Architecture | Poland

“You have to go back to the roots to build something with meaning”

The New York architect spent his childhood in Lodz and later became world-famous with buildings like the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In an interview, he talks about his ties to his homeland and how Polish architecture deals with the country’s history

An older gentleman with glasses looks into the camera with a smile. Behind him trees and gray facades can be seen indistinctly. The gentleman wears white short hair, a black open shirt and a black t-shirt.

Daniel Libeskind in the summer of 2021

Interview by Jess Smee

You were born in Poland, and left when you were just 11. How influential was Polish culture to you?

Polish culture was hugely influential - it is so rich, both in the past and the present, and it inspires me. Its landscapes have also left a big mark on me, both its striking countryside and its historic cities, like Kraków and Warsaw.

Poland’s wealth of history is little known around the world. Much of Polish history and culture is defined by adversity, being occupied by other powers, so a sense of freedom is a polish instinct.

And you share that trait? 

Definitely! Polish people have a great and indomitable spirit, even under very dark circumstances. Polish culture has been enriched by the wisdom of the country’s long and turbulent history.

Where did you grow up as a child? What are your memories of communist Poland? 

That was a dark time. I have very strong, negative memories of communism, oppression, antisemitism. Those days of fear were part of my childhood. I lived with the threat of my parents being arrested.

“For many years I was put off by my dark memories but when I returned in 2007 I found a totally different country”

They were Jews but were not assimilated, they didn’t blend in, but rather, they were proud of who they were. I felt the dark shadows of a totalitarian system hanging over the country.

How did it feel to return to Poland and Warsaw to work on the landmark project the Zlota 44 in Warsaw, on a site close to your mother’s former neighbourhood?

For many years I was put off  by my dark memories but when I returned in 2007 I found a totally different country! It was a place where the people were free and the shadows were gone.

It was nothing like the Poland I had known. It is the most dramatic transformation I have ever witnessed. The Zlota 44 was built in the old Jewish neighbourhood after I won the competition to build a residential building.

“My building Zlota 44 is an assertion that Warsaw should not be dominated by buildings representing totalitarian authoritarianism“

It was just across the street from a really oppressive symbol, the Palace of Science and Culture built by Stalin, a structure I remembered from my childhood. It was a violent symbol and my building stands right opposite it.

Zlota 44 is an answer, a gesture of freedom, of the eagle flying free again. Even though it is just a residential building, its sculptural form, its sweeping curve, is an assertion that this is a beautiful city and its centre should not be dominated by buildings representing totalitarian authoritarianism. 

What message did you want locals to take from this new landmark?

Because of legal regulations, I couldn’t build it higher than the Stalin propaganda piece over the road, although I would have liked to. Over time I hope that the palace of culture and science will disappear from being prominent to just being a background memory.

That whole area was an old Jewish neighbourhood - it was an entire city which was completely destroyed by the Germans, by Stalin and the communists.

Building a residential building asserts that Warsaw is a beautiful city despite its horrible and tragic history. It looks towards Warsaw’s future. Zlota has since been embraced as a symbol in Poland. I stayed in a hotel next door and my building was on the hotel key ring!

In 2019, you made the installation: “Through the Lens of Faith” at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. How do you approach such historically charged architecture? 

You take on a great responsibility when you deal with the Shoah or holocaust. You have to put your own self, your own being, into the space.

“History is not just a piece of information, it is a cross section through life”

My parents were holocaust survivors, I grew up under communism, so these are subjects close to my heart. And of course, when you go to a site like Auschwitz, you have to put your head to the ground, you have to listen to the voices.

Each site is unique, it is telling you something that is not obvious. You have to get in touch with the inaudible, the invisible. History is not just a piece of information, it is a cross section through life. You have to get to the roots of this to build something with meaning.

How have people responded to this work?

It stands in front of the gates of Auschwitz, where millions of people visit and many have said they were moved by it. People appreciate how history isn’t simply the past, it is also the future.

Events are so irreversible, a genocide, murder or the Shoah. Nothing will change the past, it’s over. The future can be better when you insert hope and humanity. You can turn it into something positive.

How do you feel about how politicians in Poland deal with the past?

Putting your head into the sand like an ostrich isn’t going to change history. Refusing to look at it, to face up to it, will only make the past come back to haunt you.

Governments can create a false narrative, but the truth cannot be stopped. Poland’s attempts to whitewash history are terrifying but are doomed to failure.

In April this year, you returned to your Polish hometown Łódź to design a new project. Could you describe it?

It’s incredible to rediscover a city you left many decades ago and find it is still the same city. The streets were almost exactly as they were when I was growing up – the horizon looked the same. I wish it had changed more over the intervening years, it needs to catch up, but it remains a beautiful city.

It strikes me as a very creative city, with its film school, an art museum, and more importantly the people who live there. It has its own vibration of history. It is a city of four cultures, Poles, Germans, Russians and Jews, they all created the city.

Almost at lightening speed it went from almost nothing to being an incredible industrial centre. I look at the city of my childhood and my wish is that it will develop more brightly.