Daniel Libeskind on How Architecture Is Like Music and Why Being a Stranger Is a Good Thing

"I don't think I would be doing architecture if I hadn't been a musician in a former lifetime."

Images courtesy of The Talks.


Images courtesy of The Talks.

Mr. Libeskind, Goethe compared architecture to frozen music and said that "the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music." Do you agree?

Oh, absolutely! Architecture is not just an intellectual or abstract exercise, it is an emotional experience just as music is. It is very precise, it cannot be off by one half of a vibration because everyone would know that it doesn't sound right. It has to communicate to the soul and everybody has to share it in a deep emotional way. It is always about a performance and what happens after the performance. When you leave a building, it is like leaving a piece of music. It is still in you and still with you. So yes, I think these two are very closely linked in my experience.

Did your history as a virtuoso musician somehow help lead you into architecture?

I don't think I would be doing architecture if I hadn't been a musician in a former lifetime. You have to be able to create a series of drawings just like a musical score, you have to orchestrate it, you have to be able to communicate it, to conduct it. Even though I gave up performing music, I never gave up music at all because as an architect, what do you do? You have to first of all listen to a place, you have to listen to the sound of a place, you have to get into the vibrations of the world, of the unique moment. I don't think I've given up music, I've just changed the instrument!

You are active all over the world—in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Poland, France, the UK, China, Korea, the Philippines, and the United States to name a few. Does that diversity make it more difficult to "get into the vibrations" of a place?

Oddly enough, the stranger is often a person who can see and understand the context much better than a person who has lived there for a thousand years. The "other" can sometimes penetrate through a place and get to know it in a way which is kind of unbiased and without the huge weight of convention.

How important is it for you to understand the context surrounding a building—the street, the neighborhood, the city, the country?

Very important. You can't build anything meaningful if you don't understand the context in depth. . . [And] the real context is not always apparent—very often it is forgotten and hardly visible: the history of a place, the traditions of a place. I have been lucky to not just work around the world, but to have lived around the world too, and not just as a tourist. So it is actually very important to me to see the connection between the building and the genius loci of the place. Also, the human soul is universal wherever you go, across religion, across ethnicities, across continents. We are all connected. That is the beautiful thing about architecture.

Architecture is also an ancient practice. Do you think it has changed significantly with the advent of modern technology?

Of course with modern technology, with communications, we can do things that have never even been dreamed of before. But don't overestimate technology. At the end, no matter how much technology we have, we will still want to have the real experience because we have a body. We are not just minds, we are carnal, we are incarnated, it is a visceral experience, so architecture will always play an incredibly important role in this primordial sense of light, of weight, of transcendence, of hope, of dreams.

Would you ever design a church or a synagogue?

You know in fact I designed a synagogue that didn't get built and I designed a mosque that didn't get built. Those are really amazing programs because they deal with something that is the most difficult thing—to present an experience of divinity. In a way every building aspires to do that anyway. Whatever they say about the secular, about the sky and the earth, we long for something that isn't just the question of causality, but answers why we are doing it. So yes, I would certainly love to design one day a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque.

You have created a lot of buildings laden with meaning like the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the master plan for Ground Zero in New York. Is it important for your projects to have such profound symbolism?

I do lots of very prosaic programs too—shopping centers, houses, housing projects, offices, educational buildings—but somehow it was my fate that I started with the Jewish Museum, that was my first project, and then, more than a decade later, I won the competition for Ground Zero. These are projects that are for me the most complex because they deal with such a moment of importance that cannot just be reduced to a roof and some walls and some windows. But every project that I do has a poetic element, so everything has a dimension of meaning that has to be addressed in my view.

How did you have the confidence to take on a project as ambitious as the Jewish Museum as your first project?

Many people overestimate the notion of experience, that you have to work and work and work and then you can do something. I was an architect, but I chose a different path. I didn't apprentice myself to an office, I didn't like that path, so I tried to forge another path. Gaining experience is good, but it is also an obstacle because in some ways you have to forget what you know. You have to cease being an expert in order to do something new and something good.

Read more of The Talks with Daniel Libeskind.

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