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I Would Prefer Formaldehyde to This!

February 8th, 2013

In case you missed it, here’s the latest declaration from Daniel Libeskind on the future of architecture.

It sometimes feels as if cities like Paris and Venice have been coated with formaldehyde and turned into museums. The old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work. We must create a new context and puncture past beauty with raw, powerful contemporary architecture—buildings that shock and amaze and bring out the romance of relics of Victorian and ancient times. It was once true that the palace, Palladian villas, and churches were architectural, while the other structures in a city were just buildings. But I think the art of architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.” Conde Nast Traveler web page

Because Libeskind has a significant following among the avant-garde (especially among architecture professors and the directors of art museums), it is worth taking a moment to understand what he is saying and why everyone with an interest in historic preservation or artistic culture in general should be appalled.

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

First, the reason many historic cities feel like museums is because that’s what many of them have become – historic environments hosed down in formaldehyde, segregated from everyday life and with high admission fees. But why? The “museumification” of cities like Paris and Venice is precisely the consequence of Libeskind’s modernist predecessors, who made an irreparable rupture between past and present the foundation of their practice.

Since the adoption of the Venice Charter nearly 50 years ago (1964), there has been a strict prohibition against additions to historic environments that might have the effect of keeping them alive: instead, new work must “be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.” Modernist architects, in the spirit of the charter, refused to integrate new construction into the historic fabric except on the basis of conspicuous aesthetic opposition. This spurred many preservationists to oppose all change and relegate new development outside the historic centers, which soon became the exclusive province of tourists and residents affluent enough to pay higher rents. The blatant visual contrast and physical separation between the historic and the new have, indeed, preserved the old centers but at the cost of their economies and authenticity.

The current state of many of our historic places illustrates the difference between preservation and conservation (at least in American usage): The first preserves something that is dead, like a mummy’s corpse, and the second conserves something that is alive, like an ecosystem or a garden. Some historic centers have indeed become dead places, to be visited after buying a ticket, but others show how it is possible for them to remain alive. They do this by allowing growth and change so long as it is consistent with the historic character of the place. But this limitation is unacceptable to the architects, who are not content with the freedom they have to build as they please outside the historic places; they see those historic centers – indeed the continued existence of any traditional architecture – as an affront to their creative freedom.

War Museum, Dresden

Their answer is to end the sequestration of the old and the new by “penetrating” the old with the new. Libeskind’s evisceration of the War Musuem in Dresden and the “lovely, light-filled” (as the interviewer describes it) addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto make clear he means this literally: The solution to museum cities is to penetrate them with glass shards and other architectural weapons of mass destruction.

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris in 1925 would have torn down the historic center and built a grid of skyscrapers in its place; Libeskind’s, presumably, would leave it there but plunge a handful of skyscrapers into its heart. Perhaps nothing would please him more than to see Venice with one of his glass needles erupting from the side of the Basilica di San Marco to “shock and amaze” us and “create a new context.” It is as if the way to bring renewed youth and beauty to an aging former beauty queen were to have a big machete projecting from her cranium at a jaunty angle. Clem Labine’s recent post indicting architects like Libeskind and their adoring fans as “the New Taliban” is right on target.

As I suggested in my previous post, the answer to the problems of historic cities is neither sequestration nor “penetration” but integration on the basis of knowledge and respect. Those of us who love beautiful historic cities and monuments must insist that economic authenticity and vitality for historic places require an architectural culture in which new and old are partners instead of antagonists.

If the only way to prevent these places from being destroyed by the likes of Libeskind is to pour more formaldehyde on them, so be it. This is the mainstream preservation answer at the moment, and at least it keeps the old bits around long enough that a potentially more sensible future generation might do the right thing. In the meantime, we can only hope that a half century of preservation efforts will not be swept away by a short-lived fad.

But there is a still better way: Change contemporary architecture from being the enemy of beauty to being the agent of its loving care. Train young architects in knowledge and respect for what is beautiful, sustainable and just in the historic environment and equip them with the skills needed to make more of it. Then we can put away the formaldehyde and instead nurture our cities with an economy and a building culture that will keep them alive, not as museums but as living cities once again available to all.

Libeskind’s other error is the idea that the historic distinction between “monument” and “fabric” should be abandoned, that “architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.” As is so often the case with Libeskind and his followers, the words are not the problem. Why shouldn’t every building represent an artistic response to its purpose and site? It is when we see his work that we realize what he means. In contrast with the decorum of traditional cities in which the city hall, the church, the public library are given more noble expression than the private house, office building or apartment block, he is suggesting that every building, regardless of purpose, ought to be an iconic object. But if every building is a unique gesture, an isolated specimen, a sculpture intended to “shock and amaze,” then there is no city at all, but only an architectural zoo. Libeskind would replace the “museum” of historic Venice with the museum of objects designed by himself. Which of those museums would you willingly pay to visit?

So “the old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work.” Really? Those of us who can still tell the difference between an architectural culture of inestimable value and the marketing slogans of a hustling architectural firm need to tell Daniel Libeskind, “Keep your hands off our historic places. We don’t need your new context. We want respect rather than vandalism and character-preserving transformation rather than ‘penetration.’”


  1. Rosario Gagliardi
    February 8th, 2013 at 16:01 | #1

    Talk is cheap. It is very easy and convenient for Libeskind to speculate that his particular vision for the future will be an improvement over the past, and to claim that people will flock to see “raw powerful contemporary architecture”. In his case, there is no need to speculate further; the public have already cast their vote. An international poll of travelers conducted by VirtualTraveler.com declared Libeskind’s addition to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum to be among the World’s Top Ten Ugliest Buildings. http://members.virtualtourist.com/vt/t/354

  2. RLC
    February 8th, 2013 at 17:39 | #2

    Libeskind’s work is the architectural equivalent of rape – the violent expression of a sick need to assert domination and control over an unwilling victim (in this case, a building). That he chooses aggressive words like ‘penetrate’ to express his vision is also very telling. I’d be interested to know how a psychiatrist would analyze Libeskind’s barely coherent blathering.

  3. Deane
    February 8th, 2013 at 18:07 | #3

    It’s a relief to know that the general public don’t share Libeskind’s views. Last summer the real estate blog http://www.curbed.com asked its readers “If you could demolish any one building, anywhere in the world, which building would it be and why?”


    It seems there were so many nominations for various Libeskind designs that he got his owm category when the comments were published. Maybe he should stop designing and start reading real estate blogs before he makes any further assumptions that the public want more of his work in their cities.

  4. P. Emerson
    February 8th, 2013 at 22:28 | #4

    Like any other architect, Libeskind requires patrons to fund his vision. What does it say about our society that university level academics (who should know better), and the wealthy and culturally informed persons who make up the boards of museums (who should know better), all fall for Libeskind’s line of bull? I suspect some cultural intimidation or cultural insecurity is in play. Maybe these people desperately want to seem “au courant” and are willing to set aside all reason and intuition by supporting him. How else can you explain endorsing a neanderthal imbecile who would make such a ridiculous statement encouraging the desecration of Paris or Venice, particularly when the statement is so obviously self-serving?

  5. February 9th, 2013 at 04:43 | #5

    “In contrast with the decorum of traditional cities in which the city hall, the church, the public library are given more noble expression than the private house, office building or apartment block, he is suggesting that every building, regardless of purpose, ought to be an iconic object.”

    I’m reminded of a schoolboy who recently complained about all the kids in gym class getting an award for merit, regardless of their ability:

    “When we’re all special, then no one is special.”

    Liebeskind is a Leveler of the worst sort.

  6. Michael Rouchell
    February 9th, 2013 at 05:50 | #6

    Libeskind is the scourge of architecture. I hope I live long enough to see one of his “interventions” or “penetrations” demolished and the historic buildings that are victims of his vandalism get restored. The problem with shocking architecture is that the shock wears off and all that’s left is uglyness, sometimes before the project is even completed.

  7. Brian Connolly
    February 9th, 2013 at 16:54 | #7

    Libeskind’s work is the architecture of uninspired one-liners repeated ad nauseum and then some. Need a museum addition in Toronto? Add a clashing, projecting wedge. Building alteration for Dresden? Easy, just add a clashing projecting wedge. Shopping center for Las Vegas? Simple. Try intersecting some clashing wedges. Unbelievably, he claims the responses are uniquely site-specific, responding not only to prevailing and local cultural issues but also to specific programatic requirements.

    Self plagiarism is only a good idea if the initial work is worthy of repetition, refinement and development, and then only in a way that acknowledges the task to hand. In Libeskind’s case he’s been milking a dead cow for over a decade, Unfortunately he is so convinced of his own genius and relevance, he’s not capable of seeing that the results are beyond foul and rancid.

  8. February 9th, 2013 at 17:52 | #8

    Nice piece, Steve. I think your best point, and the most telling in terms of Libeskind, is the distinction between fabric and monument. The 19th century origins of BOTH preservation and modernism lie in this distinction, which has caused damning interventions like the clearing of the community in front of Notre Dame de Paris or Independence Hall or the construction of a modern megalith like Toronto City Hall or Lincoln Center. The style of these interventions is secondary to their “monumentality” which is the ego of every architectural era, an identity disease that promotes radical separation and revolutionary violence.

  9. Italophile
    February 10th, 2013 at 14:10 | #9

    I imagine Daniel Libeskind strolling around Rome, fantasizing about the opportunity to bring St. Peter’s into the 21st century by penetrating that musty old dome with a pointed glass shard. And later, salivating over the possibility of adding some trapezoidal aluminum shapes to the facade of the Farnese Palace, perhaps removing Michelangelo’s projecting cornice so it would not compete with his own more aggresive forms. I see him at one of the cafes facing the Pantheon, sketchbook open, jotting down a few quick images of how the temple front would so easily be improved if only he was allowed to ‘puncture’ that structure with a more dynamic wedge … you know, something that would disturb and destabilize the static, rhythmic effect of those boring columns. – It would almost be funny were this scenario not so close to the truth, for this is how the savage thinks. You only need to look at Libeskind’s portfolio to see how he reacts to historical structures. He is not programmed to understand or appreciate beauty.

  10. Sonya D.
    February 11th, 2013 at 16:24 | #10

    @Michael Rouchell
    Why stop at just one, Michael? I hope the world will come to its senses and see ALL of Libeskind’s “interventions” or “penetrations” demolished.

  11. February 12th, 2013 at 12:31 | #11

    This is a very important discussion to continue, Steve… Thanks for posting! And some excellent comments so far. I’d suggest that we have a gaping void right now that has existed for roughly a century in many places, and until it is filled, the historic fabric will increasingly fall prey to the architectural vandals. That void is the lack of living traditions of architecture in most regions of the globe. A living tradition is a normal way that the townspeople build the town, and that is attuned to regional conditions, climate, and culture. It is broadly understood, so that building owners, builders, and craftspeople all understand, for each pattern, that “we do this because…”

  12. Assen Assenov
    February 16th, 2013 at 08:56 | #12

    Thank you, Steve, for taking such an important stand, from all points of view: professional, cultural, historical, academic and social. Again, evil is never new. Libeskind point of view is very simple: talk well or talk poorly, just talk about me! Again, very old paradigm. Remember the Best Stores in the US a few decades ago, with the giant rotated cube for an entry? Again, nothing new on the horizon….
    Great comments to your excellent writing!

  13. Kevin Leary
    February 17th, 2013 at 19:12 | #13

    Libeskind says ” …..other structures in a city were just buildings. But I think the art of architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.”

    Well, after dabbling in the profession for several decades, Libeskind himself hasn’t managed to create a single work of architecture yet. What makes him think that others who think like him will be able to succeed where he himself has so spectacularly failed? Arguably his own clumsy and unskilled designs have set architecture back several millenia.

    That said, there are people who take him seriously. These people with the funding or control are the ones who pose the real risk to historical cities by enabling Libeskind’s deranged vision to come to fruition.

  14. D.F.
    February 18th, 2013 at 16:48 | #14

    Want to see a real world example of Libeskind’s vision for the future of urbanism? It is little more than an ill-conceived, ego-driven, quasi-intellectual, formalistic free-for-all masquerading as visionary urban design. Scary stuff.


    As far as I’m aware, Libeskind has no formal training in town planning or urbanism. That minor detail hasn’t stopped him from misrepresenting himself as a planner in Yongsan, where he crudely stitched together every failed and debunked modernist idea about sunken plazas, bisecting highways, overhead pedestrian bridges and windswept plazas, all dominated by scaleless, looming forms competing for attention and sheer ugliness. Incredibly, the whole manages to be considerably worse than the sum of its constituent parts. And Libeskind (who has referred to himself as a ‘genius’), thinks his vision is better than what Paris and Venice have to offer?

  15. February 18th, 2013 at 20:43 | #15

    My thanks to the many comments on this piece. I must have struck a nerve because this is the largest number of comments in the history of this blog! Vince Michael: Thanks for reinforcing the point: the failure to recognize the value of the fabric around the monuments was a particular concern of Gustavo Giovannoni, who made conservation of the context and surroundings, of the “minor architecture” around the larger more conpicuous monuments, part of his life’s work. Steve Mouzon: Yes, let’s keep this discussion going and make sure everyone understands: THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE AND IT IS A LIVING TRADITION OF THE ARCHITECTURE OF PLACE. Your work has been essential in raising our consciousness on this! In the meantime, preservationists must recognize that preventing the kinds of interventions pushed by Libeskind and others is the most urgent challenge we now face. No more shards!

  16. February 20th, 2013 at 23:54 | #16

    What used to excite me in my impressionable years as a graduate student in Architecture at UCLA back in the 80’s now gives me great pause, as once theoretical, unbuilt, three dimensional rants (we used to call them architantrums) by academic wunderkinds like Libeskind, Kupper, Moss, Mayne, Eisenman, et. al, now actually get built on occasion. As one matures and moves through the actual phases of an architectural education, practice, and life, one hopefully gains some perspective and develops a visual ear that can cut through the bullshit of the lucky theoretician’s argument to actually look at the work and ask, “Yes, but is it any good?”. Charles Jencks masterfully instructed his students about the use of juxtaposition to create meaning (even if his actual buildings never really passed the smell test). Clearly however, juxtaposition in the right hands can be a powerful design tool. Pei’s Pyramid at the Louvre, Gehry’s Dancing House in Prague, hell, anything by Wolf Prix shows that radical departures from the historical fabric can indeed benefit that fabric. In the end, though, the imposition must be able to stand apart from the context. If that can be said, than who cares if it occurs in, around, or next to an old building? Libeskind’s work has always fallen short of this litmus test.

  17. G. Bird
    March 1st, 2013 at 03:14 | #17

    To quote a wiser man than myself: “There are those whose worldview consists only of what the New York Times says it should. The Gray Lady employs an architecture critic; put two and two together.”

  18. March 3rd, 2013 at 16:33 | #18

    Dear Steven,

    A great post. As mentioned already by two of the commenters, it’s not really Libeskind’s — or any other architect’s — fault. The patron who pays for the project and the local government that issues the building permit have blood on their hands. The architect is merely executing a commission for the client, who has the last word on the design. That’s what an architect is paid to do, from Albert Speer on down to the humble architect who designs a warehouse in our home town. I wrote several years ago about “The Architecture of Life” versus the “Architecture of Death” with Brian Hanson, in the context of Libeskind’s architecture, but only my friends seemed to pay any attention to the crucial difference between the two. Prominent patrons, on the other hand, eagerly and almost exclusively commission buildings that represent the latter. It’s the fashionable thing to do, and money goes towards supporting fashion, as we all know.

    What are we sensitive individuals — who clearly see this unspeakable desecration and destruction — to do? Very little, other than publish the truth on the web. Therefore thanks for doing so.

    Best wishes,

  1. February 21st, 2013 at 19:14 | #1