A verbose Daniel Libeskind spoke tonight at the Strand bookstore in New York to promote his new book Counterpoint. The standing-room-only crowd was enamored of the charm, drive, and mostly canned wisdom that flooded the room in waves of anecdotes and rhetorical flourishes. It was a good show, but odd that New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger didn’t attend as scheduled. Libeskind bounced between many subjects and penetrating ideas, revealing the extraordinary agility of his mind, a penchant for music metaphors fired off in 16th notes, and a supernatural drive that is appropriate both to the profession and the city.
Prodded by the critic Troy McMullen of the Financial Times, Libeskind ardently waved the flag of optimism in response to questions about the current recession’s effect on building. “Architecture is an art that can be practiced without the market,” he said rather grandly, provoking polite smiles all around. Libeskind repeated for effect that he harbors none of the “evangelical pessimism” affecting others. As a man whose first building didn’t rise until he was 52, he quipped that patience is a virtue he enjoys and went on to brag that current projects such as his museum designs moving ahead (for now) in Milan and Dresden show that enlightened, willing patrons can still be found.
One of the more interesting stops on the bullet train that is a Libeskind narrative was the subject of prefabricated architecture. He explained that he’s working with a German company on such a design for a small, zero-energy dwelling. Libeskind argued this is perhaps “exactly the right time” for affordable, prefabricated houses that achieve economies of scale through industrial production and which carefully consider the environment. “Architecture has been unconnected with nature,” he said, “but this will change.”
In recounting war stories from his work on the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Art Museum in Denver, and the WTC debacle in New York, Libeskind emphasized the theme of compromise. With a sense of drama and confidence unusual in a field strewn with thorny, brooding intellectuals, he plainly described how good architecture, just like a healthy relationship, requires constraints and compromise. “Architecture is about limits” he declared, followed by syrupy metaphors about falling in love with clients and producing buildings (babies) together.
Libeskind also worked himself up in a characteristic blend of passion and sales pitch in talking about museum architecture. When asked about whether the volume on architectural form should be lowered in a museum so as not to interfere with the aesthetic experience of viewing art, Libeskind responded with a resounding “no.” He pleaded, “If you can’t be radical with a museum, we are lost…” but then he offered a formula that seemed to backpedal a bit: that museum architecture is 95% standard and 5% creativity and risk.
In many ways, Libeskind illustrates the attributes of a thriving New Yorker: optimism, adaptability, deft political maneuvering (with much help from his wife), and tenacity. His talk of compromise and accommodating personality may not make him an architect’s architect or the darling of many critics, but it’s little wonder that he’s made it this far and will doubtless continue to build what one architecture student in the crowd tonight called “canonical forms.” It’s a shame that time was not made to talk about Libeskind’s new design for One Madison Avenue: a sublime, 54-story tower that exposes its midriff of recessed terraces and green space to Manhattan’s flat, grey skyline. Perhaps this plan is being shelved by the forces of the recession. If so, let’s hope that Libeskind’s patience and focus can hold up.