WHAT’S IT LIKE TO HAVE DANIEL LIBESKIND AS A CLIENT? AND FOR HIM TO BE ONE?
It may be a decade, or more, before the rebuilding of ground zero is complete. But as of next month, Daniel Libeskind will have a new perch from which to follow the progress of his master plan: a full-floor loft on Hudson Street, just five blocks north of where the Twin Towers stood. The apartment, for which Libeskind and his wife, Nina, paid the rather enviable price of just over $1million last summer, after moving here from Berlin, is on the seventh floor of a ten-story triangular building.
It has been redesigned by Alexander Gorlin, a 44-year-old architect once known for high-end neo-Palladian villas who’s moved over to Mod ernism in recent years. Gorlin lives on the third floor of the same build ing. And while it’s unusual for one architect to hire another for this kind of residential work-an egodriven blow-up would, seem inevitable-both Libeskind and Gorlin insist they’ve fought about very little (save a certain marble table).
A couple of weeks ago, as work on the roughly $630,000 renovation neared completion, Christopher Hawthorne spoke with Libeskind and Gorlin about the experience and the art of architectural compromise. As soon as the conversation was finished, Gorlin accompanied Daniel, Nina, and their 15-year-old daughter, Rachel, on a shopping trip to pick out a few last items for the apartment, which will be their main residence (they also have a small house in France). Daniel was particularly taken with the Container Store, Gorlin reported: “He was absolutely fascinated that there was this store devoted just to storage-aisle after aisle after aisle. He said to me, ‘It’s the apotheosis of functionalism! Like a museum of storage!’ Then he called back the next day and said, ‘Nina wants two more closets in the master bed room:”
Christopher Hawthorne: Daniel, how did you find the apartment in the first place?
Libeskind: It was Alex who told me that an apartment in his building, upstairs from his own, was available. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known it was there.
Gorlin: After he won the ground-zero competition, I was thrilled, and I called Nina to see if they needed any help in looking for apartments, to set them up with a broker. Just to say I was available to help.
CH: Alex, a cynic might say you were angling for this job.
Gorlin: Oh, I hardly think so! It’s just not something I could have even conceived of, getting the job.
Libeskind: When Nina and I started looking, the plan was simply to find a place where we could be immediately installed without much work at all. But, of course, the opposite happened-we wound up in a place that has no lobby, no concierge, and had to be completely gutted.
Gorlin: This wasn’t the kind of building that a broker would normally lead people to. It’s not a high end building with all the services. But it has a spectacular plan: It is shaped like the Flatiron Building, only smaller.
Libeskind: Alex knew my weakness for tri-angular shapes-once I saw it, there was no way I was going to go see anything else.
CH: How did it look when you first walked through?
Libeskind: It was a warren of little rooms built by somebody with a large family. And I remember when we first came, Nina and Rachel were totally shocked. But I said, “Give me and Alex time, and let us try something here:’
CH: Why not do the design work yourself?
Libeskind: I did some early sketches and then discussed it with my wife, but you know- a barber doesn’t give himself a hair cut.
CH: Still, it’s pretty rare for an architect to hire another architect for his own residence, isn’t it?
Libeskind: It’s true: I can’t think of another case similar to this one.
Gorlin: There are two kinds of architects, I think, when it comes to this question. There are some, like Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, who always designed the places where they lived. And then there’s somebody like Mies van der Rohe, who chose to live across the street from the Lake Shore Drive Apartments.
CH: So he could see them out his window.
Libeskind: That’s right. And if you do it yourself, and you have complaints, where do you go? Whenever Rachel or my sons or Nina had a problem, I said, “Talk to Alex!”
CH: How will the apartment be laid out?
Libeskind: The kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms are along one wall. That opens up the rest of the space to the views.
Gorlin: It’s a kind of deletion instead of –
Gorlin: Just the act of clearing everything out transformed the space. As you come off the elevator you’ll immediately have a magnificent view of the Municipal Building– and from there your eye is led through a series of planes, from the kitchen to the bedroom area, opening up to a window wall on the left that has a tremendous view of the towers of lower Manhattan.
Libeskind: The spirit of the apartment is really almost Tuscan or Florentine. The floor itself is this stone which is used throughout Florence. Brunelleschi used it.
Gorlin: Florence is the theme. A Mediterranean apartment.
CH: Daniel, given how contemporary and sharp edged your architecture is, don’t you think people will be surprised to learn you’re living in a Florentine Apartment?
Libeskind: Well, the images people will have when I say the word Florentine might be the nostalgic images from Ruskin. But I mean Florentine in the Brunelleschian sense of the avant-garde, the never-before-tried. I think we’ve created a series of spaces that might be cozy but are also very crisp, very modem.
CH: How many square feet?
Libeskind: About 2,100. It’s not very grand. For example, I have a very large library, which I’ve always had at home-in Berlin, we had a much grander apartment. I realized that if I wanted to bring in all my thousands of books, they would overrun the entire apartment.
CH: So no bookcases at all?
Libeskind: I’ll keep my books in my office, which is just a few blocks away, and have a few books at home while I’m reading them.
CH: There’s something of a student-mentor quality to your relationship, because the two of you first met back when Alex was a student at Cooper Union in the late seventies.
Gorlin: Daniel was on the jury for my thesis. It was a project to recreate Solomon’s temple.
Libeskind: It was a spectacular project. It was very unusual in a school that was basically so Modernist to see somebody who was exploring historical issues and dealing with theology and philosophical ideas.
Gorlin: And then we met again on Victoria Newhouse’s jet!
Libeskind: Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten about that.
Gorlin: I was helping her with her book on museum architecture, Towards a New Museum. We went over on the Concorde and then took a private jet to Berlin with Daniel, and we all saw his Jewish Museum together.
CH: Alex, can you describe the first formal presentation you made to Daniel of the apartment design?
Gorlin: I treated it in a really conceptual manner and brought all these supporting texts-from Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and from the section of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture called “Manual of the Dwelling”. And then I brought these diagrams showing the vectors connecting the site to views of various monuments around the city.
Libeskind: Again, Alex knew all my weaknesses!
CH: There’s something very New York about the shape of the site.
Libeskind: Absolutely. It’s not the whimsical shape of the building; it’s the gridded street taking shape in lower Manhattan-and I think that’s powerfully felt in the apartment. You really feel the struggle of the grid as it makes its way to lower Manhattan, and what it has to do to negotiate those changes.
CH: Were there echoes of your thesis presentation for you, Alex, in that meeting?
Gorlin: Absolutely. It was a psychological drama!
CH: Daniel, has this process revealed anything to you and Nina about your respective tastes that you didn’t know before?
Libeskind: I suppose it has exacerbated the differences in our sensibilities her preference for cozy rooms versus mine for completely open space. Her preference for a well equipped kitchen versus my preference to call out for dinner. But it goes the other way around, too. I was convinced that we should have curtains in the apartment, but just today Nina said she didn’t care for such an old, bourgeois idea. She wants plain, modern screens.
Gorlin: Oh. Well, we have to talk about that. That I hadn’t heard yet.
Libeskind: Yes, it’s just now I’m telling you.
Gorlin: Maybe she thinks I mean curtains like big velvet things.
Libeskind: No. She said, “I want the apartment very crisp. I don’t want any of this nostalgic cloth near the windows.” And actually, I think I agree with her.
Libeskind: You’ll have to try to re-convince her. See, that’s why it was good to have Alex around. He was able to reconcile different points of view and then create a consensus to build. Otherwise I really would have been in trouble. Between Rachel, Nina, and our grown sons, it might have taken twenty years for me to get this apartment done.
Gorlin: In that sense, an architect is like an analyst.
CH: So what would an analyst say this design reveals about the Libeskind family?
Libeskind: I think it says we have a strong marriage, because we’re still together after this process. Moving houses, moving apartments-it’s the biggest single cause for divorce.
CH: What were the toughest things to agree upon?
Gorlin: Nina wanted wood floors, and Daniel wanted this type of white resin, and we compromised with Florentine stone. In fact, Daniel at first wanted the whole apartment to be white.
Libeskind: I did play around with that idea, but of course the critics from all sides of the family began to question it. I mean, that’s how the process works: You go from fantasy to reality.
CH: What else was part of the fantasy stage for you?
Libeskind: I preferred originally to have no interior walls at all. But that idea met with a stony silence from Rachel and Nina
CH: What did Nina have to compromise on?
Libeskind: She wanted a third bedroom, for when our sons come with their girlfriends, and for other guests.
Gorlin: I pushed to have two bedrooms instead of three so that we could keep the space open. So we thought of a way to have a rotating wall- as well as a Murphy bed.
Libeskind: Still, there are some ideas in the house that Nina alone takes credit for-Rachel’s room, for example, which Nina always fought to make bigger. She did it by disagreeing with both of these architects.
Gorlin: By force of will, she made Rachel’s room larger, and inch by inch we found space from other rooms- mostly from the master-bedroom closet to do it. It was a battle for that space.
Libeskind: In Berlin, Rachel’s room was practically twice as big as our whole apartment here.
Gorlin: Nina wanted a balcony too. She said, “Can’t we extend out or maybe give up part of the apartment and create an outside space?” And I didn’t know how to answer that. I had to be the practical one and insist that you couldn’t really do that in this building.