Office Hours: Daniel Libeskind

“As the architect, you have to go and meet people.”

Aaron Goldstein
January 21, 2021
Illustration: Allan C. Carandang

Even among non-architects, Daniel Libeskind’s name is well-known. Over three decades, his firm has designed and built many high-profile institutions and cultural landmarks, beginning with his competition-winning proposal for the Jewish Museum Berlin in 1989. Libeskind was born in Łódź, Poland, to Shoah survivors in the immediate aftermath of World War II; in the past several decades, his name and explosive style have become synonymous with contemporary places of Jewish learning and memory. The destabilized, scarred forms of the Berlin museum reappear in the jutting hull of the 2008 San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum and in the warped Star of David at the Ottawa National Holocaust Monument, completed in 2017. 

Now, Libeskind is pivoting to a new kind of project, informed by a different aspect of his past: affordable housing. In 1959, when Libeskind was 13, his family immigrated to the United States from Israel, where they had lived since arriving from Poland two years earlier. They eventually moved into the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in the Bronx, the nation’s first nonprofit housing co-op. Built between 1927 and 1930 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the cooperative sought to create an affordable alternative to the crowded tenements in Manhattan for the union’s mostly Jewish immigrant workers. Now, Libeskind is developing affordable housing for seniors in partnership with Selfhelp Community Services in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and Freeport, Long Island. To him, the new projects feel like a return to his roots.

I approached our conversation as a young designer of affordable housing who feels deeply ambivalent about the ways architecture serves capital: Buildings are commodities, and developers have increasingly come to view the provision of affordable housing as fertile territory for investment. With this in mind, I spoke with Libeskind about the current state of affordable housing, the architect’s place in its production, and how his upbringing in a world of Jewish struggle for decent housing has influenced his current work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aaron Goldstein: What was it like to grow up in the spatial and social environment of the Amalgamated Co-ops? 

Daniel Libeskind: It was the essence of what the Jewish community in America really was at that time—a community of working people, people who never had a chance to get higher education, but who were more intellectually adept and knowledgeable than most college professors I’ve had. Growing up in that milieu, with people who shared social justice values, was fantastic, and it was facilitated by the buildings. Architecturally, it was a mediocre, run-of-the-mill project, but it contained great public spaces centered around a fountain, where everybody hung out. There was something charming about these faux-Tudor brick buildings with little gables and subtle decorations. There was nothing fake about them and they were well-built. And more importantly, they had windows looking both onto the main streets and onto the courtyards, which were a rather ambitious series of spaces interconnected with greenery—an outdoor extension of the homes. People used them as a way to meet and go from there to other places. Plus the buildings had a community center where all sorts of events were held: lectures, musical performances, Jewish holidays. That was a testament to the great founders of these buildings. 

The waitlist to get an apartment in the Amalgamated was huge, but since my mother had a record as an anarchist back in Poland, she had a clear line in. I remember meeting the Strauss family, who were among the founders of the Amalgamated Co-ops, and through them I got a taste of these so-called anarchists of Emma Goldman’s ilk: They had vast collections of Wagner and classical recordings, and libraries not only of Marx and Schopenhauer and Plato, but other really important literature as well. They read in a number of languages, German and Russian and so on. They played musical instruments. They were humanists who believed that working people should be celebrated. 

The Co-ops weren’t just built by abstract political ideology, they were built by communities that wanted to reinforce the spirit of working people, of people banding together to demand better working conditions and decency in their environment. People had an idea of what a good life was, and it wasn’t extravagant. It was very practical: Let’s have affordable housing and let’s get the labor unions to support our effort. When I look now at the stigmatization of public housing, it goes hand-in-hand with contempt for labor unions and working people. 

AG: There is a widespread perception that architects are well-meaning but out of touch with the people. Some examples that come to mind are quasi-utopian projects like Peter and Alison Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens in East London, which came down a few years ago, or the Pruitt-Igoe towers in St. Louis, blown up 20 years after they were built. How do you contend with this legacy as you design public housing as a well-known architect?

DL: Public housing is stigmatized as an evil typology, but there’s really no difference between public housing and luxury housing except for the budget. Both have repetitive floor plates, staircases, elevators, views, windows, doors. As I said, the Amalgamated Co-ops were not the tour-de-force buildings of brilliant architects. This was not Otto Wagner or the Viennese architects; these were just regular architects. But there was a sense that you were delivering to a community: You had a vigilant client that was very involved in what was going to be the everyday life of that community.

Today, public housing is built by a political fiat: We need X number of units, it’s going to go in this estate, we’re going to call it that name, and the people who will qualify are on abstract lists. That’s why these projects fail. It’s not because of their architecture. Of course, some of them are hideously designed buildings, because in general, public housing no longer attracts really good architects. But it also points to the weakness of public organizations that are no longer tied to the communities they represent. As the architect, you have to go and meet people. You need to know that you’re not designing for an unknown quantity, you’re designing for real people. 

If you study the evolution of public housing in America, you can see the decline of public space in it. The towers get bigger, the public space shrinks. The ideology of capitalist brutality has taken over, so there’s no sense that there’s a community to be represented as opposed to just votes. “Social housing” now has become a very abstract solution to a very human problem. It’s based on statistics rather than people who want to live together. People are relegated to these projects because they have nowhere else to live. Do the people who need housing today form a community? What binds them together? Merely providing a certain number of square feet for a person to live in is not enough to engender the idea that you should take care of your neighbors, take care of the plant outside of your window, make sure that everything is safe. It’s no wonder that public housing in this country has failed, because it’s ceased to have a community in mind which it serves. When you look at social housing in Europe today, it doesn’t have the same stigma. On the contrary, it’s the most preferred way to live.

AG: Like most well-known architects, you have a signature style. There is a certain quantity of design, a certain amount of excess needed to make a building identifiable as a “Libeskind.” How have you come up against that in affordable housing projects which, by mandate, are highly repetitive and usually bare-bones?

DL: When I’m designing, I don’t ask myself, “Is this going to be a Libeskind building?” I design by looking at each project for what it is. Of course, in the end, it turns out to be my building, because it’s not designed by a committee. It has my idea of what architecture really is. It’s like when you see a film and notice the filmmaker’s signature, or when you know which orchestra conductor is conducting. 

The only difference here is the shoestring budget, which is a problem. Why should social housing receive the lowest cost per square foot? Why shouldn’t it be something that we celebrate? The idea that social housing is for the poor, and therefore you should spend the least possible amount of money on it—that reinforces poverty. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: You build poor housing with poor materials, with poor architects who lack ideas, and then the people who live there will not appreciate it and, ultimately, it will fail as a community. 

But even within the New York Housing Authority’s strict budgets, I discovered that one can be innovative. How do you fit the building into a site you didn’t select? How do you give it light? How do you customize views within repetitive floors? How do you create a social space using an atrium and social activities on the ground level? How do you enliven the building in ways that make it interesting for people who live there, not only in the solitary world of their own apartment, but as a place where they meet on the street or in the lobby? Of course, you have to work ten times as hard to shape the budget to create a really interesting piece of architecture, but I think we are on our way. 

AG: How do you view the relationship between architects and capitalism, especially as it relates to the production of affordable housing? 

DL: Architects have become victims of their clients: most of them start by doing a building for their uncle who’s got money for a private house, or for their parents. Very few architects start from the working classes. And maybe architecture doesn’t attract those people anymore. All those architects in the 1910s and ’20s who were interested in social housing came from working-class backgrounds and came to understand the lack of decent housing as a societal injustice. It was not an accident that all these modernists designed public housing. When you grow up in a working-class environment, you have a different idea of the future.

Architects today are themselves partly to blame for riding the chariot rather than taking a walk or riding a bicycle. It’s a reflection of the general values of society. But it’s not only up to architects—it’s up to politics. That’s the key. The world will not change because of architects’ good intentions. There has to be a political commitment. We need to legislate public housing in a different way. And we can see how difficult that is when we look at the landscape today. 

AG: What does it mean to design collective housing in the midst of the pandemic? How will this crisis influence the design of public space?

DL: I think there will be new appreciation for what public space is. The fact that the subway has become the refuge of the homeless will suddenly hit us. It will cause a radical rethinking of society. I’m very optimistic that people will not go back to the same ways. People will never use a car the same way, or treat workers in stores or delivery drivers or garbage collection workers as irrelevant footnotes to their lives. I think there will be greater appreciation that humanity is a singular force. I’m an eternal optimist. Otherwise I wouldn’t be Jewish.

Aaron Goldstein is an architectural designer, Yiddishist, and illustrator from San Francisco, currently based in Berkeley, California. He designs affordable, permanent multifamily housing in the Bay Area.