The Danny Libeskind Show

Recently I attended a meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.’s advisory panel to watch architect Daniel Libeskind present his “Memory Foundations” scheme for the World Trade Center site.

If there was ever an architect perfectly cast for his role at Ground Zero, it’s Libeskind. Part poet, part politician, part used car salesman, part visionary, part cheerleader, he speaks brilliantly off the cuff, his words tumbling forth in a clipped, precise vaguely Eastern European accent that sounds at once professorial and old-world immigrant. Sometimes his thoughts sprint out ahead of his mouth, causing him to stammer a bit; the result isn’t inarticulateness, but a heightened sense of passion. He seems about to burst with the ideas percolating inside him.

It’s magnetic. I have never seen an architect with this sort of stage presence.

Most celebrated architects are compelling figures. All of them, in fact, have an act, a finely honed public persona-Frank Gehry is the affable genius; Rem Koolhaas is the intellectual provocateur; Peter Eisenman is the blustering, bombastic philosopher king. Some sort of shtick seems a prerequisite of the job.

Graphic designer Michael Bierut, a Pentagram partner with a lot of experience working with high profile architects, has an interesting theory about why designers adopt larger-than-life, almost fictional, personas.

“If I meet a client and pitch an idea,” Bierut says, “I can produce a facsimile of that idea that will look fairly close to the end product. The client knows what he’s getting. That’s not true with architects. They can’t provide a full-scale mock up of their idea. Clients have to take huge leaps of faith. What bridges that gap—a gap that often involves hundreds of millions of dollars—is the architect’s character. The pure force of will.”

So the other night at the panel, there stood Libeskind, erect at the podium, hyper-alert, clad in black, his signature glasses gleaming, and fielding questions. He was better than the best press secretary, the slickest politician. Libeskind called a question about the dangers of building retail space that looked like everyone else’s retail space “profound.” He dodged questions that he didn’t want to answer by answering ones that he did. And when asked about how West Street would be resolved—a dicey question that involves billions of dollars and, potentially, thousands of angry Battery Park residents-he disarmed us completely by outlining the limits of his power. “That’s a decision that goes higher up than the architect,” he replied. All in all, it was a brilliant performance by a gifted performer, who also happens to be a talented designer.

Categories: Cities