The toes of Daniel Libeskind's black elkskin cowboy boots curl up like those curved walls he so loves - spiralling curves that cross a void of history in the Jewish Museum he designed in Berlin, bathtub-like curves beckoning 75 feet down into bedrock in his master plan for the Ground Zero memorial, a curve inspired by a shard of earth to house exhibits in the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, where even the floor curves six feet down.

He squeezes his eyes into crescent curves behind trademark black glasses, smiling theatrically, exposing the familiar overbite of the now-iconoclastic architect who had never built even a small building - "a small store, renovation, nothing" - before he won the Jewish Museum competition in 1989 as an academic.

A self-described late bloomer, that's when he began his astonishingly rapid ascent to the top of his field, and to the ranks of celebrity architects.

Even while seated in the unimposing Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center on Wednesday evening to discuss the topic Soaring Structures of the 21st Century, Mr. Libeskind seems in constant kinetic motion. In mildly-accented staccato sentences, on a modest stage with Boston Globe critic Robert Campbell, the architect bends ideas in conversation just as he does in buildings all over the world.


Asked about the curves of his buildings and his often jarring corners, he shrugs black-clad shoulders. A right angle is only one - and not the best - of the 360 degrees. "There are 359 others that are potentially there," he says. But what about all that squared-off furniture - desks, shelves, filing cabinets for heaven's sake? "You can have right-angle objects that look even more interesting - if you don't put them in a box, you suddenly realize what they are as ideas!"

Architecture, he says, all cheerful chutzpah, is a performance. And Mr. Libeskind - who as a young accordion prodigy tied for first place with violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman in a music competition judged by Isaac Stern - is performing all the time.

He is designing the Boston Center for Arts and Culture, a media center in Hong Kong, residential towers in Milan and Warsaw, retail space in Las Vegas, parks, offices, hotels, museums, opera sets, even a line of prefabricated houses.

Studio Daniel Libeskind has expanded to more than 150 people, none a lawyer (his wife and partner, Nina, checks the contracts).

"I have many projects, but I work on all of them myself," he says. "I wouldn't enjoy it, doing architecture, if I just did a sketch and just gave it somebody else. What would be the fun if I didn't select the bathroom tiles, if I didn't get the door handles?"

Yet he is, he muses, perhaps the only big-name architect with no projects in booming China. "I made a very conscious decision that I don't want to work there, for one simple reason: I lived under communism. And I don't feel good working in a society which is not democratic.

"Because I don't feel good when somebody gives me a site - and I, by the way, have more than 200 invitations," he adds, somewhat unnecessarily - " ‘Here's a site, build anything you want, it's a tabula rosa.' It's not right. It was not democratic process that created this site. We don't know what happened to the peasants that have been displaced. What are the ethics of building in a society that is not democratic?"

There are, he nods regretfully, a lot of vanity buildings going up in China with none of the careful resonance of place he tries to imbue in his complex designs. Still, he won't go there. "Not because I cannot get in touch with China, I love Chinese culture and I love Chinese architecture, too. I really think that the global carelessness is not a carelessness of aesthetics - I think it's ethical. Of course, you're going to make money, you say China's changing. But I have qualms about building for a society that is not free."

Not that he shrinks from politics.

In Berlin, shortly after he'd won the job, the Senate voted unanimously to scrap the Jewish Museum project. But he and Nina, the daughter of a Canadian political activist, lived 12 years in Germany to see the contested museum built.

As for masterminding the $10 billion World Trade center reconstruction, he admits, "It's a fractious, very tense operation with many stakeholders who are at odds with each other. You've got the governor of New York, the governor of New Jersey, the mayor of New York, the investors with their money and their architects, you've got the Port Authority of New York and its own interests, you've got the families of the victims . . ."

But to Mr. Libeskind's way of thinking, "architecture is much more than building buildings. It's everything. It's history. It's ideas.

"It's a musical art . . . it's a tactile art, it's a kinetic art, it's actually a spiritual art, because it's about development of something that goes beyond just a soaring . . . the soaring spiritual sense that a building can communicate."

He's never liked those abstract buildings that don't have a story to tell. "Not every project is profoundly rooted in memory as a museum or Ground Zero, but even a residential building on a site in Jerusalem or Toronto . . . has something to say about where it is and why it is there.

"Even the most banal box tells you a story," he shrugs. "A very short one: I've nothing to tell you."

Mr. Libeskind is a natural storyteller. Born in Warsaw to parents who survived the Holocaust, his grandfather was an itinerant shtetl storyteller.

When he divined his Berlin museum concept of overlaying a six-pointed star onto the city of Berlin, he says, "It wasn't that I wanted a clever way to design something. I actually said, what does it mean to make a building . . . across the erasure of Jewish life in Germany?"

As for his Ground Zero plan, "I was trying to tell the story of the memory of that site, that that site is not business as usual in the busy city of New York, that it's a site that has spiritual significance forever.

"At the same time I wanted to tell the story of the resurgence of that site right down from the bedrock to its 1776 symbolic date," he says, citing his proposal for the Freedom Tower, echoing the shape of the Statue of Liberty, to be 1776 feet high.

A sense of place is crucial. So, then, he is asked, how does a Vineyard architect celebrate the region without building more and more Cape Cod-style houses? Mr. Libeskind is empathetic.

"Every place I've every worked in, people love what they have. They don't want anything else. Every place is threatened by anything new - it's universal. Whether you're in Singapore, Warsaw, Dresden, Milan, people don't generally want anything new to happen.

"And I think I understand it, because there is a lot at stake to history. You don't want to spoil it, you don't want to be dominated by something that is not part of your own growing up.

"But it is a balance. How do you produce something new?

"Without anything new what would the world be?"

The world, he smiles, a twinkle turning his eyes to curves again, is not finished.