Daniel Libeskind’s Tribeca Flat is poised to witness the Rebirth of Ground Zero
Architect Daniel Libeskind doesn’t do apartments. Befores never became Afters with Libeskind in residence. He simply didn’t have the time. Upon winning the competition to master plan the rebuilding on the former World Trade Center site, the architect returned to New York City from Berlin. Before this move, his wife and business partner, Nina, recalls that they and their two sons, now grown, and their daughter, Rachel, now 15, moved 17 times, to and from New York, London, Toronto, Helsinki, Milan, Berlin and elsewhere. In those years they simply rented or sublet apartments in good buildings with great space, light and views, in architecturally interesting parts of town, and made sure their choices didn’t require much fixing. The family had other imperatives.
In his earlier years Libeskind traveled widely, teaching at many architecture schools, and Nina and the children lived where he taught. Libeskind explains, “We always lived in improvised quarters because we never had the money to buy or build. In Berlin, we first furnished our apartment with the huge, empty crates we had used to ship architectural models back and forth. We had a crate for Rachel, and one of our sons turned some into bunk beds.”
In 1989, having won the competition to design the Jewish Museum Berlin, he opened his architectural office in that city and soon established an international practice. Back in New York City, the Libeskinds might have moved in-to a pleasant and conveniently located rental, but instead they did immeasurably better than that. What happened? Architect Alexander Gorlin, a student of Libeskind’s at The Cooper Union in the late 1970s, thought he knew exactly where and how his friend and former teacher should live and offered advice that was heeded. Gorlin himself was remodeling a full-floor apartment for his own use on the third floor of a 100-year-old 10-story loft structure shaped like the Flatiron Building, only smaller. It is located at the very edge of the Tribeca West Historic District, five blocks north of ground zero. A similar, 2,100-square-foot full-floor apartment on the seventh floor in almost derelict condition was for sale, and he arranged for Daniel and Nina Libeskind to see it.
In Breaking Ground, his recently published autobiography, Libeskind writes: “When we first saw the space, it was a mess-virtually irredeemable, with a funny shape that had been chopped into rooms in a clumsy fashion. Nina was ready to walk out the door, but I sensed something. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to just sit here by this window for five minutes alone,’ I told her and the man who was showing us the space. They shrugged and left me in a chair by the windowsill. When Nina returned, I announced, ‘This is the perfect apartment. Listen to it. It sounds right. Come sit here, get a feel for the light. The light is perfect here. I want to live with this light. We will be happy here.”‘
Gorlin fully expected that Libeskind would be his own architect for the loft and was surprised and pleased by the couple’s decision to give him the job while they played the client role. “At the beginning, when Daniel asked me to do this,” Gorlin recalls, “I expected to be doing his design, but he said, ‘No, do your own thing.’”
Gorlin, as a resident, was already familiar with the renovation problems of the building, as well as with New York building codes and regulations. The Libeskinds, given the everyday stresses and challenges of their general practice, combined with the inevitable struggles for design control at the World Trade Center site, would presumably have had even less time to dedicate to a renovation than ever before. And Gorlin, a noted residential architect who does do apartments, would bring his talent and years of experience to the effort.
This unusual collaboration between architect as client and architect as acting designer is the first time that Libeskind’s architectural aesthetic has been displayed in a domestic environment. With the help of Gorlin, it is a very different aesthetic indeed-no deconstructivist tilted walls, slanted floors, sharp triangulations, mixed geometries, aggressive projections and diag-nal slashes of light.
“What Nina and I wanted was a quiet refuge,” says Libeskind. ”Alex understood without too many discussions what exactly should be done, and he worked well with Nina and Rachel because they were also involved.” And Gorlin remembers, “In the end, when Daniel would say, ‘I trust you,’ that was so invigorating in so many ways. He gave me freedom to experiment, to take his architecture not as a style to emulate but as a model of creative thinking. I didn’t believe it was my task to design the apartment as an homage to Daniel. Instead, it became an opportunity to extend and perfect my own vocabulary.”
In plan, the new Libeskind home is an elongated triangle with the points squared off. The diagonal wall facing east to the street once had a row of many small double-hung windows. The great bowl of daylight that enticed Libeskind to buy the loft exists because the high-rises that border the Tribeca district are too far away to fill the immediate sky. Several deep and full blocks of five-story loft and store buildings, built from about 1850 to the early years of the 20th century, lend great beauty and interest to the foreground, their ornamental details reminding Libeskind of those in paintings by Edward Hopper.
The remaining two walls of the triangular space also have windows and views. Gorlin and his clients agreed that the apartment had to be gutted completely and all the existing windows replaced by others as wide and high as the building’s structural system and new spatial arrangements would allow. No interior walls impede the vistas from the huge windows on the east wall that now borders the newly created living and dining areas. There is a straight, uninterrupted sweep through the entire space, ending at the street-facing wall to the south. On this wall is the open steel fire escape-like the apartment’s quaint radiators, a necessary relic of the building’s venerable past.
While walking about or sitting in the living and dining areas, it is possible to see what Libeskind calls “the greatest iconic buildings in New York City-the distant Chrysler Building and, up closer, the Municipal Building, the Woolworth Building and others.” The Chrysler Building can also be seen through a slot Gorlin ingeniously placed in the sauna. Eventually, from their bedroom, the couple, will be able to watch the construction of an icon to come-Libeskind’s much-debated and perhaps compromised 1,776-foot-high Freedom Tower as it emerges from ground zero. “I did this,” says Gorlin, “so that Daniel could have a similar experience to Roebling watching the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from his bed in Brooklyn Heights.”
The master bedroom, bath, sauna and walk-in closet are in the southwest corner, with a Murphy bed hidden for occasional visits from the sons. “The most radical thing I did,” says Gorlin, “is the all-glass shower that lets light through from the windows on the diagonal wall.” The Libeskinds can lie in bed and look through the shower and beyond the living space to the view. A mechanized curtain can enclose it for privacy. Rachel’s bedroom and bath and the kitchen fill the remaining west wall. All the enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces have invisible doors to make the interior walls appear as uninterrupted surfaces, and a wide and high rotating aluminum door separates the master bedroom from the living space if desired.
The palette of materials is consistent and simple: gypsum walls painted white, and gray floors of pietra serena, a stone, chosen by Gorlin, that is said to be from the same quarry in Tuscany used by Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. The Libeskinds decided to keep their immense library at the office 10 blocks away and bring home just a few books at a time, so there are no bookshelves. Nor do they want art on their walls. “You don’t need paintings, because the painting is around us,” says Libeskind. “Looking out these windows is like being on a ship somehow and arriving at the incredible piece of art that is the city.”
“For someone whose public persona is very avant-garde, Daniel has a very traditional idea of what modernism is,” says Gorlin, citing his furniture as an example. The Libeskinds’ taste in modern furniture remains fixed mostly in the 1920s. They prefer pieces by Le Corbusier, Mies, Breuer, Rietveld, Saarinen, Aalto-and they like them black. Some were bought in the late 1970s when the couple were at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and have so far survived all the moves of their lives. Libeskind points with affection to a Breuer chair so old, used and often crated and shipped that some of the enamel is worn down to the wood.
Gorlin did, of course, suggest that if they were to replace some of their classics with items currently in fashion, their apartment might be a bit chicer, but style for its own sake, at least where they live, appears to be of no interest to them. It is plain that their furniture is a very significant part of their history and is the single constant that makes all the places they have lived in seem like home.