Past imperfect

Renowned architect offers one-dimensional memoir

Nov 17, 2004 at 12:00 am

Daniel Libeskind is America’s favorite disappearing architect. Since he was chosen to guide the Ground Zero reconstruction, he’s been steadily shrinking, dragged down by a fight to salvage his original design.

That fight has made for great drama, replete with big personalities, vast money and intense public interest. After 9/11, everyone was a New Yorker, and every New Yorker had opinions about how to rebuild.

But the continuing fascination with Libeskind is more personal than a simple interest in architecture.

The architectural competition to rebuild Ground Zero brought together a divided city with a great design. It has since disintegrated into a petty, ego-driven war. Likewise, from the peaks of unity after 9/11, our civic life has endured a head-spinning disintegration into frightening divisiveness. We’re desperate to build out of this hole.

Unfortunately, the hole we see in Libeskind’s unsatisfying new memoir, Breaking Ground, looks deeper than ever.

Libeskind is just as upbeat and optimistic as ever, and just as dedicated to his design and to the politicking necessary to see it through. But years of fighting have taken a critical toll on the artist and changed the way he looks at the world. The inclusive humanism that was the foundation of his aesthetic — to “confront our histories, our complicated and messy realities, our unadulterated emotions” — has been ruthlessly gnawed into something decidedly less complex, and less important.

The world Libeskind sees and writes about now is very, very simple. Starkly peopled with friends and enemies, heroes and villains, good and evil, it’s so black and white that it lacks even the grays of shadow essential in architecture. Libeskind has lost touch with complexity, and lost some of essential humanity that used to be the core of his art.

Breaking Ground presents three loosely intertwined narratives: his bitter account of the Ground Zero fight; the story of the 12-year battle to build his stunning Jewish Museum in Berlin; and his family’s story of surviving World War II, its road to America, and its run-ins with oppressive and murderous authority.

The villains in all these stories are easy to spot, if difficult to distinguish from one another — the head of the gulag where his mother was imprisoned during the war; the owner of the sweatshop she worked in upon arriving in America; the greedy and unrepentant postwar German bureaucrats who stand in the way of the Jewish Museum; his Ground Zero adversaries: the evil financier Larry Silverstein, the arch-architect David Childs and the dark empire of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. All of them are painted with the same black brush.

The heroes are equally one-dimensional. He’s deeply romantic about his own family history, which translates to the kind of sickly sweet praise best reserved for funerals and weddings. His wife is a “genius,” his mother is “brilliant and fearless,” his lawyer is “a legend,” etc. Tales of his own youth are shameless displays of insufferable self-love. He sees no complex characters, no intricate inner life, no difficult decisions — that is to say, none of the stuff of an engaging memoir.

When he finally gets around to writing about architecture, he’s interesting, persuasive and articulate. He writes well about what architecture might aspire to, about light and the possibility of expressing “character, humanity and beauty.” If you can ferret them out, the anecdotes about developing particular designs are engaging. But in the face of his prose, his architectural ideals fall flat. He writes terrible gaffes like, “Buildings have hearts and souls. … If you doubt that, think about the heart-breaking immensity of loss when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.” Statements like this paint him as someone so wrapped up in theory that he’s completely missed the actual human point.

Breaking Ground, in its accidentally honest moments, is a portrait of one man’s psychological transition from architectural idealist to canny politician. It’s an unpleasant portrait of a man out of his element, nearly destroyed by his own success — A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pugilist, punch-drunk and ranting, unable to see anything but the last insult and the next strike. For a written work, this is the real tragedy: Given the opportunity, he failed to see the humanity in the people he actually knew.

Scott Topper is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].