Interior view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Libeskind.

The Age of Genius

A powerful self-portrait of writer Bruno Schulz.
Bruno Schulz self portrait, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread,” writes Bruno Schulz in his short story The Age of Genius. “There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness are the soul.”

The Age of Genius

I learned of Schultz’s books Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and The Street of Crocodiles when I interviewed Daniel Libeskind for my “Emotionality of Architecture” column on Architizer. It was a heady afternoon discussing how emotions come into play during the architect’s design process, and the conversation garnered me more material than I could publish on Architizer so I thought I’d share it here today—after all, the luminous bits of conversation would meet the squandered fate Schulz describes in this snippet of the story if I don’t:

“Yet what is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided, and allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, homeless and errant?”

Daniel Libeskind, a genius with architecture, photographed by Ilan Besor.
Architect Daniel Libeskind, copyright Ilan Besor.

The afternoon I spent with the architect unfolded within the library of his Manhattan offices after I’d completed a tour of Studio Libeskind. The winding spaces were dotted with models of cities in miniature, and entire walls were covered with drawings and photographs of projects. I was happy I was able to meet Nina, his wife and sidekick, whose warmth was genuine and compelling.

Daniel Libeskind on
the Emotionality of Architecture

Once ensconced in the library, I didn’t have long to wait so I studied the books quickly to ascertain the reading predilections of Libeskind and his New York team. As the door swung open, he walked in looking hip in his stylish glasses and a sheer navy blue shirt. During the next 45 minutes, to my great delight, he answered each question candidly and with astute care. Here’s a taste of the territory we covered that was left on the cutting room floor, so to speak!

Daniel Libeskind on having three of the New York Five—John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier—as professors during his years at Cooper Union:

It was a time of change in thinking about architecture so I feel fortunate to have had access to people who were involved in the deeper thinking of the time. And it wasn’t only here, of course: in Italy, it was people like Aldo Rossi, whose a very close friend of mine, and Tafuri, the great Italian theorist, who were asking bigger questions. There was a turbulent change going on and it was the first time in history you could access information so readily.

On letting the creative lead:

What I have come to realize is that if you become a machine in the discovery of architecture, you are in the business of the mechanical, but if you start with ideas and with drawings, the creative will take you along its way. Did you know that glass buildings were drawn before glass technology ever existed? At the end of the 18th century and early in the 19th century, people drew buildings that had luminous skins but there was no glass technology at that time. They had the vision of glass before there was any technical way to accomplish it. This is what I mean when I say how powerful work can be when the creative leads.

Denver Art Museum designed by Studio Libeskind.
The Denver Art Museum, designed by Studio Libeskind.

On allowing architecture to pose questions:

Every building should pose questions to you and it’s up to you to discover the answers. It’s not something you can say, “I know how to do this because I’ve done a building and I’ll do another one identical to it.” Certainly with all of our great technology, buildings can be done like this, by remote control, but I have never found it interesting to repeat myself. Even if I’ve envisioned something and the building never gets built, I don’t want to do another the same way again. I believe once it is done, it’s time to move on to the next step. Because a building is one huge question posed as an intellectual and historical quest, it is a process, just as an architect’s journey is one.

I want to tell you a story vis-à-vis this point. It’s about Glenn Gould, who said he had a revelation about Bach when he was playing the piano as someone who was cleaning his house turned on the vacuum cleaner. Suddenly, he couldn’t hear anything he was playing and he realized Bach was not operating aurally; his playing was about the positioning of his fingers on the keys of the piano. This is when Gould discovered that Bach wasn’t about the melody—playing was tactile for him. It was as if his nervous system drove him, not something outside of himself like sound. To me, that’s connecting everything through emotion, and that’s what the process of designing great architecture can evoke.

On the importance of having a model studio:

It’s important because we start with drawings and move to humble cardboard or wood models, not meant for presentation but extremely useful as explorations in three dimensions. I believe the use of models for investigation early on is critical to identifying and nurturing ideas throughout a project. I’ll give you a funny anecdote to illustrate how creative my idea of modeling can be. The first project I ever submitted to a competition was in Berlin. I won it but the building was never built because the Wall came down before the project could be realized. The program called for a highly artistic approach and I made three large models that were basically collages in three dimensions.

Only many years later did I find out that when they were delivered to the jury and stored where all of the other models were stored, the cleaning people threw them out because they thought they were garbage! They looked like folded newspapers and had things on them that didn’t read like architecture so they threw them out! The people running the competition had to find all the pieces in the trash and then hired something like 20 model-makers to glue them back together before anyone found out. What amuses me still is that these people didn’t see mine as architecture; they saw the other models that were linear configurations of white cubes and compositions in Plexiglas as models but not mine, which were done in such a different spirit.

An aerial view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a Studio Libeskind project.
An aerial view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

I am often amazed when I see our senior principals at their desks, deep in thought as they manipulate pieces of cardboard and glue them together. This proves to me that someone who is very rational can benefit from this process and I see this as the beauty of architecture. I also think it’s so helpful that the things we do in the beginning of a project do not follow convention. That doesn’t mean to say it’s not a well-tested system we have. We certainly use the computer to our advantage, but I have seen how beginning with something out-of-the-ordinary born in a computer program creates a one-second wow only to prove we cannot be sure that what it’s telling us is the truth. The old method is clear—and it has tradition behind it. It was used in the Renaissance, during medieval times, and even in ancient Rome. There is wisdom, I think, in the physicality of the model because it’s a microcosm. It’s solid but there’s something kind of magical about it—one small move and everything changes.

On whether maturity impacts an architect’s emotional point of view or temperaments are a set aspect of personality:

I think there is always a DNA. I don’t think it is possible to become disembodied—you carry your memories and your experiences with you, and if these are not merely gratuitous, they become part of what you do. We cannot separate the personality of Michelangelo from his sculptures. We don’t even know who Shakespeare was but we know he was an incredible personality by reading his work and experiencing his plays. The idea of neutralized emotion—that you are only doing your job and you have no stake in it beyond required duties—produces abstracted buildings that may be nice aesthetically but have no ethical depth. Having said this, I do believe what becomes more difficult with maturity is maintaining naïveté.

This may sound like a cliché, but it’s important to be childish when exploring. I’m not embarrassed by this statement because it begs the question, “How do you continue to be naïve when you’ve designed so many different windows and so many different doors and built so many different structures?” How do you start again and say, “I don’t know how to build” when you have built? How do you say, “I don’t know what a window or a door is”? You simply can’t forget.

Interior view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Libeskind.
An interior view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

I had never built anything before the Jewish Museum in Berlin, not a single building. When I started it, people told me to hire someone who knows about construction and I said, “No; I don’t want ‘an expert’ because the program calls for something unprecedented.” I believe it’s negative to become an expert. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, an expert is someone who has stopped thinking because they believe they know everything. Granted, we were young and untested at the time we designed this building, but the approach is something I try to recover with every project, even while I’m aware that the more knowledge we accumulate, the harder it is. Remaining completely open as an architect is paradoxical: it requires the difficult balance of pleasing a client with your ability to be responsible and then going back to draw as if you are a child without a care in the world! You have to find a way to abandon things that you know and forge another path.


I appreciate the time Daniel took to share his genius with me. My fourth installment in my architecture column goes live this week so be sure to stop by and see what Bob Borson has to say about graphite poetry and all that conveys. My architecture book Four Florida Moderns is available on Amazon in print. Also on Amazon are Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to PromiseThe Modern Salonnière and The Age of Genius © Saxon Henry.

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