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.
Let’s hope the Invisible is still with Daniel Libeskind. Because it’s gone missing now in New York. The poetry of the void has become the corn-dog-‘n’-extra-relish Freedom Tower, its spire echoing the Statue of Liberty, hitting that idée fixe of 1,776 feet in height—a scheme The New York Times called “predictably kitsch.” (This was the critical equivalent of The Shining‘s “Here’s Johnny” moment.) “Whoa,” stammers Libeskind in his book. “You can say a design is ugly. That it is impractical. You can even say it’s a rip-off of another design. But don’t ever call it kitsch.”
Kitsch is sob stuff, as critics branded Libeskind’s beloved slurry wall, the exposed foundation of the World Trade Center that was the politico-conceptual bedrock of his plan. (Cue the fluttering flags and solemn voice-over: “In refusing to fall, it seemed to attest, perhaps as eloquently as the Constitution, to the unshakable foundations of democracy and the value of human life and liberty.”) To many sophisticates, this was pure corn. Rafael Viñoly, who led the competing THINK team’s bid for the ground zero gig, dissed the sunken space as Libeskind’s “own personal Wailing Wall.” Yet scrape off the schlock, and you’ll find what we desperately need in New York: more of the Invisible. Libeskind recalls his first vision of the slurry wall, Nina at his side, mojo working overtime: “It was many colors at once, patchwork overlapping patchwork, because over the years the wall has often had to be reinforced so that it wouldn’t collapse. It was haptic, tactile, pulsing, a multilayered text written in every conceivable language.” Kitsch this is not. It’s a clairvoyant tour de force.
Ground zero’s torqued, all right. The spirits are edgy. Ten million square feet of office space—Silverstein’s unbudgeable number—is not so Invisible, after all. And as flashbulbs pop over new commissions on the site for Frank Gehry and others, Daniel Libeskind almost seems a ghostly memory himself. But wait. Remember in The Shining? Danny’s imaginary friend, Tony? He’s got a message for us: Let Libeskind be Libeskind. We need the tiny berserker flailing away at his bright-red accordion. Give us the mojo man who describes his collaboration with Freedom Tower architect David Childs as something like “the orchestrated arrangements between North and South Korea at the very tense border at Panmunjom.” (Or, better still: “This is insane! Deranged, like out of The Brothers Karamazov!”) Give us back the dervish who pictures himself as Alice gone through the looking glass into a world of Jabberwocks and Jubjub birds, and that badass thing Lewis Carroll called the “frumious Bandersnatch.” Let loose the beasties. It’s a jungle in there, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Jeff Byles writes about architecture. His accordion is in hock.