When Daniel Libeskind speaks, he invites his audience to enter a world in which his unique thought process has the power to alter their perception. The son of Holocaust survivors, Libeskind was born in 1946 and was raised in Poland, Israel and the United States, locations that each impacted his evolution as an architect, now known the world over. During his formative years, he displayed extraordinary talents as both an accordion virtuoso—he won prestigious prizes and played with Itzhak Perlman—and as a science phenom who studied at the famed Bronx High School of Science.
It might seem that Libeskind chose to ignore his gifts and pursue another vocation, but that really does not seem to accurately convey what happened. The truth is that everything he experienced and learned was absorbed and retained for an end product: his extraordinary approach to making architecture, which resonates beyond the need to house or shelter.
Called as “an architect known for memorializing historical trauma,” Libeskind believes his designs are structural translations of music, literature and philosophy. He cites myriad sources for his inspiration, ranging from the compositions of Bach and the philosophy of Descartes to the writings of Shakespeare, Proust and Joyce. Remembering his own childhood, he describes the way that silence, the texture of stone, or the sensation of rocks under his feet continue to possess the power to evoke, in a visceral sense, what he experienced during those years. For him, architecture is like an abstract painting or a minimalist novel or play: to be complete, the work relies on the feelings and memories of those who engage with it.
Architecture, he says, “has to tell you something. It’s not just walls.”
It’s been recently announced that Libeskind will plan a new 45,000-square-foot structure to be erected at the site of
Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life, the synagogue where 17 congregants including several Holocaust survivors were wounded and murdered by a gunman in October 2018. The reimagined “Tree of Life” will bring together in one space a house of worship, a memorial and headquarters for a new educational organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. A skylight, “Path of Light,” will run the length of the entire building to visually unify all the entities.
Libeskind intends that this multi-purpose project will simultaneously focus the tragedy of the past but carry hope for a better future. The elements that Libeskind employs to convey this concept have their origins in his designs for his first completed building, the Felix Nussbaum Haus, a German museum dedicated to the brilliant artist murdered by the Nazis in 1944. Evidenced here is the visual vocabulary with which Libeskind is now identified: the zigzag windows—wounds which emit jagged streams of light—the ominous corridors that lead nowhere, harshly illuminated, claustrophobic galleries, and ultimately, a path leading to the outside world—here, a flower-filled garden.
Winner of multiple awards, Libeskind’s landmark extension for the Jewish Museum Berlin was initiated in 1989 and was seen by more than 350,000 people, even before the art was installed for its 2001 opening. With the building’s articulated form suggesting a splayed Star of David, its stark zinc and titanium exterior is broken up, or perhaps scarred, only by the placement of the zig zag windows. Compelled to literally walk through German history, visitors must enter Libeskind’s extension through the façade of an adjacent Baroque building and then descend to an underground passageway, where they encounter three passageways. Libeskind’s studio provides a key to their symbolism: The first leads to a dead end—the Holocaust Tower. The second leads out of the building and into the Garden of Exile and Emigration, remembering those who were forced to leave Berlin. The third and longest traces a path leading to the Stair of Continuity, then up to the exhibition spaces of the museum, emphasizing the continuum of history.
Focused in urban areas around the globe, Libeskind’s commissions for new museums, cutting edge apartment buildings, stadiums, theaters and other projects are considered gateways that open these locations to a new life and identity as an arts community, a hub of business and a tourist destination. As the architect himself states: “I think there is a new awareness in this 21st century that design is as important to where and how we live as it is for museums, concert halls and civic buildings.”
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B’nai B’rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.