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Daniel Libeskind, AIA: On the Healing Power of Place
Libeskind says his experience rebuilding Lower Manhattan was about “remembering the loss and using the loss as the inspiration for something that proves the victory of life over defeat.”
By Mike Singer
“This was not just a site to be rebuilt, it was a great passionate wound,” said Daniel Libeskind, AIA. He could have been talking about many of the emotionally charged projects he’s designed over the years, but on a Saturday afternoon in Washington, D.C., a few months after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he was referring to New York City’s Ground Zero.
Libeskind watched the 102 stories of the first World Trade Center being built when he was a student at Cooper Union in New York City. When two airplanes flew into the towers in 2001, he was in Germany for the dedication of his first major international commission—the Jewish Museum Berlin.
A child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in New York, and the architect responsible for the master plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center site, Libeskind knows of what he speaks when he says architecture can heal. He describes the plan for the new space as “not a sad space, but a space alive,” and one where “we see the resilience of New York and the best of America.”
Libeskind was honored for his post-9/11 contributions during the 2012 AIA National Convention in a special ceremony called the “Architects of Healing.” And indeed, perhaps no other architect has devoted so much of his or her time to investigating the methods of healing historical wounds through design. His commission in Berlin, the Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany, and the 9/11 site have all made it their explicit goal to confront past tragedies and horrors with architecture that calls out for emotional understanding, empathy, and resolution. AIArchitect spoke with Libeskind just hours before he addressed convention attendees about the healing powers of place.
AIArchitect: Is it possible for a building to allow us to heal—and how so?
Libeskind: I think it is possible for a building or an urban space—and particularly a space that has been intertwined with a tragedy or a loss—to bring healing by confronting two seemingly impossible tasks: remembering the loss and using the loss as the inspiration for something that proves the victory of life over defeat. I think that is a healing process. And I think architecture, by definition, because it is a constructive act, not a destructive act, is part of the healing process.
Can heightened building security concerns and the compromises they entail hinder or otherwise affect this healing process?
We live in a vulnerable world and security is an important part to consider, but I think security need not interfere with the reality of healing powers. I think we need secure buildings. We need to secure the area itself. But it is also true that we are not creating a closed city. It’s an open city—not a fortification. It’s not a new issue—there were many insecurities in cities in history. We have to address them in a smart way.
But I think the important thing to concentrate on is the social space, where people come together. Space that allows people to come together, space that is inspiring, space that works pragmatically but most of all connects itself with the emotional and spiritual need that every person in a great city has. I think that is the true test of rebuilding.
Is there a difference in how you approached the act of healing historical wounds in a building that memorializes the Holocaust, such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the master plan of the World Trade Center site?
I would say no, because both acts of building, whether it’s a Jewish Museum in Berlin or Ground Zero in New York, require hope. They require events that are irreversible and fatal, whether it’s murder on a grand scale in Europe or the murder of New Yorkers through terrorism. [They] require new hope of how to communicate what has happened, and at the same time to move forward, [to] not freeze the situation in a sadness and a loss, because that will be not enough.
So that’s really the commonality of addressing any tragedy. How do we move beyond the tragedy without making it banal? Without forgetting, but by remembering, by memorializing, to see its true virtue and its power in constructing a new and optimistic environment?
I think that’s kind of a balancing act, because if you are not balanced then you might shift a space towards the negative. It could be horrible if New York became a pessimistic space at Ground Zero after the reconstruction, but I don’t think [it will be], because it’s a space that speaks of liberty, it speaks of the values of New York and of America in the face of these attacks. In that sense, it’s even more powerful because it takes on the tragedy not just as a footnote, but as its center.
You were trained initially as a musician and have written about the influence of poetry, music, and other arts on your architectural approach. How has the healing power of other art forms affected the way you approach this goal in architecture?
Architecture, as I see it, is part of the humanistic professions. Of course it is a lot of engineering and science, but ultimately it is part of what we call the human world. It is connected to poetry, connected to geometry, connected to the arts, connected to the sciences. It is an ultimate human art, and so I think when you look at a site, when you look at a building, it has to be connected. It is not an abstract object. It is not something that is just an abstraction. It has to be part of the real world, both of the mind and of the soul—not one or the other only, but together. That’s healing. Healing is about integrity.
Daniel Libeskind, AIA. Photo by mattmartin.tv.