is highly emotional and more subjective than he perhaps cares to admit. \nLibeskind was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1946, to parents who had survived by escaping to the Soviet Union, where they were promptly interned in camps in Siberia. Released, and reunited in 1943, Libeskind's parents returned to Warsaw, which, rife with anti-Semitism, was a hostile environment to live in. But the family's fortunes improved dramatically when, from an early age, Libeskind displayed a remarkable talent for the accordion. In 1957, aged 11, Libeskind and his family emigrated to Israel, then to the Bronx, New York, where his mother worked as a seamstress, his father in a printworks. In Israel, Libeskind performed with Daniel Barenboim, then in America played professionally in such venues as Carnegie Hall. \nBut while his all-consuming passion was music, the intellectually curious Libeskind hated the humdrum life of a performer and began cultivating additional interests. First mathematics, then architecture. \n"It was an organic process," he said. "I didn't wake up one day and say: I want do to X. In any case, I'd always loved architecture." \nHe studied at New York's Cooper Union, graduating in 1970, then did a postgraduate degree in the history and theory of architecture, in Britain, at Essex University, having by now married Nina, whom he'd met at a summer camp for the children of Holocaust survivors -- and who, incidentally, is Naomi "No Logo" Klein's aunt. \nIn the 1970s, Libeskind developed a highly personal, unorthodox architectural language, expressed via a series of complex abstract drawings and collages bristling with erudite references to art, architecture, literature and science. To this day, his work is informed by the ideas of chiefly Jewish intellectuals -- Kafka, Einstein and Arnold Schoenberg, to name a few. One set of drawings, Micromegas (1979), depicted wildly eddying geometric forms reminiscent of the canvasses of Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky. Another labored under the ponderous title Chamberworks: Architectural Meditations of the Themes of Heraclitus (1983), yet the drawings fizzed with energy and brio. Typically in a slim, horizontal format recalling a musical score, they teemed with fast-flowing currents of oscillating waves and lightning bolts. The drawings were an exploration of his belief that music and architecture are intimately linked, which he still holds today. \nAsked if making the transition from music, a relatively intangible medium, to the physicality of architecture was difficult, he said, "Music and architecture are very connected. Technique plays an incredibly important role in both. You couldn't do architecture or music if you didn't learn how to move your fingers." Then, typically, after making the case for technique, Libeskind's thoughts segue seamlessly into his intellectual views of architecture as culturally enriching. \n"But technique is only good if it's a means to an end. I guess what I'm trying to say is that technique has to dissolve itself and allow you to see something beyond it," he said. \nI ask Libeskind if his work has an affinity with Rachel Whiteread's art, which he said he "loves" -- on the grounds that both have created highly controversial Holocaust memorials. (Whiteread's is in Vienna.) But he disagrees, pointing out that, unlike art, architecture has a duty to be serviceable. "It's something to be lived in, not looked at. Buildings are something to be used in a very pedestrian way -- even museums. They have toilets, staircases, windows, elevators, air-conditioning systems." \nDespite apparently valuing functionality as much as ideas, for years Libeskind's predilection for non-representational architectural drawings, coupled with his reputation as a heavyweight academic (he lectured regularly at Yale and Harvard and the Architectural Association), led many to assume he was more interested in theorizing than in building. And with justification: he didn't build anything for the first two decades of his career. \nUntil, that is, his discovery in July 1989 that he'd won a blind competition to design Berlin's new Jewish Museum. The relentlessly peripatetic Libeskind -- who was about to move from Italy to Los Angeles to take up a prestigious Getty scholarship -- was caught on the hop. But faced with the choice between sticking with his plans or moving with Nina and their children Lev, now 25, Noam, 23, and Rachel, 14, to Berlin, he agreed to the commission. \nWhen the museum opened to widespread acclaim, he was propelled into the spotlight as a sought-after international architect. It was recently reported, however, that many Berliners had expected a German to win the commission, and that when it went to a Jewish Polish-American, they sent him hate mail, and he was blacklisted from hundreds of design competitions for the city's redevelopment. \nHe and Nina subsequently refused to speak German in public. Yet this isn't the emphasis he now places on these events: "Berliners weren't unhappy -- they were surprised." \nIf there was even a nagging doubt that they were hostile towards him, did it at any point put him off the project? "No. Working there gave me an interesting insight into Berlin," he said. \nIt's tempting to speculate that designing the Jewish Museum and working in Berlin enabled him to confront and exorcise personal demons. Could this have been a major reason for him having undertaken the project? Libeskind responds by saying: "I don't think you can separate the personal from the political. I bring my experiences in very conscious ways to all the projects I've done. My work isn't immune to deeper things. I don't agree with the idea that architects remove themselves out of the operation, that they're universal voices." \nHe substantiates this further, quoting from a philosopher he admires: "The observer, said Werner Heisenberg, is not neutral." \nCertainly, just as Libeskind's mind effortlessly zaps back and forth between concrete references and abstract conceptualizing, he is as populist as he is highbrow. No ivory-tower egghead, shortly before it was announced that he'd won the Ground Zero competition, he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Not above frivolity, he has given interviews to the New York Times about his weakness for cowboy boots and designer glasses. He also played the man-of-the-people card when he appeared on CNN and gave a sentimental speech about his arrival in New York and his first, unforgettable impression of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline -- which won the hearts of New Yorkers. \nScholarly allusions aside, his highly emotional, site-specific architecture is rooted in democratic principles, in grass-roots research, in wishing to involve any affected parties. To get truly under the skin of the World Trade Center scheme, he met relatives of those who died on Sept. 11 and firefighters, and attended as many of their meetings to discuss their thoughts about the site's redevelopment as possible. He also swears by gut instinct. At the start of each project, he strives to divine the "voice of the site." \nHe did so at Ground Zero -- currently a crater swarming with workers building a temporary terminal for the Path train link that will connect New York and New Jersey -- by touching the site's "slurry wall." At present, the ring-fenced area is remarkable only for its colossal scale. On one side is a poignant, if modest, black plaque listing the names of those who died. \nIt's a key hallmark of Libeskind's work that he paradoxically juxtaposes light with darkness, transcendent hope with gritty reminders of tragedy, the acme of which is the Ground Zero scheme, with its light-filled tower and giant scar at its base. "It's important to embrace the reality of the terrorist act, not bury it, say nothing happened there. That day changed the world, changed America. When you think of what happened, you realize this memorial space is an important space. It can't just be a park with Frisbees being thrown about in it." \nLibeskind has toed the patriotic line, not only with his CNN speech, but by recently wearing a Stars and Stripes pin in his label and constantly affirming his love for America and New York in particular, for "the people, the conversations you can have here, the speed of it, for being the gateway to America." \nHas the outcome of the Iraq war complicated his views of the US? \n"No, the time when I was growing up had its issues -- the Cold War, nuclear shelter drills, Vietnam," he said. \nPatriotism, he insists, isn't inherently right-wing -- surprisingly, perhaps, given that extreme nationalism helped fuel Nazism. \n"I never thought anyone should appropriate the true images and symbols of America for one group's consumption as the right wing has done. Patriotism belongs to everyone -- Jews in the Bronx, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans ... " he said. \nDespite his CNN speech, Libeskind denies he ever felt entitled to win the Ground Zero project because he was an immigrant. "Not at all. I simply approached it from the point of view of being a citizen of the world and of New York." \nOf course, the genteel denizens of Kensington in London were less than thrilled at the prospect of the futuristic Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) Spiral, although it now has the blessing of culture secretary Tessa Jowell. Provided the remaining funds can be raised to cover the scheme's US$124 million cost, construction should start next year. For Libeskind, the Spiral isn't inconsistent with the V&A's original ethos or its architecture and interiors, given it was designed by progressive figures, such as William Morris, who conceived it as an inspiring, educational space. \nWidely perceived to have specialized in building monuments and memorials (including also San Francisco's Jewish Museum), Libeskind has been cruelly nicknamed by young architects as "Death Camp Danny." \nDoes he feel he's pigeonholed himself? \n"That's a misrepresentation. That's how I started -- with the Jewish Museum in Berlin -- but I've also built a media center in Hong Kong, Europe's biggest shopping mall in Berne, and a department store in Dresden," he said. \nLibeskind has often stated that architecture is "optimistic." Does he mean it is optimistic or that it should be? And, by extension, does he believe in progress? \n"It has to be optimistic," he said. "It has to celebrate life. Like Kafka said, I believe in progress because it hasn't happened. If you didn't believe that you could change things for the better, you wouldn't struggle." \nThis romantic, life-affirming philosophy doesn't quite take into account the reactionary, life-denying architecture of Albert Speer. \nWhen it's the mouthpiece of a totalitarian system, it's no longer architecture, is his answer to that. And his thesis appears to omit the market-driven, "price-per-square-foot" mentality of some developers. But for Libeskind, good architecture accommodates polarities. It must face reality by acknowledging harrowing truths about the past and make room for symbols intimating a better future. \n"Architecture has to give a new horizon to view, a freedom. The only way it can do this is to be rich with meaning, but rooted in life. It's not an easy thing," he said.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
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