Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Daniel Libeskind

Oration given on 15 July 1999

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon DANIEL LIBESKIND

“Architecture is an optimistic profession” – so says Daniel Libeskind, who in the last decade has come to be recognised as one of the world’s most distinguished and exciting architects. Yet a great deal of his most notable work is concerned with the past. It is, moreover, a past that focuses on some of the ugliest chapters in the history of humankind; in particular, the Holocaust – Hitler and his supporters’ attempt to exterminate the whole of European Jewry.

This optimism that he speaks about is all the more remarkable when we remember that Daniel Libeskind, himself of Polish-Jewish parentage, was born in Poland in 1946, the son of a man who had survived the death camps, but who had lost almost all the rest of his family in the slaughter. What an act of hope and optimism it must have been to have started a family in the wake of such horrors! In that sense, then, Libeskind, by his very existence stands as a symbol of the future.

Nor is there any contradiction in the fact that a large part of his creative work to date has been to do with the past – the Felix Nussbaum House in Osnabruck, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and, soon to be started, the northern branch of the Imperial War Museum and the Shoah Holocaust Museum, both in Manchester. Museums, all of them; all to do with the past; yet each in its own way proclaiming passionate hope and optimism for the future, especially in the designs and structures themselves.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum opened, to wide acclaim last year. Strangely, it was at that time, a museum without exhibits – these will come later. Instead, the building itself served as a memorial to the Jews of Berlin who had made such a long and rich contribution to the life of the city, but who, following the advent to power of Adolf Hitler, were systematically eradicated. Perhaps this example of the symbiosis between history and architecture will suffice to illustrate the point.

Inside the building, one suddenly finds oneself entering a number of voids – spaces where there is nothing: no exhibits, no heating, almost no light (except, penetrating a slender crack high above, a sliver of light that has been likened to all that the unfortunate people being transported in cattle trucks could glimpse as they trundled across the east European plain to their deaths). Void. Nothingness. Symbols of the moment in 1933 when not only did the Jews of Berlin cease to exist for the city, but the moment, too, when the city was deprived of one of its richest cultural, intellectual and creative treasures. All this and much more is suggested by Libeskind’s daring, innovative architecture.

These are sombre themes. Yet anyone who has ever met him, or seen him, will know that Daniel Libeskind is one of the most vital, infectiously smiling, ebullient people one could ever wish to come across. Some have described him as a prophet, others as a poet, and yet others as an inspiration. Little wonder, then, that he has received wide recognition for his work from a growing list of academic institutions. As well as heading his own architectural studio in Berlin (together with his wife and collaborator, Nina, who we are delighted to have with us today), he is also a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlusche. He has held posts too, in numerous other institutions, including the John Paul Getty Centre, at Harvard, the Royal Danish Academy of Art,  the University of London and at Yale. And as was mentioned by the Chancellor, Daniel Libeskind studied here under the tutelage of the founding professor of art history at the University of Essex, Joseph Rykwert and was awarded the degree of Master of Arts in the History and Theory of Architecture in 1972.

It is worth noting that word “history”. Anyone who imagines that architects indulge themselves with doodles on the backs of envelopes would be very wide of the mark. That may be how they occasionally jot down ideas and constructs that come to them suddenly, but Libeskind drenches himself in the history of the project that he is engaged in. Thus it was that when he set out to design “The Spiral” that will fill the gap between the two wings of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, he not only put himself in the place of the original V & A designers, he also spent a great deal of time contemplating the surrounding roofscape.

Not everyone is delighted with the result. But, remarkably, the local authority overrode the advice of its own planning department and gave permission for this audacious project to go ahead. It may turn out to be a rebellion against conventional architecture, but, if it is, that rebellion is just as likely to have its roots in the V & A’s origins as it is in its architect’s imagination.

The two Manchester projects are just as audacious, yet have generated scarcely any controversy. Instead, they have been welcomed as exciting additions to the cityscape, facing as they do the Lowry Museum on the other side of the Manchester Ship Canal.

Once again, in the Northern Imperial War Museum, we have a building that has its historical genesis in the tumultuous events of the century just ending, but at the same time expressing itself in the architecture of the new millennium. This has been a century of progress, but it has also been a century of war, of death, of destruction, of world war. If anything symbolises the violence and cruelty of war it is explosion. Daniel Libeskind’s design for the northern War Museum is of an exploding globe, of tectonic disturbance, of immense plates of the earth’s surface displaced and up-ended. And so we see in the design huge shards, horizontal, sloping and curving, vertical – metaphors, perhaps, for land, sea and air. And this, together with the adjacent Shoah Museum will surely prove to be one of the most disturbing, stimulating, exciting and memorable physical, emotional and intellectual experiences that lie ahead of us as we enter the twenty-first century.

Inside the Jewish Museum in Berlin there is a matrix of lines criss-crossing the inner walls. These are, as it were, “connectors” between real persons and real addresses in the city up to 1933. The outer walls display a similar matrix. But eventually all the lines peter out, ending usually in the same destination, Auschwitz. Similarly, Libeskind’s first major commission, the Felix Nussbaum House in Osnabruck, displays that talented painter’s work, until, in 1933, it runs up against a blank wall, after which it struggles on, only to terminate, again in Auschwitz, in 1944.

It would be easy, but wrong, to see Daniel Libeskind’s work as being a memorial, a kind of architectural tombstone for persons lost. It is that, of course; but it is also a lament for the loss of experience, the loss of the talents of  millions. Yet, above all, it is a celebration of life. These are symbols not of despair, but of hope. They may spring out of the past, but already, they are monuments to the future.

Chancellor, I present to you Daniel Libeskind.