Daniel Libeskind Biography


Born May 12, 1946, in Lódz, Poland; married Nina Lewis (an architectural–office manager), c. 1969; children: two sons, one daughter. Education: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, NY, B.A., 1970; Essex University, Colchester, England, M.A., 1972.


Home —New York, NY. Office —Studio Daniel Libeskind, 2 Rector St., New York, NY 10006.


Worked for architect Richard Meier, early 1970s; taught architecture at universities in Kentucky, London, England, and Toronto, Canada; head of architecture school, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI, 1978–85; founded private graduate academy, Architecture Intermundium, Milan, Italy, 1985; won first architectural commission for the Jewish Museum, Berlin, and opened Studio Daniel Libeskind in Berlin, 1989; selected as primary architect for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, New York City, 2003.


An imaginative proposal submitted by architect Daniel Libeskind trounced some stiff competition and was chosen in early 2003 to serve as the master plan for the rebuilding of the 16–acre World Trade Center (WTC) site in New York City. While Libeskind is a respected name in his field, he was primarily known as an architectural theorist and teacher, having won just a handful of museum–

Daniel Libeskind
design commissions before landing the WTC project, but he was considered an adroit diplomat in dealing with the sometimes–conflicting private–interest and municipal goals that often play out in the realm of urban architecture. As such, critics considered him the ideal architect to transform the ill–fated landscape of Lower Manhattan where, noted New Yorker writer Paul Goldberger, "the goal is to meld sacred space with a functioning city, and Libeskind has a natural instinct for that."

Libeskind is of Polish–Jewish heritage. Both parents had separately fled Poland after Nazi Germany's invasion of the country in 1939, fearing anti–Semitic reprisals, and made it to the Soviet Union border, where they were arrested and interned in Siberia. They returned after the war to Lódz, the hometown of Libeskind's father, and learned that nearly all of their family on each side had died in the Holocaust—some 85 victims in all. Libeskind was born in the city in 1946, and proved a talented young accordionist as a child. His parents had chosen the instrument for him over the piano, for to have brought one in via the common courtyard in their apartment building would have made the distinctly wrong impression on their neighbors, as Libeskind recalled in an interview with Stanley Meisler in the Smithsonian. "Anti–Semitism," he said, "is the only memory I still have of Poland.… It wasn't what most people think happened after the war was over."

Libeskind's talents were so impressive that he even delivered the first live musical performance on Polish television at the age of six. When he was eleven, the family, which included a sister, left Poland for Israel and settled in Tel Aviv. A year later, Libeskind won a coveted America–Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship, whose past recipients included violinist Itzhak Perlman, and with it a visa for his family to emigrate. They settled in the New York City borough of the Bronx, and not long afterward Libeskind enrolled in the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. He continued to pursue his musical interests, and even gave the occasional piano concert. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1965.

In the early 1960s, Libeskind entered the architecture program at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He chose the field, in part, because it "combines so many of my interests," Newsweek 's Cathleen McGuigan quoted him as saying. "Mathematics, painting, arts. It's about people, space, music." He completed a graduate degree in the history and theory of architecture at Essex University in Colchester, England, in 1972, and though he was hired by top firms such as Richard Meier's office, Libeskind rarely lasted longer than a week on any job at a practice. "I didn't like the smell, the atmosphere, the hierarchy" of such offices, he wryly admitted in a talk before the Royal Geographical Society of London, according to Building Design writer Catherine Croft.

Instead Libeskind took teaching posts at universities in Kentucky, London, and Toronto, and in 1978 was named head of the school of architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It was a prestigious job for someone just 32 years old, for Cranbrook was a world–renowned, highly selective training ground for the creative professions. After seven years there, Libeskind left to establish his own educational community, Architecture Intermundium, in Milan, Italy. He was its only professor, and taught just a dozen students at a time.

Libeskind opened his own practice in Berlin, Germany, after winning the commission to build a Jewish Museum in the city in 1989. The project was an emotionally resonant one: the city had once served as home to Germany's thriving Jewish culture in the decades before World War II, but a Nazi regime with headquarters in this German capital set out to rid the nation, and then the rest of conquered Europe, of its Jewish population with a ruthless bureaucratic efficiency. Taking into account this historical tragedy, Libeskind read the case files of German–Jewish families who lived in the neighborhood of the proposed museum site, most of whom were deported and died in Nazi concentration camps. He created a matrix based on the geographical addresses of famed Berliner Jews, and from those points mapped out the zigzag design of the building, which gave it a Star of David shape.

Libeskind was compelled to settle in Berlin—at his wife's urging—when several roadblocks occurred before the Jewish Museum finally came to fruition. At first, the entire project was cancelled due to fiscal shortfalls in the city, and even when it was completed in 1999, but not yet officially open, a debate raged over its purpose, and the various factions finally agreed that it would serve as museum dedicated to German–Jewish history. Since September of 2001, it has become the second–most–visited museum in the city after the Pergamon in what was formerly East Berlin, and is one of those rare structures that elicit paeans from the architectural community but has a strong emotional appeal to the public as well. Its modernist zinc exterior houses a narrative hall containing the stories of 19 German–Jewish families, and visitors then enters a Holocaust Tower, closed off by an immense iron door that seems to entrap. That leads on to the Garden of Exile, which features 48 columns topped by foliage and earth from Berlin. The number 48 corresponds to the year that Israel was founded, and a 49th column contains soil from Jerusalem, Israel's capital.

After the success of the Jewish Museum, Libeskind began entering more competitions. His next major project was the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück, Germany, which was finished in 1998. The site houses the works of a German–Jewish artist who died in World War II. For a time before his deportation, Nussbaum hid in a basement and painted there; part of Libeskind's design shows these paintings in a dark, small space not unlike the one where the artist originally painted them. The façade of the building is a large concrete slab, representing the blank canvas of Nussbaum's truncated career, but the exterior is beautified by a bed of sunflowers, the artist's favorite flower. Another unusual commission that Libeskind won was for the Imperial War Museum of the North, in Manchester, England. The building houses a panoply of ships, artillery, tanks, and fighter planes, but Libeskind designed a "shattered–globe" space in which visitors contemplate how wars alter the landscape permanently.

When the terms of an international competition were announced to create a master plan for the site of the former World Trade Center towers in August of 2002, nearly a year after the modernist towers, 110 stories each, were reduced to rubble in an attack that involved hijacked airliners, Libeskind went to work on his submission. To prepare, he re–read the Declaration of Independence, as well as nineteenth–century American fiction about New York from Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. The commission, however, presented an unusually tough challenge for any architect: it was the site of the first–attack ever on American soil, where scores died, but it was also a valuable parcel of real estate and nexus for transportation in and out of the city. Several competing parties had a voice in what ultimately would become of the WTC site: the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was created after 9/11 and made up of 15 prominent board members; the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; New York's governor, George Pataki; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the transit management group that actually owned the land; and Larry A. Silverstein, a developer who had signed a 99–year lease on the WTC towers that gave him ownership of all of its office space just days before they fell. Lastly—but by no means least—was the public input. New Yorkers who had lost family members argued that the site should be preserved as a memorial; residents of the area maintained that a mixed–use plan might be a more viable compromise.

Libeskind's plan, unveiled in December of 2002, fulfilled each of these objectives. The 70–foot–deep excavation pit would remain; this part of the site had become known as Ground Zero, where rescue workers and construction personnel toiled for months to clear rubble and remains. In Libeskind's plan, visitors could peer down from a semi–circular curving walkway into a large empty space below. There, the original slurry walls erected in the early 1970s when the WTC went up were visible. These were devised to keep the waters of the Hudson River from flooding the subterranean section of the original site. Libeskind's plan also included office and residential space, but his tallest tower boasted a rooftop garden that would serve as an eye–catching skyline fixture for Manhattan, "because gardens are a constant affirmation of life," Libeskind explained to Meisler in the Smithsonian. This tower would be 1,776 feet in height, a reference to the year that America gained its independence and, if built, would be the world's tallest building. Other elements of his plan included a "Park of Heroes," with the names of fire and police units who lost personnel in the rescue effort engraved into the pavement. Finally, Libeskind's proposed buildings would be configured so that each September 11, from 8:46 a.m., when the first plane struck the North Tower, to 10:28 a.m., when that tower followed the South one's collapse by 23 minutes, a wedge of light would fall below in commemoration of the tragedy and the 2,800–plus lives lost. No shadows would be visible on the site during that time.

In February of 2003, the finalists were winnowed down to the plans of two contenders: Libeskind's and that of the "Think" team, comprised of several other prominent architects and landscape designers. The latter centered on two towers that mimicked the original, but were instead two empty lattice-work frames that could later house cultural facilities. A press war waged over the next few weeks. Some deemed Libeskind's gaping memorial pit ghoulish, while others considered the Think's group's empty towers skeletal. Both sides retained public–relations firms to put their opposing viewpoints before the public, but in the end, Bloomberg was said to have liked Libeskind's public squares and park, and the governor's office favored it as well.

Architecture critics, media pundits, and average New Yorkers hailed Libeskind's plan for the WTC site. As McGuigan pointed out in Newsweek, New York City is "a place with fewer great examples of contemporary design than any major Western metropolis, a place where development decisions are made by big–shouldered moneymen." Choosing "someone of Libeskind's caliber for this historic project," McGuigan continued, "is a turning point for architecture and for the city, and it sends a clear signal that the public has an appetite for innovative design." It was a sentiment echoed by Goldberger in the New Yorker. "The architectural bar has been raised in New York," he noted. "Ten months ago, it was hard to imagine that the official plan for Ground Zero would be produced by one of the most innovative architects in the world."

Libeskind was planning to move to New York City, to a home and office in Lower Manhattan, to begin work on the project. He has two adult sons and a young daughter. His wife, Nina, works closely with him in his practice, managing the 130–employee office and dealing with the plethora of non–creative details involving new projects, including an extension to the Denver Art Museum in Colorado, a new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (adding 40,000 square feet) in Toronto, Canada, and a new Jewish Museum in San Francisco, California. He still dabbles in music, and even designed and directed an opera based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi at Berlin's Deutsche Oper in 2002. Architecture remained his primary passion, however, and he was eager to begin work on the Lower Manhattan project, slated for completion by September 11, 2006. As he told Time journalist Richard Lacayo just after his plan was chosen, "I shaped the entire site to speak to the traces of the event and to its significance," he reflected. "But we also want to reassert its vitality."

Selected writings

Between Zero and Infinity: Selected Projects in Architecture, Rizzoli International (New York City), 1981.

Chamber Works: Architectural Meditations on Themes from Heraclitus, Architectural Association (London, England), 1983.

Fishing from the Pavement, Nai Publishers (Rotterdam, The Netherlands), 1997.

Daniel Libeskind, Radix–Matrix: Architecture and Writings, translated from the German by Peter Green, Prestel (New York City), 1997.

Daniel Libeskind: The Space of Encounter, Universe/St. Martin's Press (New York City), 2000.



Building Design, September 15, 2000, p. 8.

BusinessWeek, February 24, 2003, pp. 110–12.

New Statesman, June 24, 2002, p. 36.

Newsweek, February 10, 2003, pp. 62–64; March 10, 2003, pp. 58–60.

New Yorker, March 10, 2003, p. 78.

New York Times, February 23, 2003, p. 54; July 15, 2003; August 1, 2003, p. A1; August 25, 2003.

Smithsonian, March 2003, p. 76.

Time, March 10, 2003, p. 58.


"Renaissance ROM announces $30 million lead gift from Michael Lee–Chin," Royal Ontario Museum, http://www.rom.on.ca/news/releases/public.php?mediakey=gfosuo3dvn (October 28, 2003).

Carol Brennan

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