A headline-grabbing architect comes to Penn

To an overflowing auditorium in Meyerson Hall, controversial architect Daniel Libeskind, the new Paul Philipe Cret Professor of Architecture, delivered a lecture Oct. 12 about two new museum projects he has in the works.

Libeskind, the son of two Holocaust survivors, recently gained notice for his design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, his first commission. An American citizen originally from Poland, Libeskind has practiced internationally, including in the Netherlands, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland. Time awarded him the Best of 1998 Design Award for the Felix Nussbaum Museum, in Osnabruck, Germany.

Libeskind’s recent lecture, illustrated with slides, was entitled “The Longest Distance Between Two Points” and concerned his designs for the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, and an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The projects, he said, were very different but both were “highly controversial.” For both he had to win over conservative boards and attempt to soothe a sometimes hostile public.

Libeskind, a former concert pianist and mathematician, revealed his strikingly intellectual approach to architecture during the lecture. In envisioning the Imperial War Museum, instead of taking the more conventional approach of studying the collection, Libeskind said he gained inspiration by rereading “The Iliad.” The result was a “sack of shards” — the War Museum complex resembles a globe shattered into pieces, with an earth shard, an air shard, a water shard.

The Victoria and Albert extension’s purpose, in part, was to connect three different buildings with three different floor heights. His solution was a sort of jagged spiral. The building will be covered in ceramic tiles, whose shape and placement was influenced by chaos theory. The “zigzag” extension, as it was called in the press, contrasts markedly with the Italian and Spanish Renaissance turrets of the other buildings, causing a public outcry.

“The most difficult thing in architecture is not the drawing and design but to become an advocate of a different kind of culture,” Libeskind said.

Libeskind is scheduled to be at Penn during the spring semesters.


Originally published on October 28, 1999