Libeskind won the 2002 public competition to design a replacement for the World Trade Center destroyed six years ago on September 11. The site developer, though, mistrusting Libeskind's dreamy talk and jagged angles, relegated him to master planning the overall site. Today, the Freedom Tower to rise at Ground Zero looks like a wisp of Libeskind's polygonal winning entry, but he's too optimistic—and too busy—to be bitter. The 61-year-old is working on more than 30 buildings around the world.
What did you learn from your disappointing experience designing the 9/11 site?
There was never disappointment. What I learned is that you have to work with everybody and come to a compromise. Even if you don't want to work with those people, even if you think they are subverting your vision. There are always struggles to build a piece of a city. In architecture, you need to build consensus with all the stakeholders. With the Ground Zero project, that meant the families of victims, politicians, investors, and the developer's architect. In the end, I convinced everyone that Ground Zero is not just for the office leaseholders; it's for all of New York.
But doesn't compromise eat away at you?
It's good to have a project go through that test of fire. That's what makes a project real. If you have a vision that is bold, you can cut away at it, and even in the end, when you've chipped away at all of it, it's still there. You still recognize it as your building. It's still something you're proud of. People will come to Ground Zero and see all that survived from my initial plan. The position of the tower. Its public spaces. The Freedom Tower anchoring the site, opening it to the Hudson River. And the memorial is going to be open to light.
During the Ground Zero design competition, you got knocked for having no experience designing tall buildings. So how do you now have a wave of commissions to build them?
I don't think that the objections to my plan were really about architecture. People who saw the struggle at Ground Zero saw that a tower has to be something unique and beautiful. No doubt the developers hiring me now are imaginative people who understand that a tower should have an emotional resonance and should speak to the public.
Can you give examples of how you speak to the public through your work?
It's not just aesthetic but social and cultural. For Ground Zero, it's how to answer a terrorist attack in a cultural way and assert the beauty of New York and the vitality of its streets. We're building one of Europe's tallest residential buildings in Warsaw, and it speaks to the open horizons of a free, post-Communist country. In Singapore, a whole new piece of that country is being developed, including a huge skyscraper that speaks to a different way of living in a tropical climate. We're building a big office tower in Milan, a historical city where office work is going to transform it into a 21st-century one.
You're celebrating freedom and liberty through condos and office towers. Aren't those really just commercial projects?
Every condo I've designed is special and means something to me. I never treat it as just another transaction. What unites people is that they care for their places, so I look for traces of what that city is about. In Cincinnati, I think of the Roebling Bridge and the ascent from that bridge. I think about what a site requires for its landscape—not just a stick but a shaped kind of expression.
With so many projects under way, is your role changing?
Our growth has been gradual and organic. When we moved to New York in 2003, we had seven projects and maybe 25 people. Now we have 30 to 40 projects and 150 people around the world. I'm still very involved in every project. Not by just doing a sketch and then having others process it through the computer. I'm still choosing the tiles for the bathroom, still working on the door handles. That's how I was brought up. Architecture is handmade, a sculpted thing—not a technical entity but a communicative one. If it got too big and I couldn't do what I do, I'd find it less fun. So far, I've been lucky.
Correction: We incorrectly identified the Ascent building as being located in Cincinnati; it is actually in Covington, Kentucky.