Let Libeskind be Libeskind

Full of ghosts, ground zero's like that hotel in The Shining—and maybe that's OK

Daniel Libeskind's got Itzhak Perlman in his past. He's got the gestapo on his mind, a Jabberwock in his pocket. And—dare we say it?—dude's got mojo. The scene is the late 1950s, a Tel Aviv concert hall. Libeskind's a child-prodigy accordion player, a little moxie machine, pudgy fingers banging on the keys, boggling spectators with the sight, as one reviewer recalled, of "the strange, small accordionist onstage, hidden, except for his feet, by his bright red Sorrento, with its silver registers and ivory and ebony keys, the zigzagging folds of its bellows delineated with black and white stripes." Daniel Libeskind, the architect-about-town who has overseen the hole in the middle of Lower Manhattan, was some kind of dervish, channeling strange spirits into that sleek squeeze box. Libeskind, he's our hurdy-gurdy man.

A couple hundred pages into his new memoir, Breaking Ground (Riverhead), after the confessional bombshells ("In spite of my penchant for wearing black, I am more cornball than cosmopolite") and wistful recollections ("There were days when I was made to feel like a rock star")—but before the magnificent tableau of ground zero developer Larry Silverstein (he's like "Nikita Khrushchev hammering his shoe on the lectern at the UN")—Daniel Libeskind talks about The Shining. He adores Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film about the deranged alcoholic writer who hurtles after his wife and young son with an ax in a desolate, mountaintop hotel. Just picture it, he writes: "Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall up in that giant, fading resort in the Rockies. People have their own interpretations of the movie, but to me it's about architecture, and the fact that woven into the fabric of every building is a past, and spirits, and a spiritual reality, and if you try to resist their force, something terrible will happen to you."

The clairvoyant boy in The Shining, you may recall, is named Danny. His imaginary pal, Tony, receives emotional weather reports, ghastly premonitions. Danny roams the deserted resort, with its mesmeric corridors, ice-jammed windows, and bad-juju Room 237, occasionally bumping into two spectral young girls sporting party dresses—longtime residents of the Overlook Hotel. Libeskind groks a spiritual reality that hits close to home: "The repeated, deadly visions of the pretty twin girls have struck me as visions of the Twin Towers themselves." The Overlook Hotel is a lot like ground zero. It's eerily beautiful, fraught as hell, and full of ghosts.

Oh, and someone better tell Larry Silverstein: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Libeskind's mind is a riot of grottoes, hobgoblins, and peculiar pensées ("Eyes are spheres; light bounces off them; they glisten and gleam"). It's a nice little bestiary, that mind. When he began drafting his powerfully jigged and jagged Jewish Museum in Berlin, he rummaged in his brain and pulled out Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street, a meandering mental map of the city. (Among its aperçus: "The only way of knowing a person is to love that person without hope.") He sometimes piped in the music of Schoenberg, at other times the brimful sounds of composer Giacinto Scelsi. He's circumspect about omens and the flight patterns of birds. With his wife, colleague, and political operative Nina fending off hexes from the Berlin Senate, the Jewish Museum triumphed. "This building is an architectural fart," the city's curmudgeonly building czar declared in exasperation when he realized he could not kill the plan. Chalk one up for the cosmic accordionist.

Breaking Ground is a 288-page mojo manual. By now, you know the general outline. Born in 1946 in a refugee hospital in Lodz, Poland. Wins prestigious accordion scholarship, blows Itzhak Perlman off the stage. Steams into New York Harbor as a 13-year-old immigrant. Lives in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union cooperative and studies technical drawing at the Bronx High School of Science. Mother Dora, a Hasidic Jew from Warsaw, quotes Nietzsche when not clocking long days in a sweatshop dyeing fur collars and affixing them to coats. Father Nachman spends two decades as a photo-offset stripper on Stone Street—blocks from the 16-acre site that would become the World Trade Center. At home, according to Jewish custom, carp schlepped from the market swim languorously in the bathtub until dinnertime.

Spirits hang heavy over this clan. Libeskind's parents, who fled Poland before the German invasion of 1939 and were locked up in Soviet hard-labor camps, later found that 85 of their immediate relatives had been exterminated. Nachman wandered dazedly around Lodz after the war, taking comfort in "the ghosts and invisible shadows of his lost city." Every week he and Daniel would trek to Lodz's Jewish cemetery—the largest in Europe—to tidy up the tombs of loved ones amid the sprawl of disheveled graves. "My father and I did what little we could to make the place neat and orderly again," Libeskind recalls. "We did it as if to spite the historical odds, as if to prove that memory is more powerful than the combined force of human destructiveness and natural decay."

Libeskind's febrile imagination rooted in this baroque sense of place. "Trust the Invisible," he writes. "That's what my father taught me." Confronting trauma and memory, the architect tunes in to what he calls the void—"the presence of an overwhelming emptiness created when a community is wiped out, or individual freedom is stamped out; when the continuity of life is so brutally disrupted that the structure of life is forever torqued and transformed." In The Shining, little Danny peers into the void of memory. That's what "shining" is. It's the furious conjuring otherwise called architecture.

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