Architect Daniel Libeskind on the new Tree of Life
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Architect Daniel Libeskind on the new Tree of Life

"That's what the project is about. Celebrating freedom, celebrating liberty, celebrating the beautiful life of the city and of America, and to show what America really is."

Daniel Libeskind. Photo by Stefan Ruiz.
Daniel Libeskind. Photo by Stefan Ruiz.

Tree of Life chief architect Daniel Libeskind recently returned to Pittsburgh to address a crowd of more than 450 at Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Libeskind’s talk focused on architecture and memory, a central theme in many of his designs. He discussed his work at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Military History Museum in Dresden, the World Trade Center in New York and the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, Canada.

Before leaving the city, Libeskind spoke with the Chronicle.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about how and from where you draw inspiration for your designs, especially in relation to the Tree of Life project?
I think the No. 1 part of the process is the site, the uniqueness of each place. That’s where I start that is consistent from every project — to understand what it is, where it is and what it signifies. It’s about drawing inspiration from that site, which means what happened on it. We look at what is the community around it, what is its capacity to tell a story, what has been hidden and never expressed? What is repressed in the site, what is expressed in the site. No. 2 is drawing. You know architecture is about drawing an idea …. You have to create a spatial idea, which then can be translated into a more technical three-dimensional model. You draw references from the site, from the people you meet, from things you learn and from the history of the place.

You’ve created an initial design, had a public meeting, have a zoning hearing scheduled. Is the project design completed? Will there be changes?
We are far, but design is a process. Many things are bound to be transformed. Once you have the idea, though, it’s not going to change. You can develop details, but the spiritual sense of what it is has to be set at the beginning. That has to be the core.

What is the spiritual center of the Tree of Life building?
I call the spiritual center the Path of Light, which emanates from the sanctuary, transverses the entire space of the building, connects all activities and gives a sense of center. It organizes memory, it organizes public spaces, organizes educational and celebratory spaces. It’s the light that organizes all of that.

There are numerous stakeholders for this new building. You have to satisfy the victims’ families, the broader Pittsburgh community, the Jewish community. How do you satisfy everyone’s wishes?
Architecture is an interactive field, it’s not somebody sitting in an ivory tower. It’s a process that is subjective. You’re involved with many people. You have to pay attention to all the things that that you come across. It’s a complex process. But I feel that in this project, there is such solidarity among the different stakeholders — they might have different opinions and different views, but here is a sense of a common center, which I think is really just noble and unique in this project.

Are you still in touch with the stakeholders?
Of course. For example, the memorial, which is such a sensitive subject. This is where people actually perished. We talked to their family, to those that survived and discussed its nature. It was a very inspiring, good set of meetings where people were able to say what they wanted. I asked them: What do you want to see? What do you want? That’s what my design is based on.

What parts of the original building do you plan to keep? Will the Pervin Chapel be a part of the design?
No doubt about it. We have demarcated the spatiality of the Pervin Chapel because that’s where the attack took place, as a space for memory. It’s not a nostalgic revival of that space. It is a very precise set of spatial elements that creates the sense of importance of that particular space. And, of course, the traditional sanctuary with its stained-glass window, that, of course, is there, and we’re going to reinforce it.

What about the other spaces where the attack took place? Are you removing those in a way that they can be archived and saved for historical purposes?
I think probably yes, but we don’t want to be involved in fetishizing violence in any form. We don’t want to bring attention to that sort of aspect. But we want to emphasize what is important in that space.

Do you worry about “tragedy tourism” and people visiting the site only because of the violence that took place on it?
I disagree with that. It’s not correct. I think people going to visit sites of memory is incredibly important. It’s not at all tourism, it’s important that people get to see the sites where such unspeakable crimes took place. It’s not something that you can just get in a picture, photograph, a television image or even a book. You have to go there, you have to put yourself in that space. And you have to understand what traverse that space, and what is the future of that space. I think people should go and visit places where these unspeakable crimes took place and take it home with them.

In terms of Tree of Life, that’s very different. We’re not designing a place of sadness. We’re using memory as a hinge to show the power of the community of Squirrel Hill, the power of Pittsburgh, of the community, of the immigrants that came to Pittsburgh, of all nations and all walks of life and all ethnicities. That’s what the project is about. Celebrating freedom, celebrating liberty, celebrating the beautiful life of the city and of America, and to show what America really is. It really is an ecumenical place for everybody.

I know you’ve had success bringing people back to the World Trade Center. How can you be sure people will want to come back to the Tree of Life?
I don’t think about it. I just have to design a great space, a great place and people will come. I had people who said, “I’ll never go back to Germany.” They came back.

Jewish Pittsburgh has a lot of buildings, some with underused elements that have been incorporated into this building. Why add spaces Pittsburgh already has?
The building has a new purpose. It’s not a rehash of something that already existed before. It’s thoroughly inventive, new and transformative. It’s not repeating something that that isn’t sustainable. It’s creating sustainability.

What do you hope the new Tree of Life will bring to the city?
It is my hope that it will bring solidarity. That it will be a powerful statement against hatred, against antisemitism — a statement about who we, as Americans, really are and about the beauty of what America has produced, which is not just Jewish culture, but many, many cultures have thrived here from the beginning of time. That’s what America was founded on, that principle of freedom of practicing your religion, being free, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those that are principles that will shine in the building. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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