"Design is everything" began Daniel Libeskind, addressing the crowd at last week's CityAge conference for his lecture on master planning, entitled "Design, Density, Desire". The internationally-renowned starchitect and founder of Studio Libeskind was in Toronto to present a series of his large-scale master plans, a relevant subject for the city today as it faces several massive redevelopment proposals of brownfield sites across the GTA. 

Daniel Libeskind presents at the CityAge conference, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The enigmatic architect captivated the audience with his enthusiastic speech, in which he presented an optimistic vision for the densification of cities around the world. Density is the future, Libeskind explained, as we cannot continue to sprawl. Desire refers to the desire of people around the globe to live in cities. But how do we create desire out of density? The key, for Libeskind, is that public spaces come first. "Without public space you have no city," Libeskind stated. "You have just private development, you get just expression of capital. Public space is what makes a city livable. And it is what gives an identity to a city."

The common thread of all the master plans he presented, which included developments in Berlin, Milan, Singapore, Seoul, and New York, is that the public spaces shaped the configuration of the buildings, not the other way around. “To me, any design has to start with public space and human scale," he explained. "How big the buildings are is secondary.”

Daniel Libeskind presents at the CityAge conference, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Take, for example, his massive 28-tower proposal in the historic heart of Seoul. The unique master plan, he claims, is designed specifically for tall buildings. The massive towers are scattered throughout the area, interspersed by an interconnected series of green spaces that are reminiscent of the archipelago that once occupied the site. The ground plane is carved and sculpted so that the public realm can be expanded to the above ground and underground spaces, where connections are made to important transit hubs and retail. The most important aspect of the proposal is the abundance of green space provided not just for the new towers, but also for the surrounding downtown neighbourhoods.

Bird's eye view of Libeskind's proposed master plan in Seoul, image via Studio Libeskind.

Through each master plan, he also stressed the importance of keeping the future in mind with regards to the economic viability of the master plan. "How do you get from an idea to reality?" he asked, "because most master plans remain unbuilt, they are just ideas, and only a piece of it gets built". The reality is that over the long term, economic conditions change, and many master plans that start off with bold ideas of grandeur fail to be fully realized, and only leave behind a legacy of a broken dream.

This logic was a main driver of his master plan for Ground Zero in New York City. The plan features an open public space at the centre of the site, containing the stunning memorial to the victims of 9/11, around which is an arc of five towers stepping down in size and scale. Also included in the master plan is a major transit hub, a museum, and a cultural centre. The plan has been half realized to date, and is in the process of being fully built out over the next several years.

Rendering of Libeskind's master plan for Ground Zero in New York, image via Studio Libeskind.

"I divided the project so that it could respond to economic conditions," Libeskind explained. "Nobody is going to build a 200-storey building. It's just a fantasy". With this logic, the public space came first, and the remainder of the land was sectioned off into blocks that can be developed at a later date, each with its own tower designed by a different architect.

Libeskind did not hesitate to point out that he was the only architect to propose not building anything at the centre of the site where the twin towers once stood. It was sacred ground, he stated, and it is not right to build where people have perished. The buildings were pushed to the periphery of the plan, and the centre was handed over to the public in a symbolic gesture to honour the people of New York.

View of the 9/11 memorial at the centre of Ground Zero, image via Studio Libeskind.

In Libeskind's master plans, the quality of the public space also plays a key factor. Shadows being cast over public spaces is a crime to the people, a trend he laments is happening around the world as cities grow upward. His Ground Zero proposal has strategically placed gaps between the towers to maximize sunlight exposure to the public spaces below, and this logic even shaped Libeskind's design of Toronto's L-Tower, whose curvature was derived from shadow studies on nearby Berczy Park.

The L-Tower, he claims, is a perfect example of how we can preserve access to sunlight as we build up. The shape prevents shadows being cast on an important space in the city, while the bulge in the middle of the building allows the developer to achieve the required density on the site to turn a profit.

View of the L-Tower by Studio Libeskind c.2015, image courtesy of Forum contributor TOareaFan.

In a way, Libeskind's master plans can be seen as a contemporary take on the tower-in-the-park model. He stresses, however, that every public space and every plan must be contextual and respond to its urban context, a key difference from his mid-century counterparts that allows the communities to be properly scaled and liveable while still providing the much-needed density.

With recent master plans in Toronto reaching fruition, it is apparent that this model of planning is becoming more and more prevalent as the city grows. Neighbourhoods such as the Canary District, where Corktown Common was completed before any buildings were erected, and along the waterfront, where the highly-acclaimed Sherbourne Common and Sugar Beach await development to surround them, follow this model of public spaces first.

View of Corktown Common c.2014, image courtesy of Forum contributor agoraflaneur.

Libeskind's method seems to have worked for the projects he presented, some of which have become the most successful developments in their respective cities. "That is the mastery of master plans," he exclaimed. "To do something that is visionary on one hand, but practical, realizable, people can actually build it. And it could take a while, but it is possible to economically respond to a plan that has a very, very bold idea.”


The CityAge Toronto 2016 event has now wrapped up. A complete event schedule is available in our preview editorial, as well as on the CityAge website, which includes a full itinerary of speakers and discussions. This year, UrbanToronto is CityAge's official media partner, so keep an eye out for our reporting from the conference.

Related Companies:  Claude Cormier + Associés, Milborne Group