Catastrophe's gleaming shards

Breaking Ground
February 24, 2006

With his trademark black leather jacket, cowboy boots and rectangular black glasses, Daniel Libeskind is the very model of the uber-urban architect. His designs for Berlin, Manchester and New York have made him an international name, almost a brand.

In the UK, he has built the graduate centre at London Metropolitan University and the impressive Imperial Museum North in Manchester. The latter - a shiny, curvy building with a striking vertical shard adding height and industrial mass - was inspired by dropping a teapot in a plastic bag out of a window and then playing with the shapes of the six largest shards.

Breaking Ground is part memoir, part manifesto. Its last paragraph, which consists of only the words "You have to believe", encapsulates Libeskind's crusading approach. With the help of Sarah Crichton, he has produced a gripping read - conversational and excitable in tone - probably based on taped and edited speech.

Libeskind was a child prodigy, an accordion player who played with Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim, who as an adult likes to design buildings on music paper. As a child, he learnt to apply Euclidean forms by inserting whalebone into corsets in his mother's shop. As is well known, much of his family died in the Holocaust. While designing the Jewish Museum in Berlin, he plotted the addresses of 160,000 names taken from a memorial book for all Jewish victims of the Nazis on a map of the city, adding the addresses of figures he admired, such as Paul Celan and Mies van der Rohe, and discerned in the resulting pattern a "distorted Star of David", which became the basis of the design.

Astonishingly, this was Libeskind's first building, built when he was 52. Subsequent projects have made him something of a catastrophe architect, reaching their zenith with his plan for the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre site. Through his distinctive zigzags, narrow slashes of light, shiny industrial materials and use of concrete, Libeskind aimed to supply a continuing narrative of human sorrow.

Designing a building, Libeskind argues, is a matter of taking concrete, glass, wood, steel - which "come from the earth" - then shaping from them a space that "engages the mind, emotion and intellect, memory and imagination". Then, he says, you add "divine" light. "Buildings, contrary to popular thought, are not inanimate. They live and breathe, and like humans have an outside and an inside, a body and a soul."

The book discusses buildings in emotional and emotive terms, and it is this attitude that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, won over New Yorkers, who voted for Libeskind's design. It is about "restoring the spiritual peaks to the city"; a tower 1776ft high (to match the date of America's independence), topped with a spiral mirroring the curves of the Statue of Liberty.

It is hardly surprising that his all-encompassing philosophy and excitable approach have got backs up among some of his fellow architects. The battle to rebuild Ground Zero forms the best chapters of Breaking Ground . Here, Libeskind's motivation and determination clash with egotism and a degree of skulduggery between other architects, politicians and the New York Port Authority.

Helen Davies writes for the property pages of The Sunday Times .

Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture

Author - Daniel Libeskind
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 288
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 7195 6673 8

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