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Despite Freedom Tower Setback, Libeskind Building Skyscrapers Around the World

Union City, NJ condominium

Warsaw Tower, Poland

Emerald Bay Development, Singapore
Images Courtesy Studio Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind has never built a skyscraper. His most famous high rise is one that will never be built: the original concept for the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan. That crystalline, tapering structure has now become an obelisk on a concrete base designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

But don’t feel too badly for him. Thanks partly to fame developed from the World Trade Center competition, and partly to Studio Libeskind’s impressive list of contacts, developers all over the world have asked Libeskind to design high-rise condominiums. The firm has secured commissions for over 10 skyscraper projects in the last two years or so. These include towers in Singapore, Sacramento, Milan, Toronto, Warsaw, as well as Covington, Kentucky and Brescia, Italy, and three more undisclosed locations in the U.S., Korea, and Europe. The firm is so much in demand that its employees now number 55—up from 26 when it moved to New York in 2003.

While very diverse in form, most of the high-rises display some degree of the original Freedom Tower’s sleek, tapering form and angular geometry. Many are formally and programmatically advanced, like the 31-story “Green Emerald Tower” in Milan, which sits on the city’s new 64-acre fashion and business district. Its form, cut from a sphere, curves as it rises like an elongated band shell to help limit harsh sunlight, and, of course, to make a dramatic statement next to towers by Arata Isozaki and Zaha Hadid. The Emerald Bay towers in Singapore (the tallest is 43 stories), employ similar curves, in this case to maximize views of the nearby waterfront, and utilize “gardens in the sky,” vegetation-filled bridges connecting buildings at upper floors. An angular tower in Warsaw, Libeskind’s hometown, appears almost as if it is two towers intersecting at sharp angles. Other projects, like those in Sacramento and Covington, have been criticized for their fairly conventional shapes, tapering near the top like Libeskind’s vision at Ground Zero, and embellished largely by balconies that form exterior designs.

Libeskind’s success in this field is not just a result of fame or ability: it’s also a product of developers’ increasing desire to use design architects to woo tenants and investors. He’s also willing to work on a building type that some in the top echelons of the field look down on as a sell-out. The architect notes that such projects are often vital to jumpstarting neighborhoods, and even cities’ fortunes, and they have a much greater impact than the smaller niche projects that many of his contemporaries explore. Associate Yama Karim admits that many of these projects stray from the exploding shards and folding planes that the firm is known for at lower elevations. But he doesn’t see any of them as compromises. “We don’t compromise. It’s about making things that work. We work hard to make the economic realities of these types of projects work, but we want to avoid building typical developer buildings.”

As for whether he’s cut out do design high rises, Libeskind responds “Architecture is architecture. If you’ve mastered building on a smaller scale, then you can build something bigger,” says Libeskind,

In addition to skyscrapers, Libeskind will have several handfuls of projects completed by 2008, including a German military museum in Dresden, which is ironic, he admits, since he also built the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Other works include The New Center for Arts and Culture in Boston, and The Denver Art Museum and accompanying condominium development in Denver, a retail complex and hotel in Las Vegas. And how does he feel about the situation at Ground Zero, the project that helped make him, but also came close to breaking him?

“I’m the only one who’s not disillusioned,” he says. The process is inherently difficult, and I knew that. But the core of the project is still there.”

Sam Lubell