Kissing The Sky

It used to be that the only way to build a skyscraper was up. But now the tall building is being totally reimagined and taken in some very unusual directions. Look out below

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Daniel Libeskind is all smiles. The again, when is he not? Even during the worst parts of the past two years, when his master plan for the World Trade Center site was being squeezed and adulterated, when the vivid spike that was his design for its centerpiece Freedom Tower was being reworked by other hands, Libeskind kept up a pretty chipper demeanor in public. It's only when you leaf through his memoir Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture, in which the bitterness seeps through and he takes swipes at everyone who tried to push him aside in the design process, that you know for sure that sometimes the laughs came hard.

But today, in the lower-Manhattan headquarters of his worldwide architectural practice, Libeskind is smiling because he actually has a reason to. All across one large wall of a workroom are images--architectural drawings and computer renderings--of a project that's going very much Libeskind's way, which means into the future at full throttle. What they show from various angles is an office tower he has designed for a parklike setting in Milan, Italy, one of three that will be built there as an ensemble, each by a brand-name architecture star, each an announcement that the tall building is going places it has never gone before.

Libeskind pauses before one large image near the center that says it all. It shows the three towers as they will appear at completion. On the left is a dashing, torqued configuration by Zaha Hadid, the London-based architect who was this year's winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award. On the right is Japanese architect Arata Isozaki's furrowed wafer of glass and steel, buttressed by diagonal struts that seem almost too slender for their supporting role. And between them is Libeskind's contribution, a supreme bit of architectural legerdemain. It's a curving tower doing what should be, for a building, the impossible. Doing it very suavely too. It's taking a bow.

By shifting his parabolic floor plates gradually forward, floor by floor, but always keeping them tethered to an upright concrete core, Libeskind achieves the seemingly impossible: a supple tower that can gently bend toward us. "It's sheltering," he says. "Like the Pietà." Like the Pietà? Just about every tall building ever built says, "Who's your daddy?" Are we ready for a world in which a few can say, "Who's your mommy?"

"Towers became banal because they lost their sense of surprise and joy," Libeskind says. "Over time they became formulas. The architectural element was reduced to questions like 'What patterns are we gonna use for the windows?'" Now the formulas have all been cast to the wind. The past decade or so has been a time of virtuoso architects, not just Libeskind, Hadid and Isozaki but also Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and many others, all of them working in very different styles but with the common impulse to knock apart the familiar glass-and-steel box and put it back together in unheard of ways.

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