The Libeskind effect

Yesterday the Imperial War Museum did the brave and brilliant thing. To design their Manchester branch, they commissioned this man, Daniel Libeskind. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
Daniel Libeskind has just been awarded the commission to design a new Imperial War Museum in Manchester. Given the controversy that his buildings arouse, it is an act of courage. Based, as it was, upon his brilliant presentation without a blueprint or scale model, let alone any notion of the content, choosing him is also an act of faith. But if there is one architect who will repay that faith it is Libeskind. In choosing him, they have given themselves the prospect of a ground-breaking museum for the 21st century. That, after all, is what he has achieved with his Jewish Museum in Berlin and, when it comes to fruition, with his famous Boilerhouse extension, now to be called The Spiral, at the V&A.

It has not been easy. In Berlin he endured hate mail and hysteria and the project was nearly stopped five times. Libeskind's champion, the city architect responsible for new buildings, was killed by a letter bomb. Even in cushy South Kensington, his projected challenge to English conservatism has had anything but an easy ride. No letter bombs, but lots of brickbats. Now, each week at the V&A he makes an appearance on behalf of his building, informing the public, the Royal Fine Arts Commission, English Heritage, the Arts Council, potential patrons, Kensington & Chelsea planning committees and anybody else who will listen just why and how the Spiral building will work. Fractals - those randomly repeating amorphous computerised patterns - may have inspired his design, but the first people he sought for approval of his blueprint were the museum cleaning staff. And if you want a lucid explanation of his Boilerhouse scale model that stands in the fusty ground floor of the V&A, museum staff on duty can give you one. Visitors expect the floors to be as skewed as the vertiginous angles of the facade, so the model is made in see-through acrylics to prove that every floor within is perfectly flat, not a spiralling ramp from the vortex of his forceful design.

Libeskind was born in Poland in 1948 and emigrated with his family to Israel when he was nine. By the age of 12 he was a virtuoso at the piano, up there with Daniel Barenboim, "earning more than I do now". But the family emigrated to the United States and he took up maths and art. When he graduated in architecture he moved to Britain so that he could study philosophy, art and architecture at the University of Essex.

Throughout his thirties he accepted teaching posts, for a time at the Architectural Association, then in Milan. Then he was offered the John Paul Getty Senior fellowship in Los Angeles - "a good appointment, lucrative, a secretary, the kids in school, and we could have started a new life in the States". But before their possessions shipped to the States had arrived he learnt that he had won first prize in the competition to build the Berlin Museum.

Throughout, his main support has been Nina, his Canadian wife of 28 years. They met as teenagers at a Yiddish summer camp organised for the children of Holocaust survivors. When they were in Essex, she worked in a Citizens' Advice Bureau, which happened to be good training for her subsequent role as her husband's lobbyist.

It was she who got the prime minister of Israel to intervene to prevent the Jewish museum project from being scrapped. "Without Nina it would never have got built," says Daniel. "she's not an architect and she doesn't just manage the office. She has a deep political vision. This collaboration is what makes our buildings happen."

The Jewish Museum will open - on time and in budget - next year. Already it has become the biggest attraction in the city, with thousands of visitors admitted to the empty building every week. Professor Matthias Sauerbruch, an architect based in Berlin, says that in addressing the Holocaust, Libeskind cemented it forever as German history. "That is more difficult for Germans than his geometry." Difficult as that was for them to face, it does appear that even the most virulent antagonism has been silenced by the magnificence of the building.

The experience of being within its four walls, pitched at curious angles, lit by strangely slanted windows, is unsettling. Where are the four walls and the pitched roof that we associate with shelter? His ground plan is based on a trajectory plotted from a 1933 telephone directory of Berlin linking all the addresses of families called Berlin who just disappeared. Pot-holing through its vast spaces - empty because, after all, there is no trace of their existence except in the collective memory - the walkway narrows. The walls close in. You are left gasping in a narrow tunnel. The only light from the building is a tiny shaft way overhead illuminating the darkness. Stepping out, shaken, into the daylight, the doorway is skewed to reveal the 49 pillars in the Garden of Exile and Emigration, all vertiginously slanted. At one level it is an exercise in structural engineering that would only be rivalled by something like the leaning tower of Pisa replicated 49 times. At another, it is an experience unlike any other, exemplifying the emotive power of architecture.

Only someone with stamina and passion could have withstood the opposition he has faced. But failure is something that Daniel Libeskind just cannot countenance.

Recently he has designed the set for the September opening in Oslo of a play called The Architect by the young Scottish writer David Greig. Performed at last year's Edinburgh Festival, it has struck a chord all over Europe and will be staged in France, Italy and Germany next year.

The "architect" is Leo Black, an engaging optimist loosely based on the Sixties Modernist Erno Goldfinger, who was responsible for battleship- styled high-rise housing. Leo's desire to make life better for people is genuine and compelling. Architecture in his eyes develops a new social morality. Yet in the play, the residents in his cockroach-ridden, graffiti- strewn concrete tower block want to pull it down. They seek the architect's signature on their petition. Everyone he comes across, including his poisonous family, challenge his waffle about visionary architecture and scorn his ideals on building a better future. People want the architect to fail.

David Greig admits that times change. He says that if he was writing the play now he'd change the storyline and have the most vociferous resident fight to stop the building being pulled down. "And yes, the architect would be put in a position where he would sign the petition because people are ultimately more important than an ideology or an aesthetic."

Should Leo Black have signed the petition to pull down his building? "Not yet," says Daniel Libeskindn

From Boilerhouse to Spiral

Libeskind's V&A project caused much fear and loathing when the model was unveiled. Forget about the indignation - here is a list of conventional reasons why this brilliant-looking building makes sense, and a list of the adjustments he has made in the light of discussion: A maximum amount of wall surface for display. Very few windows, but dramatic openings designed for light control so that electronic information can be projected on to inward-leaning walls. Two exhibition halls under the garden that can be opened separately from the museum for late-night events. Three new galleries on three floors for contemporary design. Links at every level with the rest of the museum.

Fine tuning: 5 per cent smaller than originally (people found the design big and threatening). It has been set back from the street, and the facade has been given a slight twist. New ecological air circulation to reduce costs and CFCs. And a name-change from Boilerhouse (Steam Age) to Spiral (New Age).

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