Our man in the future. Daniel Libeskind

Sergej Timofejev

A conversation in Vilnius with the designer of the new MO museum of contemporary art 


‘Order and disorder ‒ these are two potential threats. The world is constantly threatened by too much and too little order. Architecture finds its place in the world somewhere between the two,’ says Daniel Libeskind, a short-statured man with grey hair, a frequent smile and glasses, perpetually dressed in black. He stays true to his habits here in Vilnius where he has arrived for the unveiling of the MO museum of contemporary art, a building designed by him for the art collection of Viktoras Butkus and Danguolė Butkienė, a married couple ‒ two scientists and entrepreneurs. During the opening ceremony Libeskind also gave a short talk on some of his most significant projects, and the first few words were enough to make it clear that public appearances of this sort are a familiar and comfortable thing for him. After all, the collaboration on the creation of the new museum started with a similar lecture delivered at the Rotary club, after which he was approached by Viktoras Butkus who wanted a word with him. This conversation evolved into the project that was successfully completed in October 2018. 

Libeskind is deservedly ranked among the world’s ten leading architects and his name is often mentioned in the same sentence as terms like deconstructivism; he personally seems to be avoiding similar connotations lately ‒ perhaps for the reason that deconstructivism has to do with a certain kind of opposition, a vivid and unequivocal juxtaposition with the surrounding cityscape, whereas Libeskind is inclined to speak about more positive things now. At least that is what I was told with some conviction by his press agent in Vilnius. Libeskind’s career is quite unique in that he did not start by constructing any sort of structures: for several decades he was not erecting houses, he was building his ideas, working on his architectural vision (it was as an architectural historian and theorist that he won his degree). It was only when Libeskind had earned the reputation of an innovator and a man with a future in this area that he was offered his first real-life projects. And his first buildings were museums. His most important work ‒ the one that actually made Libeskind into Libeskind, the world class architect that we know, was the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the construction of which started in 1989 when Daniel was already in his forties. ‘It is the first museum in Europe dedicated to the subject of this catastrophe, the subject of the Holocaust, which was more than just an event that annihilated the lives of million Jews, as well as gypsies, homosexuals, ill people ‒ everybody who was outside the law. It was also the destruction of the world as it was known to many generations before the event. And it is possible that no other single event has ever changed the world quite the way those horrible times did. Look at Vilnius. Before the Holocaust, there were 120 synagogues in the city. Today there is only one.’

The Jewish Museum in Berlin. Photo: Miradortigre

These are not empty words coming from Libeskind: it is also his personal history. His parents were Polish Jews who escaped Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union ‒ only to end up in the icy embrace of Stalin’s gulag; eventually they managed to get back to Poland. Daniel was born in Łódź in 1946; he was a musically gifted child and became an accordion virtuoso. When he was 11, the family moved first to Israel, then, two years later, to New York. His father opened a small shop in Lower Manhattan, and Daniel witnessed the construction of the World Trade Centre towers. Coincidentally, the unveiling of the Jewish Museum in Berlin was scheduled to take place on 11 September 2001; it was postponed to a later date due to the tragedy in New York.

‘The museum is centred around a void, around emptiness,’ says Libeskind. And this idea led him to a complex architectural solution; it is a whole set of various spatial statements. ‘There are three paths, one of them leading to a dead end. And it really is a dead end for the old Berlin. It is a completely different city today. The museum is a unique space; there is no heating in winter and no air conditioning in summer. It is filled with the echo of what Berlin used to be and what it is still going to be... As a whole, though, the construction is organized around what is not there. And it is not some sort of artwork or special materials; this thing that is missing there ‒ it is the historical European citizens who disappeared, who were eliminated by the genocide.’

Royal Ontario Museum. Photo: Saku Takakusaki

Another of Libeskind’s best-known projects is a complex of buildings and objects that also has to do with a catastrophe and experiencing it (remember the coincidence of the date ‒ 11 September). Libeskind won a tough competition and in February 2003 was named the master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre and its site. It was then that Studio Daniel Libeskind, founded by him and his wife Nina, moved its headquarters from Berlin to New York. To date, the project is approximately 85 percent ready, according to Libeskind. Once again, it is unfolding as a powerful architectural statement bringing new life to the part of the city ‒ because it is not just a work in the name of memory; it is also work with memory in the hope of building a brighter and better future.

However, it is not just the memory of catastrophes that Libeskind works with. During our meeting in Vilnius he told me about the Chinese politician, reformer and industrialist Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909). ‘He is a man almost forgotten over the years, a man whose name was deliberately hushed in China in the 1960s. And yet it was he who, following a number of trips to Europe, became the founder of steel industry in China, in the city of Wuhan. He bought and moved whole factories to Wuhan.’ One of these factories has now been converted into a museum and community centre, and that was Libeskind’s first project in China. According to architecture critics, the building looks ultra-modern despite its obvious references to traditional Chinese architecture. The monolithic asymmetric structure is lined with steel panels and supported by glass towers.

Zhang Zhidong Modern Industrial Museum in Wuhan. Photo: Courtesy Studio Daniel Libeskind

Libeskind showed project after project to the guests assembled at the MO opening: museums, whole neighbourhoods or a private residential building where the interior decor was also designed by his studio. His pieces are dramatic in a good way: expressive and full of perspective. I found them reminiscent of ships that have somehow found their way into the city ‒ giant cruisers of broken angles and unusual proportions.

And so our conversation is taking place on the ‘captain’s bridge’ of the MO museum; meanwhile, below us, down at the entrance of the building, a mixed children and young people’s choir is rehearsing, and the questions and answers are exchanged against the background of harmonious singing (a new vocal composition commissioned especially for the opening event is going to be performed later). Libeskind speaks rapidly and confidently, smiling from behind his glasses. We are surrounded by the light of an unexpectedly warm autumn sun and a unison of voices.

One of the first sketches of the structure of a future building by Daniel Libeskind

You have a serious musical background. As a young man, you were considering a professional musical career. Do cities and landscapes have a sound for you? And how does Vilnius strike you in this respect? 

It is a very harmoniously sounding landscape. Vilnius is not at all a crowded city. Musically it sounds light and inspiring, and I think that the proportions of the buildings play a certain role here. I also attempted to represent the proportions of the classical buildings in Vilnius, but I presented them in a contemporary manner, by sort of cutting the building open and creating a direct link between the inside and the outside for the visitors. And that is why they are not trapped inside a box and are free to enjoy the harmony of the city and a 360° panoramic view.

What is the musical note contributed by the new museum to this harmony?

I believe that every visitor brings a note with him or her. The museum is an architectural design for people. This is not a building that dominates people; it is people who dominate the building. And that is why the visitors bring their own sound, their own music. Young people, elderly people, locals and visitors, both from the Baltic region and from far away ‒ everybody will feel comfortable here. That is what I think. Because the building is so clearly and palpably connected with the charm of the city.

But what is the sound of the museum for you personally?

Can you hear the choir singing behind us?


They are singing, a multitude of voices joined in harmony. It is beautiful. Speaking of which, the acoustics in this building are excellent. Harmonious sound... And I don’t think there is any kind of hierarchy here. There is harmony in ancient music, there is harmony in early music. And in this case, there is a certain intersection between the building and the art that lives in it, and the interplay between these two concepts involves such a variety of things. This sense of the diversity of nuances may provoke additional interest in people ‒ interest in what they are going to see here and in other people they are going to meet here.

In your opinion, what is the role of a museum of contemporary art in a modern city? It has been suggested that it may have become something like a new church in a way: a place where people go to think, to leave the mundane behind and meet kindred spirits...

It is, of course, by no means a new church, but it is an important cultural institution, because anybody can walk in and learn something new. No-one has seen contemporary Lithuanian art presented on such a scale, as a single story, an integral whole. We see that people still painted interesting things during the communist regime. And if someone comes here, they will have an opportunity to see with their own eyes how the Lithuanians and their mindset have changed over time. It is very impressive. And that is exactly what a museum is ‒ not a new church but a place where you can come to learn something new, meet up with friends, have a cup of coffee or two, listen to a musical performance maybe. It is this that makes a city important ‒ active cultural institutions, not just grand buildings.

People do meet other people in church as well...

In our society, the museum really does become a sort of meeting place, a community centre, and a similar role is indeed played by the church. However, museums also attract people who do not live in the vicinity, who are not from here. And that is also what this museum is about and what it is for. It is a new magnet for Vilnius. A magnet for the whole Baltic region. I think that people from New York and Tokyo will also be coming here to see the building and encounter the art that lives inside it.

Many articles about you mention that you used to be very interested in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, including his ideas about new meanings being born out of vivid juxtapositions and dynamic contrasts. It is a very interesting question ‒ the way in which philosophy influences architecture. Are there any markedly contrasting elements of that kind in this building as well?

Definitely, philosophy; science; literature ‒ they are also all part of architecture. Unless there is a philosophical, conceptual basis for your design, you will simply end up with a set of doors and windows. And that is what Renaissance is about, for instance, or the churches in Vilnius. There are certain ideas of a spirit of the city, a spirit of the world. That is what architecture generally is about, as I understand it. The same goes for this building; it speaks of a complex relationship between the external and the internal. You do not simply walk in and out of here. It is as if the building was pierced through along the diagonal; light penetrates some completely unusual places in the structure. It almost seems that the city is also part of the art on view at the museum. It is not an artificial game, it is something that emanates from the genius loci of Vilnius.

I really like the thought that a new meaning can be found through contrast... 

It is true. There is a certain tension to this place; it is by no means somewhere you should go to have a nice nap or something like that – like, you know, the countless box-like buildings where you instantly feel like nodding off as soon as you enter. No, there is something very much alive here that wakes the mind and the body, something that sucks you into the art. My idea was ‒ a building that is like an open book; there is nothing fixed in advance; everything depends on each visitor, young or old, experienced or just discovering things.

Each new building is also a new structure in a way. Where do you find your structures and your forms? Is it from nature?

Of course, if you take a look at the MO building, it does resemble a leaf on a tree. The space seems to be cut open, so that a sort of public theatre emerges alongside the museum. You can observe the street from the inside, viewing the city like a work of art. You can come up to the terrace here and watch a film or a performance under the open sky. It is breaking through the usual non-transparency, impenetrability of buildings, and creates a kaleidoscope of impressions. And that is what we are all about and what we are for. We are not mono-dimensional beings, we are multi-dimensional. And so is the museum.

What serves as the most powerful source of inspiration for you?

Life. Life consists of a number of things ‒ like dreams, nature, city, culture. And that is where my works all come from. They are not born of a sheet of paper, they are born of life.

London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre. Photo: Andrew Dunn

Does it ever happen that ideas come to you in sleep ‒ you wake up and think: eureka!

Of course, ideas should definitely come to you in sleep ‒ to create something fantastic, like in a dream.

But does it ever happen that you jump up from bed to write down the idea you have been dreaming about?

Not quite. You do have to visit the site first, to get acquainted with the location. Which is the first thing that happened here when I saw these Soviet-era structures right next to the historical Old Town. That gave me the idea of getting in touch with the spirit of this place ‒ as if expanding the historical centre. And you can see now that the building is already leaving an impact on the surrounding area. New cafés are appearing, new shops; buildings are being renovated. And for this reason, the museum is genuinely not here just for its own sake; it is here for everybody. It is here to make life better for the people of Vilnius.

In your opinion, what does being new mean when so much has already been done in this world, so many ideas have been realized?

Being new means staying creative, not falling into slumber. Our world is so fantastic and impressive ‒ science, art, technologies, everything that surrounds us. We live in incredible times. And that is the true source of inspiration ‒ being awake, paying attention to all these innovations and using them in the right places and the right ways to benefit the mankind. 

I take it that you are optimistic regarding our collective future?

Of course! Yes, there are some dark shadows and threats. And yet I still think that we live in great times and we will prevail over these dark aspects, the influence of which, I think, is clearly overrated by some people. A military, a politician or an economist can afford to be a pessimist. An architect is a profession where you simply must believe in the future.

Daniel Libeskind. Photo: Sergej Timofejev

ARCHIVE: Construction of the MO Museum in Vilnius

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