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‘Creativity is everywhere...you just have to be quick enough to catch it.’
Gems in this
Daniel Libeskind is a New York-based architect and author. As an architecture student in New York, he saw the original World Trade Center towers being built; years later, he helped rebuild the neighborhood as masterplan architect for the World Trade Center and 9/11 memorial.
Originally from Łódź, Poland, Daniel's work and travels have taken him around the globe, creating buildings in Berlin, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Toronto, Milan, Seoul, London and many more. We spoke to him about his long relationship with New York, a new center of gravity in the city and traveling in the window seat.
On where you’re from
I lived in Poland until I was 11 or 12 years old, then I lived in Israel for some years. Then I came to America as an immigrant, and then subsequently I have lived in around ten other countries, but not as a tourist.
On when you arrived in New York
I arrived in New York in the summer of 1960.
On your relationship with New York
Well, I’ve lived in New York about half of my life and half in other countries, so my relationship with New York is one of true love; it’s my home. I came with no language, with parents who had no jobs, and was a classic immigrant story to New York. And that is why I love New York — it really is a place that embraces immigrants. It still is and will always be, no matter what the rhetoric of the government is. New York is a microcosm of the world, with people from around the world. It’s a fantastic city.
On how New York influences your creativity
I think New York is the fastest city in the world. Not so much that people are running quicker, but New York is one of the fastest-thinking cities in the world. You have to be in top form to not miss what is going on, so New York is an inspiration in terms of how people interact from all over the world. In our studio, we have many languages of people from all around the world and that’s the kind of energy that New York produces.
On creative inspiration
I’m coming out with a book on the creative process, called Edge of Order, which is about the idea that creativity is everywhere, it’s available at all times and all places, you just have to be quick enough to catch it, otherwise you won’t notice it. So you have to be always ready for the unexpected. I like to think of architecture for all, not just for architects but as a creative thing for every single person in the world.
‘New York is a microcosm of the world, with people from around the world. It’s a fantastic city.’
On how Lower Manhattan is evolving
As the master planner of Ground Zero, from the time I started working on the project about fifteen years ago, a quarter of a million people have moved to lower Manhattan. It’s no longer just Wall Street in the day and then dark streets at night; it’s really now the new downtown, the new centre of New York. And it shows the speed at which the changes in New York have happened. Lower Manhattan is now full of not just places to work but there are schools, residential housing, families. It’s really a revolution to bring the public back to this old, ancient part of New York, and it’s a rebirth of the city.
On New York’s physical landscape
We live in Tribeca near Ground Zero, and when we moved here my daughter said that north of Canal Street is Switzerland (laughs). New York is really a collection of neighborhoods — the grid of the city implies that it is one island but there are so many diverse neighborhoods in this city, with so many different characteristics, and I think that is what makes New York so unusual. You can live in a neighborhood and walk a few meters to another corner and it’s a new corner, you’ve never been there. It’s a very dense, strange island. People forget the character of Manhattan as an island, which is a beautiful part of life in New York.
On the experience of designing the new World Trade Center
I studied architecture in New York, and we used to go down to the site and really marvel at the unprecedented scale that was emerging in New York when the twin towers were built. I was on the original construction site many times with my friends. It was amazing to be able to come back to it after the catastrophe and to transform the site, not just into the towers but into a neighborhood. That was really the challenge, that it was not just about tall buildings but creating a sense of public place — the memorial, the footprints, the bedrock, the symbolism. So there were many aspects of the project that were symbolic and also really very practical — like connectivity, transportation and just accessibility — that really, I think, were able to regenerate not just this site but the spirit of the city.
‘New York is one of the fastest-thinking cities in the world. You have to be in top form not to miss what is going on, so New York is an inspiration in terms of how people interact from all over the world.’
On your design thinking for the World Trade Center
There were seven finalists from thousands of architects and other experts, but what differentiated my submission from others was that I did not build anything where the towers stood. I decided from the very beginning that you cannot build on it. Even though, you know, it was still a piece of real estate, I decided it’s really a sacred space — one should never build on it.
I also decided against mega-structures. Many famous architects proposed mega-structures, mega-buildings; I actually proposed a practical scheme dividing the site into discrete parcels where tall buildings could be built in the periphery of the site. I think that practicality allowed the buildings to be built, rather than something unrealistic. So making it practical, making it also symbolic, creating access to the bedrock with the Slurry Wall, and creating a sense of publicness that everybody has a sense of this place; it’s not just for the people who are lucky enough to work there. So that was a strategy of creating a civic space that has to do with the spirit and memory of that day, and also to create something really fantastic for New York. Something new, something which is not out of context.
On subway or taxi
Absolutely the subway. It’s the most reliable way and it’s the quickest. The sound of the subway is really part of the music of New York.
On a good way to get to know the city
Take the subway. Take the subway from one end up to the other, and you will see the cross-section of humanity in New York. You will see millionaires next to beggars, you’ll see people who have been successful next to young people who are just arriving in the city. You’ll get a sense of the tempo of the city, which you can’t get anywhere except on the underground.
‘Creativity is everywhere, it’s available at all times and all places. You just have to be quick enough to catch it, otherwise you won’t notice it. So you have to be always ready for the unexpected.’
On New York food culture
It’s a mecca, you can travel through the world. A few quick steps and you’re in India, China, Greece and Italy. The cross-section of food is one of the riches of New York.
On window seat or aisle
(Laugh). I prefer sitting on the window because I love looking at the clouds. I often go through an entire flight where I don’t read or do anything but look out the window. I just did that on a flight to LA — it’s a very meditative and beautiful thing to be in the air.
On New York in one word
A marvel. It’s a wonderland. It’s something awesome and something that quickens your blood when you just step on the ground of this city, whenever you are.