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Arts

Daniel Libeskind: 'Berlin needs more architectural ambition'

The architect has a special relationship with Berlin: He calls it home and designed one of its landmark buildings, the Jewish Museum. DW asked Libeskind about his new projects, Berlin's style and his love for diamonds.

The Jewish Museum Berlin was completed according to Daniel Libeskind's designs in 1999. The star architect has received numerous prestigious architecture awards for it, marking his first major international success. Since the exhibition opened in 2001, more than 10 million visitors have wandered through the slanting corridors of Libeskind's spectacular zig-zag building in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

DW: Let's start by talking about jewels. Most of your buildings feature this kind of crystal structure. What’s behind your love for crystals?

Daniel Libeskind: I don't know where the crystal comes from. But I know that Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a master, said if a building is not a crystal, it's not a building. Now, a crystal is something which is cut, which is strong, which is robust, which is resilient, which isn't going to deform. It is a very precise form which glows in the sun and in the light of the sky. So a crystal is a symbol, it's not only a shape. It's an idea of the beauty but also the fire, the warmth, the intimacy and the inner side of life. I think this is also true for buildings. Buildings have a hard exterior but they have to work intimately in a domestic environment.

How strongly does light feature in your work?

Light is the key! I mean, whatever the building is, light is more than just a physical thing. It's a light of orientation, a light of imagination, a creative light. I think that's the core of any building and any city as well.

Sapphire – the name of your new residential building here in Berlin – brings to mind luxury housing. What's the idea behind Sapphire?

Sapphire is not meant to be an economic term, not at all. Sapphire is a beautiful stone, a strong material with luminosity. So it's not a coincidence that those crystals have always been used to propagate that there is more than just concrete, more than just a pedestrian material of life. There is something that glows, that calls attention to itself and that also gives light to the city.

Deutschland Daniel Libeskind Haus Saphire

Libeskind with a model of residential building Sapphire

Let’s talk about the neighborhood around the building and the architecture featured there. Was it a challenge to build a residential building directly across from the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service? How did you approach this challenge?

I've got nothing to say about the big BND building because it's not my building. It's just a very big building. But even a small building, like a corner of the block here at Chausseestraße can respond to its own program, which is housing, a place for people to live. It's something that is intimate and handcrafted, something that isn't just massive and statistical but meant for the individual. I think that's a real contrast on the street: a large institution for thousands of people versus a house where people can live their lives.

You have a special relationship to this city. Do you remember your first visit to Berlin?

Sure, I arrived long before the wall came down, when Berlin was still a divided city. Yet, I remember Berlin as a highlight of the 20th century, even across the catastrophes and the voids created by the terrors of that time. We can see Berlin as an inventive city, a beautiful city, a city of culture, of art and of new ideas. So I fell in love with Berlin right from the beginning.

How come that you as a Jewish person admire this city with its difficult story?

When I first came to Berlin and we decided to live here with my three kids including an infant daughter, it wasn't so easy for us to make that decision. Many members of our generation and of our families thought: 'What a terrible thing. Are they crazy to be living in Germany and in Berlin of all places?' But I'm glad we did because, in the course of many years, I have seen a new generation of Berliners and a new Germany emerge. I think this dynamic transformation is actually very impressive. Don't only look backward, you have to look forward. You can see what a great new generation and what a progressive country Germany now is in the world.

Deutsche Sehenswürdigkeiten

The Jewish Museum Berlin

Your first building here in Berlin was the Jewish Museum inaugurated in 2001. The face of the city has changed a lot in recent years. How do you like Berlin’s architecture today?

Berlin is a beautiful city with a lot of rebuilding. As for the architecture and the general trends, I'm not the biggest fan of just deciding the height of a building and a certain style of rectangular window. There's got to be more ambition in Berlin. The Sapphire just shows that with an older, very regular constraint and same parameter as any other building, you can create something with 21st-century-sense to it - not just another formula but something that is conceived as an artistic building.

What is your opinion on the reconstruction of Berlin's historic City Palace?

The Schloss [eds.: German for 'palace'] is an exercise in fantasy. It's not my fantasy but some people have the fantasy that by snapping your finger, you can bring history back. You can't just put facades and pretend you're getting back a heritage of the past. I cannot be done. I say it's going to be very impressive as a big folly. This is a folly in the center and it might be successful as exactly that.

Let’s talk about your newest project with the Alte Oper, the Old Opera, in Frankfurt am Main. You once said that architecture derives from music. Is it the other way round in this case?

My project in Frankfurt is called "One Day in a Life." But one day is all days! What happens in one day of life happens in all days of life. Places we go, people we meet, things we do: we have to go to work, we have to go to meetings, we have to have dreams on that day. Music is a symbol of life and also architecture because it's a structure. Music isn't visible, however, but it's very much like structural architecture. It gives us access to worlds we sometimes don't know about. So my project in Frankfurt is to put music where it was never played: in a hospital, in a stadium, inside of a moving tram. Or to play it in the subway, in secret places underground of the city, where people have not even known that there are hidden bunkers. The idea is to combine classical and contemporary music to show that to open up the city, you need its people to really hear what the music is saying to them.

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