‘My kids are my biggest critics’

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Architect Daniel Libeskind, 62, won the 2003 competition to design new buildings for the World Trade Center site in New York City. His notable works include the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, UK, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany – his first commission, which opened in 1998 and was originally conceived on a piece of kitchen towel. He lives in Tribeca, New York, with his wife, Nina.

Where do you call home?

I have lived a very itinerant life. Fourteen times my wife and I have been back and forth across the Atlantic, to London, Berlin, Toronto, Milan. Despite all those moves, I have never ceased to be a New Yorker. We have three kids, Lev, Noam and Rachel, and they were also part of this. Most people thought we were in the military or diplomatic service but we just did it on our insane desire to be somewhere else. And we were never tourists – we lived the life of the place. Sometimes Nina wishes we were more stationary but she’s put up with it.

When did you arrive in New York?

At the end of 1959, when I was 13. My father was determined to come to America to see his older sister, who survived Auschwitz. We arrived in that almost mythical state of immigrants on a boat looking at the Statue of Liberty, in awe of America and the miracle of Manhattan. We lived in a housing estate in the Bronx. After my schooling I moved to Canada because my wife was Canadian.

Where were you born?

In Poland, in a large industrial city called Lodz, in a very grey, turn-of-the-century tenement building with a bleak courtyard. There were four of us in this one-bedroom flat – my mum, Dora, dad, Nachman, and sister, Ania. My parents had the one bedroom and I think we slept in the living room. Everyone lived in this dreary greyness of a totalitarian state. We left when I was 11 to go to Israel, the true promised land. I suddenly discovered colours and flavours and open society. First we lived on a kibbutz. I enjoyed it but I didn’t like the communist system of sleeping with my peers, eating collectively and no material possessions. It was ironic that after Poland I got to experience true communism and I still didn’t like it. So we moved to Tel Aviv.

Describe your current home.

It’s an old turn-of-the-century building, which I renovated, very close to Ground Zero. It’s a condominium and we own the whole floor. I try to do the interior myself but sometimes I have to compromise with my wife and with the kids, who are my biggest critics. We are Jewish and Jewishness is a wonderful thing. The traditions do not require too much paraphernalia. A candle, a good heart and you don’t need much more.

Do you collect?

The only thing I would say I collect is books and music manuscripts. I once calculated that the average paperback that I bought years ago for $1 is probably worth $100 because of the number of times I’ve schlepped it to different countries. It’s insane but books are very sentimental and I never really want to sell them or to leave them behind.

Do you have favourite possessions?

When we were young, we bought some very beautiful furniture – a Mies table and couch and a Le Corbusier lounger and so on – and we’ve had it ever since, for 35 years. When we travelled, we bought possessions but got rid of them at a moment’s notice. We never had any money because we always abandoned everything.

Where do you go to unwind?

We have a house in Var in southern France, near Provence. Since we moved so often, the kids identified this place in France as their home. It’s a 1,000-year-old house in a medieval town but perfectly restored. It has a very local character, five storeys high but it has been completely restructured. There’s a summer kitchen on the terrace overlooking the countryside all the way to the Mediterranean and another down below.

Is it important for the holiday home to have a different identity?

I think it’s important for every home to carry an identity of the place where it is. Our New York home is very abstract, very modern, very contemporary, and the home in France is, well, very French: it breathes the local air and character. It’s spartan but there’s more wooden furniture and it’s very casually organised. I wish I had more time in both New York and in France but our destiny is to continue travelling around the world because there are so many different projects.

Does travelling interfere with your home life?

I go around the world sometimes several times in a month and, luckily for me, Nina is almost always with me. She’s my partner and I think I’d give up if I had to travel alone to these far corners of the world. Being with her is always fun and exciting. It’s an adventure.

What is your manifesto?

I try to create expressive architecture that isn’t abstract, that has an emotional connection to the people who dwell there.

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