World-famous architect Daniel Libeskind recently finished a big project in Berlin, where he sat down with Handelsblatt to talk about the rise of populism back home in America, and how to design cities of the future.
Published on December 3, 2016 12:00 pm
Why it matters
If architects and politicians work together they can create lively cities where different people live together in harmony.
- Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-American architect, designed Berlin’s Jewish Museum and was part of a team designing the One World Trade Center in New York.
- He also created the Grand Canal Theater in Dublin, ManchesterÄs Imperial War Museum North, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and Copenhagen’s Danish Jewish Museum.
- Mr. Libeskind will build a Kurdish museum in Iraq.
The first residents have begun moving in to one of superstar architect Daniel Libeskind’s most recent projects, the striking “Sapphire” luxury apartment building in central Berlin.
The Polish-born architect has designed several other famous buildings in the German capital, including the Jewish Museum. Back home in the United States, where his main office is headquartered in New York City, Mr. Libeskind is best known for his work on the One World Trade Center.
Though he’s a U.S. citizen, he moved to Berlin in 1989 and stayed for 14 years before moving back to the Big Apple. He spoke with Handelsblatt about his ongoing relationship with Berlin, the state of politics in the United States and how he sees cities developing in the future.
Handelsblatt: Mr Libeskind, you are an American citizen of polish descent. What is your opinion on president –elect Donald Trump?
Daniel Libeskind: It’s not only about Trump. Globally, we live in a time of change. What we see these days is that globalization does not only have positive effects but negative as well: Income disparity and forgotten groups in society. Insulting immigrants and minorities, building borders – all that is an expression of uncertainty.
Trump is feeding prejudices, though. Do you believe that he will change his tune as president?
Who knows. I for one don’t give him credit for anything in the future. He lied throughout, he was xenophobic. There was nothing good that he said, not a single thing. I think he has undermined American democracy.
Yet he perceives his victory a victory of democracy.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has received two million more votes than he did. But quite frankly, most of America thought that both choices were not really what the country deserved.
So they voted Trump?
Globalization may have made all of us richer somehow, but it has left a lot of people disappointed as well. Trump plays with that notion. He brings them hope. Think of that hypocrisy: You have a billionaire who obviously hasn’t paid a penny in taxes that the working class looks up to as their leader.
Populists are gaining ground throughout the world, including Europe.
It’s really worrying because in every single country the reasons for populism come down to the same roots. You know, people always say we have learned from history. But obviously we have not.
You grew up in Poland during the Soviet era. Do you fear that oppressive regimes could come back to power even in Western countries?
That’s a hard question. At least we see that single humans are capable of undermining democracies. We have to hope that the institutions of our democracies are stronger than in former times. There have been a stress test for the banks. I consider this a stress test for the democracy. What we don’t need right now is self-pity. Right now is the time to step up for our values.
Some believe that chancellor Merkel is the last bastion of liberal, open-minded values in the western world. What is your opinion of her running for fourth time?
I’m not a German citizen, but I think her decision gives hope that in the midst of all the negative forces in Europe, we still see politicians like her that assert poise. People have always spoken about Germany with a view to the Nazi era. But she proved them wrong. Within an instant, in welcoming refugees, she showed everybody that Germany has become another country.
In Germany her stance has also led to the rise in populism.
Obviously, yes. It’s part of a global phenomenon and we probably haven’t seen the worst yet.
Merkel was harshly criticized because the introduction of millions of refugees has put already strained real estate markets in big cities under even more pressure. How could architects resolve the lack of housing?
That’s not an architect’s task. That’s something politicians have to sort out. Affordable housing should be a right. That brings social harmony and makes a city rich, not least because it supports democracy. Of course architects could help as well to create houses and public spaces to meet people’s wishes and needs. Good architecture does not need to be expensive.
Apartments in your latest Berlin project “Sapphire” range from €5,000 to €15,000 per square meter. That’s quite expensive for Germans.
Not everybody has the same needs and not every single building has to fulfill everyone’s needs. You need to build both social housing projects as well as luxury projects. If you reserve the city for only a single class of people, cities are lost.
Don’t you think a project like Sapphire contradicts your social ideas?
No. A city needs diversity. The prince and the pauper have to live together, so to say. There needs to be a mix of people. That’s at the heart of the creativity of a city.
Did you know that mean real estate prices in Berlin have doubled since 2008?
Well Berlin has changed a lot since I have lived here. Of course prices have risen. But I still think Berlin is a fantastic city. People want to live there because a lot of exciting things happen there. It’s lively. That’s what makes a city a success.
When are we going to see your first social housing project in Berlin?
Soon enough. I’m working on it.
Can you elaborate on that?
Not really but I am working on it, yes. I just started. You know it takes a while to meet the right people and who are interested.
How can architects contribute to affordable housing?
We need developers who give us a chance to convert our ideas and don’t necessarily perceive it as a challenge but as an opportunity. We need investors who don’t focus on returns but on the idea of cohesive communities of the city.
If you had the chance to develop a master plan for Berlin, what would tackle at first?
Cities have to become more sustainable. To me this means that they have to be built higher and denser. There is no need to expand cities, eating up the countryside.
Tall buildings have a rather bad reputation in Germany, though.
I’m not talking about skyscrapers. Berlin should not try to be New York because Berlin cannot be New York. Every city has its own character. But it won’t hurt to raise the maximum height of buildings a little. It’s quite old-fashioned to cling to the idea that no building should exceed 22 meters in height.
So Berlin is wasting opportunities?
Any city that rejects modernity does.
Slightly higher buildings won’t relieve all the pressure from the real estate market, though.
There needs to be a mix of different measures. Architects are never working alone. We can’t pass laws. Politics can. You could for instance say that a certain number of affordable housing units should be part of any housing project.
Which city would you consider genuinely modern?
There are none. Our cities are cities from the past, the 19th or 20th century. Today we don’t even have a vision how the city would look.
Some architects say that more private money could help.
I can only hope that the outright privatization of the city does not happen. That would be the Brexit of architecture. I know that Patrick Schumacher is an outspoken advocate of privatization. In his opinion, privatizing public space and public parks would attract a lot of money from investors. Sure that’s possible. But it would be a dead end.
What do you mean?
In the end it would lead to dead inner cities. We would see a lot more gated communities. Just take a look at Los Angeles. There you’ll find a lot of communities with restricted access. Seriously, this can’t be what you wish for.
What should traffic in a modern city look like?
Public transport is the lifeline of any city. Look at New York. Of course, the city is expensive. But why do people still consider New York a good city? Because it has a relatively cheap – though not cheap enough – public transport system that takes you from literally any part of the city to another. We have to reduce our dependence on the car. I believe that in the future we will have cities that are not built for cars. Cities that emit far less pollution.
Despite all the debate about climate change, we don’t see much ecologically sustainable building in cities.
Climate change has to be an issue in housing projects. It is essential to keep the carbon footprint of a building as small as possible. Already there are a lot of opportunities. Just take Sapphire for instance. It is clad in titanium-ceramic tiles that eat up carbon dioxide and transform it into oxygen.
What if Donald Trump asked you to build a hotel for him. Would you do it?
If he renounces from everything he said, if he renounced all the lies, then maybe yes. You know, there is such a thing as repentance. But it doesn’t happen very often.
At 70 you have just finished building your first single homes. Is this a sign that you are preparing retirement?
Oh no, not at all. You see, I have lived my life in full reverse. Most architects start out building houses and end up with museums. I did it the other way round.
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