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Emotional rescue

NEW CONCRETE ENGINEERING - Libeskind Interview Ground Zero redevelopment architect Daniel Libeskind talks to Ruby Kitching about his passion for daring engineering, concrete structures and New York.

Celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind is best known for being the mastermind behind the redevelopment of Ground Zero in New York. But he tells NCE that this is just one of 30 projects he is working on. Some are public buildings, a handful are private developments; some are big, some small. But all occupy his mind in equal measure.

This is typical of Libeskind, who has built a reputation for being emotionally involved with his projects. Take the Jewish Museum in Berlin that brought him into the limelight in 1999.

Being the son of Holocaust survivors from Poland, who lost most of his family in the Second World War, he felt compelled to win the project.

The same strong sense of emotion is tied to Libeskind's work at Ground Zero. He arrived in New York in his teens, studied architecture in the city and became a US citizen in 1965. 'I arrived by ship to New York as a teenager, an immigrant, and like millions before me, my first sight was the Statue of Liberty and the amazing skyline of Manhattan. I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for. This is what this project is all about.'

But he is equally emotional about smaller projects. A private house might need to be 'strong and impenetrable'; a museum to portray a 'powerful force'; a skyscraper to be 'robust and daring'.

For all projects, he chooses concrete as his preferred material. 'I love it for its sculptural quality - I can leave it bare and express how it is made if that's what the project calls for, or clad it over if need be'.

The cladding nearly always gives way to Libeskind's magpie instinct - shiny zinc, stainless steel or aluminium in the cases of the Jewish museum, London Metropolitan University's graduate centre and Manchester's Imperial War Museum. The metal cladding also gives buildings that 'just landed' feeling in stark contrast to the more traditional, bare exposed concrete interiors.

He makes no excuse for this - it's part of his love affair with concrete to create cave-like volumes, which he playfully carves up into irregular chunks with the occasional slash of a window or door opening.

'Of course part of the challenge is that I'm limited by what angles will work in concrete. I don't design simple boxes.' One of the projects he is currently working on is the West Side development in Bern, Switzerland. 'Here I wanted robustness, particularly in the housing for the elderly and wellness centre, but also wanted to have deep angular shapes.

'Close collaboration with engineers is required here to get the best of what I want, discussing what is most practical. Sometimes I am told 'you just can't do that', so we look at other ways of building it.' That's not to say he is a push over - he is currently designing a skyscraper in Milan that is curved in profile. 'For this I need to work with engineers who are on my wavelength, who are daring and have bold ideas like me, ' he says.

The project is still at conception stage but, no doubt, he will give it his best shot to preserve the building's irregular form.

Daniel Libeskind will present the 2006 British Cement Association Berthold Lubetkin Memorial Lecture, sponsored by The Concrete Centre at the Great Hall, Kensington Conference and Events Centre, London, on 9 November at 6pm. Admission is free, but by ticket only.

Register by calling 0700 4 500 500.

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