The internationally renowned architect behind Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the Ground Zero Master Plan began as a musical child prodigy.
This year the AFIPO’s New York and Los Angeles Galas will honor two extraordinary individuals whose respective achievements in architecture and music have touched millions of people around the globe and will continue to inspire generations to come. Next month we will profile the Los Angeles honoree, composer Stanley Silverman. This month, we visit with architect Daniel Libeskind.
Despite Daniel Libeskind‘s scores of landmark commissions and prestigious awards, he was especially touched when he learned the AFIPO had designated him the 2018 New York Gala Honoree. This recognition, to be presented during the October 23 event at The Pierre Hotel, may have special significance because it comes not from the world of architecture and design, but from the world of music, and on behalf of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the leading cultural ambassador for the country that was his family’s gateway from Poland to America.
“I’m thrilled,” he said in a phone interview from his office at Studio Libeskind in Manhattan. “I’m thrilled because I believe that music is really the fundamental art. Everything else in the world comes out of music, including architecture.”
Libeskind, 72, runs the studio with his wife, Nina. His long and growing list of socially and culturally significant projects includes the master plan for Ground Zero, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the Bar-Ilan University’s Wohl Centre. Their 50-member team is currently working on dozens of commissions from around the world, including a mixed-use development on the Tel Aviv Promenade that begins construction later this year.
“There is also a Museum of Modern Art opening in October in the old Jewish capital of Vilnius, Lithuania,” he said, sounding more energized with each project he mentioned, “some fantastic projects in France – in Nice and a skyscraper in Toulouse – and in Italy. I am building projects around the world … on almost every continent, really.”
A MUSICAL ESSENCE
His love for the work comes in part from this belief that at its essence, architecture is a natural extension of music. Not surprisingly, Libeskind is by nature a musician, who studied and practiced compulsively as a child in Lodz, Poland. However, because his parents were Holocaust survivors terrified that the arrival of a piano at their home would trigger violence from the rabid anti-Semites who lived around a common courtyard, they could not accommodate his first choice.
“So they brought me the piano in a suitcase,” he laughed. “It was an accordion, an odd instrument, and I was at first kind of disenchanted.”
Nevertheless, the nascent virtuoso inside him required an outlet, and if the accordion was to be the instrument of its release, so be it. Soon, just as IPO founder Bronislaw Huberman had done at the end of the 19th Century, Libeskind did in the mid-20th Century – becoming a Polish child prodigy and performing before awe-struck audiences across the nation.
“In 1953, when I was 6 or 7, I played on the opening broadcasts of Polish television,” he said. “And while the accordion is not really associated with classical music, I played only classical music that I transcribed for myself.”
In 1957 the family moved to Israel, first to Kibbutz Gvat and then Tel Aviv, where someone suggested to Libeskind that he compete for a music grant from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.
“I went to the Mann Auditorium and there were hundreds of young people from age 10 to 18, mostly with piano, flute, cello, and violin. When my name was called, my father had to carry my three-and-a-half octave accordion for me because it and too heavy. I entered the room to see the distinguished jury of Isaac Stern, Zino Francescatti, and Mrs. Koussevitky looking perplexed. They must have thought I was lost,” he laughed.
He launched into Bach’s “Toccata in D minor” and the bemused smiles left their faces.
“I played a number of pieces and ended with ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky Korsakov,” he recalled. “Then Isaac Stern walked me to the edge of the room and said, ‘Daniel, you have to change to the piano because you have already exhausted all the possibilities of the accordion.’ That was kind of a shock, because I loved the accordion.
“By the way,” he added. “I won that award together with Itzhak Perlman that year in Israel. And there were very few winners.”
COMING TO AMERICA
He would continue to play accordion, never taking to the piano, and when his family immigrated to New York in 1959 he was soon playing with Perlman and other famous classical musicians.
“I played with soloists and wonderful musicians, very serious musicians in big venues,” he said. “I was paid very highly – enormous sums for 15 minutes of playing – because virtuosity is something people like. Then, when I was 17, I stopped playing.”
In New York he attended Bronx High School of Science, earned a professional architectural degree from Cooper Union, and a Master of History and Theory of Architecture, University of Essex. He did not begin designing right away, however, entering academia instead and working as an architectural theorist and professor at institutions around the world. He was in his early 40s when he did begin designing and his first building opened nearly a decade later.
All the while, music continued to provide the underpinning for his approach to design and his view of creativity in general.
“Everything I do as an architect is closely related in very concrete ways to music,” he continued. “It’s in the proportions I use, the acoustical knowledge that music has given me, the compositional sense. Even in something like the master plan for Ground Zero, for which I’m responsible, I used the musical sense that a master plan is like a piece of music. It has to be interpreted by others with very strict values and strict instructions, and it has to be performed in an interactive way with many, many people.
“For the Jewish Museum in Berlin, I used music as a central part,” he added. “I created the void, which is really designed to be a completion of ‘Moses and Aron,’ an opera by Arnold Schoenberg that he could not finish because he was exiled from Berlin. I thought that it would be completed in the echoes of the footsteps of the visitors across that void. Here I used music in a very practical and scientific way.”
In the end, he said, music and architecture have to register in the soul of the listener or onlooker, not just as notes or drawings.
“Buildings should be memorable,” he said. “Memory is a huge vehicle towards the future. Architecture is not just about machinery, infrastructure and hard concrete.”
He thought a moment.
“That’s the difference between a piece of architecture that looks like an air conditioning unit and a piece of architecture that carries a tradition and is weighted with many, many things about the world, both future and past. It’s about culture at its center, the values of humanism, and in that sense, about the human spirit.”
For more on Studio Libeskind visit https://libeskind.com/
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