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Osnabrück, Germany – An interview with Daniel Libeskind

On 7 March Daniel Libeskind was awarded Christian-Jewish society DKR’s Buber Rosenzweig Medal in Augsburg, Germany, for his work in mediating between peoples and cultures. He is the first architect to be awarded the medal

A few days later he visited the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück, his first building, completed in 1998 (AR April 1999). The museum is dedicated to the work of the Jewish German Surrealist artist Felix Nussbaum who, with his wife the painter Felka Platek, was murdered in Auschwitz. The building proved so popular that Libeskind has been asked to design a visitor’s centre extension. This is now on site and will open in 2011.

The AR The Felix Nussbaum Museum is dedicated to the life of just one person. Many of your other projects, for example Manchester’s Imperial War Museum North, the Jewish Museum Berlin, Dresden’s Military History Museum and even the new office blocks of Ground Zero are also memorials. Can architecture heal?

Daniel Libeskind Yes, I believe it can, but to be an architect is the very reverse of being a god - because when architects think [that’s what] they are, they produce nightmares. For me, architecture is more than a career, it’s an inspiration, it gives orientation. Architecture should set standards. It is not a cold endeavour between architects and engineers. Architecture is a language. It has to do with history, storytelling, humanity.

My buildings do not tell you ‘the world is in order’. My buildings ask questions. Sometimes these are answered with other questions, which is a Jewish tradition in discussion.

Healing is also related to the Jewish requirement - a mitzvah - to do a good deed without expecting payment, for instance, our involvement in designing housing for Sri Lanka after the tsunami.

AR We first met in 1994, when I interviewed you in your Berlin studio. Germany was going through the birth pains of reunification. On all sides of the political spectrum sensibilities were bruised and battered. At the time it was suspected by some that Jewish architects from all around the world were fulfilling alibi functions, healing the wounds of the last half century with architecture, even though their families had been the victims.

DL When [my wife] Nina and I, with our children, decided to move to Berlin to carry out the detailed design of the Berlin Jewish Museum after having won the competition, many friends and family were shocked that we were going to live in Germany. My work visa allowing me to stay in Germany was not the usual rubber stamp but a handwritten note, explaining that I was being allowed to live and work here expressly to build the Berlin Jewish Museum. I’m reminded of this whenever I see Nussbaum’s very strong painting Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card.

My attitude to Berlin changed over the 12 years we lived and worked there. History moves on. It isn’t fixed. Germany has not been afraid of tackling its past and a great deal has been achieved between people, since 1989 when the Wall fell.

It was in Berlin that I first heard of Felix Nussbaum. I saw a plaque on a building saying he had once lived there. I went home and tried to find him in an encyclopedia. At this time he was not even listed, and most of his works had not been rediscovered [the artist had left his work with friends for safekeeping; a campaign was started in the 1970s to recover this collection]. Later, we won the Felix Nussbaum Museum competition and this became my first completed project, before the Berlin Jewish Museum, which had actually started earlier.

You can never say: ‘I don’t have to think any more about history’. Berlin opened the Jewish Museum to the public on 11 September 2001, and I had no official functions that day. I remember going into the studio and being happy that I didn’t have to appear anywhere and talk about history. At that moment the Twin Towers were attacked. Architecture very often has to deal with trauma. What we are now building on Ground Zero is a complex of offices - but the open areas and the orientation of the buildings will throw daylight twice a day, like a pointer on a sundial, to mark the time when each of the towers were hit, at 8.46am and 10.28am. This will be a memorial right in the middle of everyone’s working life.

AR Nussbaum and Platek hardly knew what a home was. They spent their adult lives painting and living out of a suitcase while in hiding. You and your family have lived and worked in UK, Italy, Germany, and are now based in Manhattan, but you are also building all over the world. Where do you really feel at home?

DL Home is where love and meaning are for you. Nowadays, home is the world because the whole world is much nearer to us than we think.

AR With so much travelling between projects, clients, lectures and presentations, where do you find the peace to reflect and design?

DL I have lived my life back to front. When you are young, you are very active in your career. Later, you are expected to slow down.

Before I was 50 I had built no architecture. I had many years to meditate and study what I might later want to design.

My work now is really the result of all those thinking years. I have a reservoir of ideas.

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