Adventures in Life
By Daniel Libeskind
with Sarah Crichton
Riverhead, 294 pages, $40
Like some fabulous silver-screen diva suddenly unsure of her fans, architect Daniel Libeskind has issued an unwise piece of self-promotion that, on the face of it, appears to be quite unnecessary. Libeskind, after all, is famous everywhere, though his first important building opened only five years ago. He is designing substantial projects in Toronto (an extension of the Royal Ontario Museum), San Francisco, Denver, Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, Milan and Hong Kong. He has established brand recognition in the marketplace of contemporary architectural fashion with tattery, askew forms that resemble icebergs and crystals and shattered glass and crockery.
But despite his high position among contemporary cultural celebrities, Libeskind is a troubled man. He has been humiliated by other architectural celebrities (Peter Eisenman, for example). He has been artistically insulted by New York real-estate operators and powerful corporate architects. Hence this breezy, brief autobiography, which aims to set the record straight and convince us that, no matter what we've heard, the author is actually just a plucky, idealistic immigrant guy who gets teary when he hears The Star-Spangled Banner, adores his mother and, for some odd reason, has a lot of enemies.
In Breaking Ground, Libeskind tells many stories about his life, which began in 1946 in Poland, continued in Israel and New York, and is now lived mostly, it appears, in airplanes. Two women figure prominently in the narrative. One is the architect's "brilliant and fearless mother," a survivor of both Nazis and communists, who spiked her wise advice with "quotations from Spinoza and Nietzsche, recited spontaneously in a mixture of Yiddish, Polish, and even English." The other notable woman here is his wife and tireless backer, Nina, an offspring of the Lewises, the first family of Canadian socialism.
The central story in the book, however, has to do with Ground Zero. Since early 2003, when his master plan for New York's destroyed World Trade Center got the go-ahead, the architect has been caught up in a tornado of conflicting interests and obsessions -- political, personal, architectural -- regarding exactly what's to be built there. According to this account -- and I have no reason to doubt it -- he got roughed up by other high-stakes players in this game, notably real-estate tycoon Larry Silverstein, leaseholder of the World Trade Center at the time of 9/11 attacks, and Silverstein's favourite architect, David Childs, of the giant American firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
Libeskind, I believe, is not to be blamed for his sufferings, which are described in detail here. In a way extreme even in George W. Bush's self-absorbed America, the discussion of rebuilding Ground Zero has become an occasion for a great deal of acting out by all and sundry. It's hardly surprising that Libeskind, having weighed in with a bold plan, would get sucked down into the Ground Zero maelstrom of egos, needs and ambitions.
What is surprising is Libeskind's apparent belief that he could win our hearts with a chronicle riddled with self-serving sentimentality about himself and his supporters, and with the shallow, resentful caricature of his enemies and rivals. He dismisses the Modernism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and other 20th century architects as "soulless and dull" and "neutral," which suggests, to this reader anyway, that he does not understand what they were doing. He portrays Herbert Muschamp, one of the most acute architectural critics of our time, as a befuddled flip-flopper and, remarkably, as someone who spends too much time in the bathtub. He characterizes the architecture of some thoughtful Ground Zero competitors, with scantily disguised sarcasm, as "very, very clever," "glossy," "ironic," "so/current/, so/smart/."
But the attack on the Modernists and others is merely one manifestation of the overwrought anti-intellectualism that pervades the book. Libeskind visits Ground Zero and sees a deeply buried waterproofing wall, now exposed by the devastation of Sept. 11. "It loomed over us, appearing bigger than any building we'd ever seen, and as we stood in that vast pit it felt almost infinite, the embodiment of everything -- what collapses, what is resilient; the power of architecture; the power of the human spirit." Following this and other episodes of rapture, enchantment, apocalypse and so forth can itself be an overwhelming experience, though not in any interesting or revelatory way.
Even less interesting, though equally off-putting, is the author's sappy Americanism. As an American whose ancestors came to this continent from Europe 400 years ago, I cannot know what the United States seems like to someone who arrived, as Libeskind did, from the tormented Europe of the mid-20th century. I am prepared to believe that the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from the deck of an incoming passenger ship might be exhilarating. But in view of the recent takeover of traditional American symbols and sentiments by hard-right, bare-fanged political thugs and fundamentalists, I think it's fair to expect every thoughtful American, even a new one, to beware of patriotism of the sobbing-and-cheering variety.
Libeskind is having no part of such wariness. "In spite of my penchant for wearing black," he tells us, "I am more cornball than cosmopolite." For his Ground Zero entry, as if to underscore this self-description, he "envisioned five towers -- tall but not too tall -- arranged by increasing height, from south to north, so that they rose in a spiral with the same shape as the flame in Lady Liberty's torch. And the tallest, I had decided, should rise to 1,776 feet, to commemorate the Declaration of Independence, which brought democracy into the modern world. I would fill the upper floors of the tower with botanical gardens, as a confirmation of life." The Declaration of Independence did nothing of the sort, but never mind: Like the true man of the down-home American Volk he aspires to be, Libeskind luxuriates in the "tears and applause" of his project's fans, and takes them into his overflowing heart.
One obvious problem with this embarrassing book, at least for its author, is that it gives so much useful ammunition to the critics, and so little usable information to observers who would like to understand Libeskind's abrupt popularity. There is rather a lot to understand. While his drawings and proposals have been circulating for some time, the public has seen few completed large projects. Yet in scarcely more than a decade, he has become an unavoidable presence in the architectural imagination of our time. As his key projects in the U.S. and Canada are built out over the next several years, we can look forward to discovering the Daniel Libeskind who counts, in the one place his thought and feeling must matter to us: the architecture itself