The New Cities Foundation hosted an inspirational summit on the future of cities in two of Oscar Niemeyer's sculptural buildings in São Paulo's Ibirapuera Park. This featured 90 speakers from 17 countries, all engaged in trying to help create better urban spaces. Daniel Libeskind, a trustee of the Foundation, who is about to break ground on his first South American project in the city, spoke to Icon after delivering his keynote address
ICON Talking about what makes successful cities, as we have been doing at the summit, you said that you anticipate the 9/11 site to be the most used public space in the States and perhaps the world. Why's it so successful?
DANIEL LIBESKIND I designed it as a public space, with the memory of what happened there but also with the people of New York in mind. How do you frame this space? How do you create a sense of belonging? And, how do you create a sense of a shared idea of where we are, of the open city, and of a fantastic future? This place, this history, is part of the fulcrum on which the park really developed. With the millions of people that have already come to the memorial as a work in progress on a closed site, I have no doubts that when it opens fully it will be the most visited site in the United States and perhaps elsewhere too.
ICON Why was the original plan for the site so controversial?
DL The original plan was business as usual, a bureaucratic plan that filled the whole site, and it was rejected by New Yorkers who understood that this was a new era, that this was no longer the Port Authority, or whoever, giving them a plan and saying "We'll give you some park here." It was about something that people care about. The site is emblematic, memorable. Something happened there. We all have to understand that and use that memory to create a fantastic prospective of the city.
ICON How do you think it looks forward rather than to the past and how does it define New York in the 21st century?
DL It defines it already. The population near the site has doubled since [9/11] happened. So, the project itself is an impetus for transforming New York. Its office buildings, its culture, its infrastructure have become a magnet to create a panoramic sense of neighbourhood. Tribeca, Battery Park City, Chinatown, and Wall Street are really changing their nature. Wall Street after 5 o'clock is no longer a dark street. Now it is becoming a vibrant neighbourhood to live in.
ICON One World Trade Center has recently had its spire attached and is now the tallest building in the Northern Hemisphere. Why does it not matter if its height is surpassed?
DL I don't think it's the height of the building that matters but the height aspiration of the building. I decided to give the building a very specific height – 1776m to the top of the spire [The year the Declaration of Independence was adopted]. If you look at Lady Liberty, she is holding the Declaration of Independence. That document of human rights – that people have dignity and freedom – that is really part of the site. That's what New York responds to – the affirmation of life and liberty.
Daniel Libeskind in his New York office (image: Michael Klinkhamer)
ICON You have also just designed a holocaust memorial in Ohio. Can there be too many holocaust memorials and museums? For something once unrepresentable, it now seems very easy to symbolise?
DL It depends on how you symbolise it. The holocaust changed the world. It changed how we look at politics, how we look at regimes. It is not only the six million Jews; it is the 50 million others that died as a result. It is not an event that is negligible, it has changed the way we see the world. It is important the memorial doesn't just express nostalgia or sentimentality for the people who have passed, but is something that gives us a sense of what to remember, and how to move forward.
ICON You have been criticized in recent press as the "go-to architect for trauma" and some have argued that your proposed peace-building at the former Maze prison site in Northern Ireland doesn't echo the specificity of The Troubles. How do you respond to that?
DL What the public has seen is just a render on the internet. When they enter the building, when they enter the Maze, they will see the power of this project is that it is a simple project. It is not an expensive project, but it really tells the story and brings people together in a space that I think is going to be second to none. The building is not just another cultural building. It is a building that is in itself an adventure in history.
ICON And why are you a trustee of the New Cities Foundation?
DL It's a very important organisation, filled with really fantastic creative people to talk to and learn from, to communicate, to share a network of knowledge. I think that is the only way this renaissance of cities will propel itself.
ICON How does São Paulo rate as a "human city", the topic of New Cities Summit?
DL It's a fantastic city. It is a city that is a magnet for people from all over Brazil – if you want a job, if you want to better yourself, where else are you going to go? You're going to go to this megalopolis. It is a city in the making, it is a fantastic city, so interesting, so diverse. It is a city with so many problems, but also incredible potential and incredible beauty. I'm building my first building in South America here [Vitra, a high-end residential development].
9/11 site (image: Silverstein Properties)
ICON How do architects contribute to the betterment of the city?
DL I think the importance of architecture has often been underestimated. When we go to great cities, we are not only looking at what we buy or how we spend our money, we look at the sense of space. In a way, you can see the city as a work of art across generations made by artists – all the people walk in the city are authors of the city. Great cities have that migration. That is why people are attracted to great cities, because they feel that they are co-creators of those cities.
ICON How did Niemeyer contribute to the image of Brazil?
DL Whatever the shortcomings of Brazil or whatever the shortcomings of the modernist ideology, he created a sense that this country is new, that it has immense potential. You can bring people to a place that was just a jungle and create a development. Let's not judge Niemeyer too quickly. Let's give it time. Sure, he got many things wrong. He was still obsessed with the car, and he built too much in the ideology of regimentation. But he was a great artist and a great architect.
ICON How do you architects wrest more power back from developers and contribute to a better city? Can you explain the power struggle you had with the Freedom Tower?
DL I never wanted to be the architect of the building. I wanted to shape a piece of the city as a piece of architecture. To give it an iconic view, to give it a memory is far more important than building a single building. I am very moved by the fact that New Yorkers came together from all sort of disparate angles to support it.
ICON When you work with developers, as in the 6 high-rise towers you recently built in Singapore, how do you give back not to the developers but to the city? How does that struggle work?
DL The developers understand that it's not a private space. You have to create a profitable project, but, in fact, it is about the public space. The city is based on streets, on perspectives, on views, on the feeling you have when you walk without wind tunnels, not by some stupidity that has been created by just profitability. Good developers have the sense that it is good for them – and it is profitable – to create a city that people really love to be in, that they have an emotional connection with, -and that they want to invest in.
ICON Do you think cities can be imported, like in China where they sometimes bring in a plan and look wholesale from somewhere else?
DL No, I really think those are follies. Even if they are very big you can't artificially construct a city. You have to base something on the fact that you are not the first person there – that there is nature, there is history, that there is a meaning in that place. You have to find that meaning, whatever that meaning is. It could be in a desert but there is a meaning.
ICON But when you create cities, you also have to erase things too. So you erase memories all the time. In your master plan for a business district in Seoul there were warehouses and brothels that got erased.
DL Things in history should be maintained. Some things disappear rightfully so, but the sky, the earth, where the wood comes, those are things that are part of the place. That's the poetry of architecture, to be able to connect in an original way to something that is so prevalent that it often recedes in our consciousness.
ICON Have you visited the favelas here? How do you see these kind of parasitical cities growing without architects, without planning?
DL Of course. They grow just through the creativity of people. People create it, people are poets – everyone. Poverty doesn't diminish your creative power. You can see that people that live there can create an environment, that they can develop it themselves. That's what we have to address – to give better material conditions and better spiritual conditions for people's search for the centre of life, which is the city itself. That's part of the favelas.
ICON Can you talk a bit about the ingenuity that you saw in the favelas?
DL People have to survive somehow. They have no money. They have no jobs. They have kids. It's often said that necessity is the mother of invention. I always had great admiration for vernacular architecture. You go to India or Africa and you see fantastic creations from early on, that people understood what they could best do with limited resources. Because I was born not in a rich family – my parents were working people, they were survivors of the holocaust – I saw it, how it developed. I wonder why public authorities and others don't realise that it's the citizens that are the treasure of the city.
ICON When did you learn that?
DL Very early on, when I had to share a bed with my sister and my parents in Poland – we had one bed. When I came to New York, I slept in the living room as we had a one bedroom apartment. My daughter asked me if I had my own room, but I slept in the same room as my sister until she got married. Small is not bad, that's another thing. Not having a lot of space is creative. Leonardo DaVinci in his notebook says if you want to be an artist, don't have a lot of space because it makes you lazy. Population is growing and we have to make each space creative and memorable.
ICON The aim of the New Cities Foundation is to get more people to participate in cities. How do you think you can do that?
DL I think everyone, in a way, is part of the New Cities Foundation because cities are growing. People want to know what to do with the traditions, what you do politically. It was easy for Aristotle, who said that the mayor of a city should know every citizen. That's a very practical and very wise thing – a mayor should know every person so they could respond to them. Now we have the technology to make people participants and partners, not just voyeurs of the city. That's a big change.
New Cities Summit 2014 will be held in Dallas
Statehouse Holocaust Memorial, Columbus Ohio (image: SDL)