While on a visit to tour the Tree of Life building last month, architect Daniel Libeskind was impressed with Pittsburgh’s transformation.
Libeskind, a Polish immigrant and son of Holocaust survivors, visited Pittsburgh several decades ago when he toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Mill Run. At that time, the city had yet to emerge from its Steel City roots.
“I was stunned by how beautiful Pittsburgh is now,” Libeskind told the Chronicle. “It’s astonishing how it’s taken that history and turned it around to be a beautiful and fantastic city.”
It wasn’t only the city that surprised the architect. Libeskind was taken aback by what he found at the Tree of Life building and “those incredible stained-glass windows,” he said.
“The building is what it is, but those were such an amazing work of art. I’m sure they had the power to influence people studying for bar mitzvah or sitting in the congregation.”
He was also impressed with the community, saying Squirrel Hill “was a really Jewish neighborhood…with a vibrant Jewish life.”
Libeskind will be leading a Tree of Life redesign project that he said will “affirm life, but also address what happened, why we are building a new building in the first place.”
Libeskind is no stranger to finding healing through art and architecture: He worked in academia — as what he called a “paper architect” — before completing the design of his first building when he was 52. The Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany, opened in 1998 and hosts the work of the German-Jewish painter murdered by the Nazis. In 2001, Libeskind’s design of the Jewish Museum Berlin, dedicated to Jewish life in Germany before, during and after the Holocaust, opened.
After the September 11, 2001, attack at the World Trade Center — when militants associated with the al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes, flying two into the twin towers in New York City and killing almost 3000 people —Libeskind was chosen as the master planner for the memorial space, naming his work Memory Foundations.
He said that other projects on which he’s worked, such as shopping malls and skyscrapers, are fundamentally different from designing spaces that memorialize tragedy.
“Because they are projects dealing with memory, and memories are the fundamental ground of architecture,” he said. “It’s not an additional element. It’s the ground…Every building has to recognize where it’s located, what its less visible history is, where are those voices crying out to be addressed. To me, to be sustainable, it has to reach the roots of memory.”
Now he will help plan the next chapter at the Tree of Life site, where 11 Jews were murdered during Shabbat services on Oct. 27, 2018.
The newly designed building, Libeskind said, will be the right size for Tree of Life’s current congregation, and will also be an important space to the wider Pittsburgh community, and the country.
“It’s not just a renovation of an old space,” he said. “This is a place where a major pogrom took place and Jews were murdered. We associate those evil things with Europe and the Nazis, but this is a very symbolic place.
“This is a place where Jews were murdered because they were Jews, because they were praying in a synagogue,” he added. “This is not just local. This is a project that should touch everyone’s heart.”
When asked if people would want to return to the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack ever in the United States, Libeskind said history has proven they will.
“It has happened many times,” he said. “When I was at Ground Zero, thousands of people perished there. People said, ‘This is a cemetery. No one will want to come there.’ But with my master plan, we paid homage to the people who perished with an amazing memorial…but also created a vibrant space that doesn’t shift New York into pessimism.”
The key, he said, is to use remembrance as the foundation for a beautiful and hopeful future.
“It’s a very Jewish thought, that history is not a story with a bad ending or a good ending,” Libeskind said. “It depends on what we do, and how we feel about it. How we steer it.”
To that end, the architect is looking to create a new beginning for the Tree of Life building, whose purpose is linked to the congregation, the public and new partners like the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
“We want to give it a strength and flexibility so that the building can really live in the 21st century,” he said. “We want to make an open building. People can come here, people can rent space, people can have conferences and parties. People can see the logical relationship between the story of the Holocaust — what must never happen again — and what happened here on that fateful day in Squirrel Hill.”
Those purposes can be achieved, Libeskind said, through light, acoustics and the materials used.
While Libeskind and his company, Studio Libeskind, are the lead architects, they are partnering with the local architecture and urban design firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, which has worked on numerous Jewish projects in the city, including the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
Libeskind said that local architects are essential to a project of this scale, pointing out that they know the community and have connections to a network of people that would otherwise take a lifetime to build.
In the end, Libeskind said that architecture is about the promise of the future.
“The only prerequisite for an architect is that you’re an optimist,” he said. “You’re always laying the foundation for the future. You’re actually building into the earth for the future.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.