Daniel Libeskind is the only starchitect working today who dares to take a political stance, says Rory Olcayto
Daniel Libeskind’s latest commission to design a museum in Iraqi Kurdistan is perhaps even more controversial than his post-9/11 masterplan for Ground Zero in New York City or his 2001 Jewish Museum in Berlin. These earlier projects used the architectural style of deconstructivism to embody concepts of memory, resilience, nationhood and independence. For better or worse, this new museum could help bring a country into being.
Libeskind’s museum in Erbil will essentially serve as a national institute and will help legitimise calls for an independent Kurdistan; something Iran, Turkey and Syria, not to mention the rest of Iraq, will have serious concerns about. This commission shows that Libeskind is the only architect working today who dares to engage with ideology and geopolitics through the medium of architecture.
In the past, many have ridiculed Libeskind for using his fractured, angular forms for commercial projects such as a Swiss shopping centre or a residential tower in South Korea. Detractors claim this robs his more politically charged buildings of integrity. But this argument loses credibility when we consider that Libeskind, like any other architect, needs work to maintain momentum in his office. And unlike the majority of the profession, he does have bold political stance: two years ago I asked him about buildings for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and he responded by urging architects not to work for ‘undemocratic’ China.
Libeskind could, in fact, be the most appropriate choice for a Kurdish cultural museum. His deconstructivist Imperial War Museum North in Manchester was conceptualised as a globe shattered into fragments. Iraqi Kurdistan has a complex political history: once a distinct administrative entity within the Ottoman Empire, it was subsumed under a British-designed Iraq, but has since emerged as a devolved region. Libeskind’s deconstructivism, you could argue, is the style best able to embody the geopolitical undercurrents that define contemporary Kurdish identity.