On the final day of IIDEXCanada, designers, real estate professionals and all those involved with the built environment were treated to a special keynote by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. The standing-room only crowd listened intently as Libeskind described his previous and current work while also delving into the meanings behind design and architecture.
The discussion was hosted by Catherine Osborne, Editor of Azure Magazine, who began the conversation by asking Libeskind: "When did you know you wanted to change the world through architecture?"
Libeskind told the audience about his first works as an architect, in which he entered several design competitions. Although he won a competition in the late 1980's for a Berlin housing project, the new government after reunification cancelled all active projects. When Libeskind entered a design competition for the Jewish Museum Berlin, he was asked what qualified him and what projects he had done in the past. Libeskind replied, "If you go by the past, Berlin is not going to have any future." He followed by describing his design. The entrance to the museum would be underground, into the darkness of the city's history, essentially integrating the meaning of the Holocaust into the physical and spiritual roots of Berlin. He explained that his design would evoke an emotional experience for visitors. The two-minute conversation was enough to convince officials that his design was the right choice. The Jewish Museum Berlin would become Libeskind's first major work as an architect.
Libeskind's master plan for the World Trade Center site was selected in 2003, and although his original vision has not come to fruition, he has collaborated with the architects now involved with the project. On the complications and politics of the World Trade Center site, he said, "For each project you have to listen very carefully to what is desired." He described the numerous stakeholders involved in the development, from the New York Port Authority to the families of the victims lost on 9/11. "You have to garner consensus." He added that the population influx Lower Manhattan is experiencing can be partly attributed to the World Trade Center. "This is proof of how architects can revitalize cities."
Moving onto his Canadian projects, Libeskind won the design competition for the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa to be located across from the Canadian War Museum. Though the project is expected to be completed by next year, Canada is currently the only Allied country without a national holocaust memorial in its capital city. "I thought it should be something that has a riveting, emotional feeling to it," he said, adding that the monument should be more than a simple plaque or statue. The design purposefully features clear vistas to Parliament's Peace Tower within the monument itself to affirm the importance of a democratic government. "It's not just a statement, it's an experience," said Libeskind.
Osborne asked whether there was anything Libeskind wanted to build that was not currently possible due to limitations in technology, specifically pointing out that some of his projects likely could not have been built a decade ago. "I've never tried to make my buildings reflect the tools I use," said Libeskind, noting that some architects try to mimic technology through their designs. The power to analyze and visualize designs has changed how buildings are constructed, but Libeskind stated that the world has changed faster than architecture. "Why does the human mind move so quickly but architecture moves so slowly?" He went on to explain that architecture is not a commodity, rather, it has a spirituality to it. People live much the same way they did thousands of years ago–demonstrated in the way people position their furniture and belongings in their private spaces–and architecture reflects that reality.
On what architecture means to people, Libeskind described how upsetting current norms and order, even rotating a window slightly, can be controversial. "That's why architecture is so political," said Libeskind. He explained that dictators have historically been obsessed with architecture as a means of applying their own conventions and values onto the built environment. He again established that architecture, because of its tangibility and the fact that it involves so many stakeholders, needs consensus and permission to be approved.
Toronto, often seen as an architecturally conservative city, has changed in recent years in part thanks to daring designs by Libeskind. The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum has altered what Torontonians believe architecture can be, while the under-construction L Tower continues with Libeskind's theme of adventurous designs. Osborne asked whether Toronto was winning or losing at becoming a great city for architecture.
"Toronto has very incredible people," said Libeskind. He praised the city for its incredible energy and diversity, though he believes those traits have not been adequately reflected architecturally in the city itself. "I predict Toronto will change in a rapidly good way," said Libeskind. He suggested that the city's architecture will soon become much less heterogenous and much more interesting.
Asked whether building in Toronto is different from building in other cities, Libeskind replied that great clients with vision are required to make successful designs, though "you have to pursue your own vision at the same time." Libeskind also stated that architects and designers do not have a monopoly on interest in the built environment. "It's not the architects who build the city, not the politicians, not the designers. Every person contributes to the city they live in," said Libeskind. "My idea is to empower people not just to criticize architecture but to make people build something fantastic."
Osborne ended the conversation by asking: "What still surprises you about architecture?"
"Everything," said Libeskind, as he described how architecture is not strictly related to building, but can be applied to the political system, to failure, success and everything in between. Libeskind stated that even Lake Ontario, though it appears natural, has been formed, altered and constructed over the years to meet our needs. In turn, humans become constructed by their parents and through education. "To me, architecture is an astonishing symbol of creativity," said Libeskind. "When you're an architect, you can do anything you want. You can play music, you can draw, you can think, you can laugh. It's the best profession in the world."
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