Architect Daniel Libeskind on returning to Poland to reshape its skyline, NYC's World Trade Center masterplan, and President-elect Trump

 
Melissa York
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Daniel Libeskind, architect of a new Polish skyscraper called Zlota 44 (Source: Photo: Stefan Ruiz)

To Daniel Libeskind, architecture is a political act. Every building he creates is intertwined with a sense of place, culture and national identity.

“Every project deserves a sensitivity to history, tradition, to something that isn’t completely visible to the naked eye, in terms of the spirit of the place,” he tells me. “There is no tabula rasa, no empty site, there’s always something interesting that inspires you to build something that’s more than just concrete and steel.”

Perhaps that’s why he’s been the favoured architect for so many memorials, museums and sites of national significance. It hasn’t always been plain sailing, however. “Events”, as Harold Wilson called them, have dogged many of his commissions.

His first, a housing project in West Berlin, fell through when the Wall came down, as did two post-Katrina glass towers in New Orleans. When things do go right – the Jewish Museum in Berlin, London Metropolitan University, One World Trade Center in New York – he produces striking, angular landmarks that invade the imagination as well as the skyline.


Zlota 44, towering next to the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw

It doesn’t get more personal than Zlota 44, Libeskind’s newest icon in his native Poland. The son of Holocaust survivors, his family joined a kibbutz in Israel before boarding one of the last immigrant boats to the US in 1959. Poland has changed dramatically since Liebskind moved to New York City, and he jumped at the chance to be a part of its future.

“I still speak Polish, write Polish and listen to Polish music,” he says. “I remember Warsaw as a kid and it was a city full of fear and oppression. I really wanted to go back to Poland and give a breath of fresh air to a city that was destroyed. The building is connecting with the culture of such a rich city and it’s our chance to do something exciting, interesting and architectural in the centre of it that really hasn’t been available in the past.”

Indeed, that recession in 2008 that turned Western politics upside down? Didn’t happen in Poland. It’s the only EU country whose economy didn’t shrink, and its GDP is now a quarter bigger than it was before the crash.

That makes it the sixth biggest economy in Europe, as well as the largest beneficiary of EU funds, with a gross inflow of €120bn since it joined in 2004. It’s invested a lot of this money in new infrastructure, including a recently-opened second Metro line connecting east and west Warsaw.

With 70 per cent of its housing stock built before the fall of the Berlin Wall, its skyline is still dominated by Soviet-style towers, yet there are shards of glass breaking through bearing the corporate banners of Deloitte, Mercedes and Marriott among others. It’s also the start-up capital of central Europe; a new Google campus has just set up shop in an old vodka factory in the edgy/artsy Praga district.


The recreation and leisure floor at Zlota 44

As you approach Libeskind’s skyscraper – which is pretty hard to miss at 192m and 52 storeys high – another imposing building jostles for your attention: the Palace of Culture and Science. Originally titled the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, its art deco facade and clock face still dominates the skyline – at 237m, it’s the tallest building in Poland, to the distaste of many Poles who would rather forget the Soviet days.

Zlota 44, Libeskind’s lovechild, glares at it from across the street, a glass and steel challenger that’s almost decadent in its modernity. Even its name is symbolic, taking Zlota (gold) from the street it sits on and 44 from the year of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis.

“The curvature and the conversation it’s having with the so-called Palace of Culture is really about returning the skyline to the people,” Libeskind says. “There’s kind of a polemic going on; it represents a new kind of architecture for this amazing country.”

The way the building curves towards the light means each of the 287 apartments has a unique layout and view over the city, while the eighth floor is given over entirely to a residents’ leisure floor boasting the largest private pool in Poland. Apart from Libeskind himself, Bayern Munich footballer and captain of the Polish national team Robert Lewandowski has also snapped up an apartment here.

And there’s soon to be plenty more wealthy buyers, with Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report predicting the number of millionaires in Poland will rise from 50,000 to 89,000 in the next three years. It’s also reaching out to international investors too, with average rental yields of up to 8.5 per cent in Warsaw, around 4 per cent higher than in London. Yet for Libeskind, his design is all about the people living, rather than investing, in Zlota 44, who he hopes will bring new life to the city.

“There are office buildings and hotels and I thought there was a particular challenge to bring people back to the centre of Warsaw. Really, not having anyone living there has created a void and so it’s all about people and putting them at the centre instead of the old dictatorship. I didn’t want it to be a building of exclusion, I wanted it to be expressive of the sense of liberty, freedom and beauty of Warsaw.”

In many ways, he had similar aims for the World Trade Center site, a project that was fraught with complications, but speaks volumes about the symbolism woven throughout Libeskind’s work.


Libeskind was the architect of the World Trade Center site masterplan

His defiant design won the hearts of New Yorkers in a public competition; in its original incarnation, a spire extended outwards from a twisting, curved glass skyscraper to mirror the arm extension of the Statue of Liberty, his first memory of approaching New York by boat as a child. This would have been surrounded by five smaller towers dotted around a sunken plaza called the “Wedge of Light”, designed to align with the sun each year on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

But part-owner of the site Larry Silverstein brought on board another renowned architect, David Childs, to collaborate – between them they thrashed out the design that stands today, which leaves out many of Libeskind’s points of architectural significance. One aspect that remains is the location of the main tower, across from Lady Liberty, and its symbolic height – 1,776ft, the same year as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

What does Libeskind really think about this watered-down take on his vision? “Oh, it’s incredible,” he says diplomatically, adding he was always willing to collaborate. “Since the first years when I won the competition, my god, it’s all been so controversial. But it’s now one of the most visited landmarks in New York, it has 25m visitors a year, so I’m very proud of it.

"My only goal was to create a building that was an affirmation of life after those terrible attacks and that’s what we did. Architecture can give people a sense of national identity that they feel has been lost or forgotten or in doubt, I really believe that.”

After the surprise result of the Presidential election, will One World Trade Center be enough to remind New York of its egalitarian principles, or will those soon be swapped for the pomp and egotism of Trump Tower?

“I believe that the spirit of America is bigger than any one person or politician,” Libeskind says. “Its founders believed in bringing people together around the world and I don’t think that will change. It’s enshrined in our constitution – it’s the land of the free; whatever the chatter of the day, that’s still the truth of America.”

Apartments at Zlota 44 range from £242,000 to £1.9m. Offers for the penthouses are expected to exceed £7m.

Call the Zlota 44 sales team on +48 22 250 14 44 or visit zlota44.com