Last week I went to hear a talk by Daniel Libeskind, a well-known Jewish architect. His most famous work (and, probably his best, according to the fiancé) is the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
Libeskind talked and talked, and talked, about being an architect and being Jewish. I sat there and wondered if I were the only person who thought everything he said was rubbish.
Now the thing is, when it comes to architecture, I often feel that I’m bluffing. The fiancé is studying architecture, and most of his friends are architects-in-training too. This leads to my frequently being stuck in conversations about architecture in which I’m fighting to tread water. Japanese-sounding names are dropped, buildings discussed, words like ‘parametric’ and ‘iso’ tend to pop up. It’s got to the stage now where I can sometimes recognise the name of an architect and know a building or two of theirs, but after that I come a bit unstuck.
So, to begin with, I thought perhaps I was just out of my depth in the Libeskind talk.
‘Every building has a message,’ he declared. ‘The message of lots of buildings is “I am solidly here, with my four walls and four corners.”’ Or words to that effect. He then joked, ‘None of my buildings really has that message.’
Now that isn’t quite right. Even I know enough about architecture to know that buildings don’t have just one meaning. Buildings mean an infinite amount of things, varying on so many different parameters. What about context? What about who sees the building and which bit of it they see?
Let’s imagine, for example, an Italian, working in an office in New York, who always takes the stairs as he gets claustrophobic in lifts. Now the staircase is a bit more run-down than the rest of the building – the back stairs aren’t really part of the smart façade of the main office block. Perhaps they remind him of some stairs in Italy, like the staircase he walked up when visiting his father at work when he was a child. That part of the building – the staircase – is going to ‘mean’ that to him.
But then let’s imagine someone else who works in the same office: a well-heeled young lady who takes the glossy chrome lift up to their office on the top floor every morning, always checking her reflection in its mirror, never ever going near the back stairs. For her, the back stairs are as good as absent in her impression of the building. Their only ‘meaning’ is unnecessary space. It’s the lift that means something to her, a quiet space where she can fix her appearance before the working day begins.
And what about someone else, working in the same building but looking for another job? She dives out into the back stairs whenever she needs to take a phone call from her headhunter. For her, those stairs are a forgotten space in the building where she can be out of earshot.
I’m not sure that Libeskind really believed his statement either. When he was discussing a shopping centre he’d designed, he said it was about bringing together different experiences – shopping, culture, leisure etc. Well, surely he must see that someone who comes there on a Saturday afternoon to go shopping is going to experience the building differently to someone who comes on a Friday night for a concert?
When it came to the end of the talk, someone asked Daniel Libeskind why there are so many zigzags in his buildings. He said that he didn’t think about something as banal as the humble zigzag when he was being inspired to make architecture. But, now he came to think of it, he decided that there was something very profound about the zigzag – it is symbolic of not taking the most direct route, thereby gaining all sorts of insights on the way. (I have spared you his lengthy clichéd anecdote a la Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist of going on a long journey only to have to go all the way home to find the treasure where you began.)
The funny thing was, every time someone asked a question, he seemed to zigzag around answering it. Somebody asked him if there were any projects going on in London that he was excited about and he said he never went hunting for new commissions, but if there were any developers here at the talk, they should let him know. Similarly, when somebody asked him if there was one building that he really respected and thought was amazing, he said he never got jealous of other architects.
So when the zigzag question was posed, I wanted to scream, ‘YES. There is a reason why your buildings are full of zigzags. It’s because you keep on fundamentally missing the point.’ Because really his talk (like his architecture) was an elaborate series of zigzags. He went one way, and then later contradicted himself, and then went back on himself yet again. If only he could bear to admit that there really isn’t anything particularly profound about that.