Nina Libeskind on Ground Zero, How Architecture Can Help Heal, and Our Political Moment
You and your husband, architect Daniel Libeskind, have worked closely since founding Studio Libeskind in 1989. How do you describe your role?
I am not an architect, nor am I a businessperson. But I think it’s the glue that helps to stick things together. I’m able to discuss the strategy for the office, the overarching ideas about what we’d like to do.
It sounds as though you don’t like to use the language of business.
That’s because our office is not run as a standard business. It’s really almost like a family, a very large extended family. It’s not top-down. In our office, young people are part of every project and they’re part of the creative team. Their voices are heard.
Why is that important in making architecture?
Too much experience, without enough fresh blood and new fresh ideas, breeds monotony and mediocrity and cynicism. That’s the last thing you want. Also, we recognize that people bring different capacities: managerial, design, organizational. They are equally valued, and they have to be, because architecture is made up of all those things.
Most people imagine architecture—particularly Daniel’s—as being all about a sketch on a napkin.
Well, the work always starts with a drawing that Daniel creates, whether it’s on a napkin, on the back of an airline ticket, in his sketchbook, or on his iPad. What’s changed in the last 10 years is the speed with which that drawing can be translated into the beginnings of a real concept design, the feeling of what the space will be like.
The office just completed a new National Holocaust Monument in Canada. What does that mean to you?
I was born in Ottawa, so I’m delighted to be building in Canada and the capital, a place of such importance. These projects of memory are incredibly important. As the world moves further and further into amnesia, it’s very important to have a place where people can come together and think about what’s happened.
How does the architecture of the memorial do that?
It is a distorted Star of David, made of triangles—because in the concentration camps everyone wore triangles, for homosexuals, for Jews. You have around you canted walls of concrete with incredible photographic images by Edward Burtynsky printed onto them. There is space where people can sit and contemplate those images and the space around them. Then there is a staircase to the top, and an eternal flame. And that staircase looks out onto the Parliament Buildings. Daniel’s idea is that people should remember: Without government passing laws, the Holocaust would not have happened. Each citizen has a role to play when democracy gets kidnapped.
Your family, the Lewises, are prominent in Canadian politics. You say you bring a "Canadian spirit" to the New York office. How so?
With my background and as someone who believes in social democracy, I try to give the best possible working conditions that I can. It’s hard in America, but we try to make the work environment commensurate with the enormous effort people put in.
Architecture is not an easy profession.
It’s not! And partly because it’s a very lengthy process. The Jewish Museum in Berlin took us from 1989 to 2001. It can take an inordinate amount of time, and one must keep up the spirit. It’s a tough business, no doubt. But it’s fun.
How do your progressive values shape your approach?
We don’t ask how people vote, but I’m pretty frank about what I feel, and Daniel is pretty frank as well. There are projects we believe in strongly. We are working on a Kurdish museum in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was stopped because of ISIS. That was a museum that was a cultural response to the desire for a new identity and a cultural identity. We’re working with Richard Leakey on a project about evolution and the origins of humankind.
Yet many of the office’s large projects are for developers. Can those be as full of meaning?
Absolutely. As far as we’re concerned, if it doesn’t have ideas, it’s not architecture. Residential towers, obviously, would be very different from a museum in Kurdistan, but you still try to inculcate in those buildings something of public space, something of transparency, an involvement with the neighborhood and the city.
How did that manifest itself in the Ground Zero design process?
It was a very fractious kind of time. It was always on the news, and it was not always pleasant. That’s clear. Daniel was the master planner, and he was hoping to be the architect of one of those buildings, but it wasn’t to be.Still, I think the key components of the master plan—towers on the rim of the site; the footprints of the original towers were to remain; there was to be a waterfall—these have been realized. People come and they have quietude. Daniel would fight for an extra four inches of sidewalk, and to keep retail only on the street side, so people could have the quietude to be able to mourn without running into a Gap store. All those things contribute to the ambience of the place, and the sense of genuineness. And it feels right. It’s a good balance of mourning and bringing back life to that part of the city.
"If it doesn’t have ideas, it’s not architecture." Nina Libeskind
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