Daniel Libeskind looks back on his time being taught by Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Joseph Rykwert, Dalibor Vesely and more

Daniel Libeskind: Essex to New York

Where do you currently teach and in what capacity do you teach there?

I’m not teaching anywhere, because it’s not possible to fully commit to teaching and be fully passionate about your practice. I’ve spent much time teaching in my life, but not any longer. I still lecture world-wide, and have been a professor or head of school on almost every continent – from Japan to the United States.

To what degree did you find teaching to be a reciprocal exchange between tutor and student, teaching and learning from each other?

If a teacher doesn’t learn more from students than he gives, he’s not a teacher. I’ve learnt from students around the world, an experience that has really broadened my practice. The beauty of teaching is to learn, listen, and absorb experiences from creative young people.

How much has teaching clarified and expanded your understanding of architecture and the design process?

Half my life I taught without being in a so-called ‘practice’, Practice could be very boring and stifle creativity, whereas teaching is not like that because you’re with people interested in new ideas. Teaching is not escapism, but a way of doing architecture without the pressures of finance or business Teaching offers freedom to think, because, to be a student is not just to learn a profession, it is to be free and think freely. People go to school and think they’re going there to get a job. That’s wrong. The most important thing when you’re a student or a teacher is the chance to gain some freedom from the world, to be free from boredom, from stupidity and convention.

When did you start teaching?

Very early on in my professional life. I tried to work for some architects, even some famous architects, for one or two days but it wasn’t for me. I was lucky that somebody offered me a teaching job – it was my first job. I had never taught before.

And can you remind me where that was?

The University of Kentucky, Lexington.

And was that a full-time position?

Oh, yes. I was an assistant professor and, in time, a full professor. But I never got tenure because I never stayed six years in one job. In all the decades of teaching, I always quit just before I qualified for tenure.

How old were you when you took that position?

I was 30 years old.

Did you have a formulated approach when you started teaching? How did it crystallise, or maybe start crystallising, through teaching?

Well, first I treated the school as a laboratory of creativity for the students, and myself: not repeating lessons of the past; not applying formulas for how to be successful; but questioning the foundations of architecture. Why did buildings look a certain way? Who said we should live in a box? Where does all that come from? And, of course, that requires an insight into history, into tradition, understanding where we come from, where we can go.

What would you say were the most important lessons you learnt as a student?

I was lucky to be with some great teachers: John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier at the Cooper Union; then Joseph Rykwert and Dalibor Vesely at the University of Essex. I had teachers who let me rebel against everything, including them. I must have been very annoying, rebelling against their teaching. But I was a good student. I wasn’t rebelling to waste time and my teachers understood that, allowing creativity to flourish. If I’d been in a less independent school, maybe I would have been kicked out.

How much is your approach to architecture still shaped by those who taught you? And do you see yourself as extending their legacy as you teach?

Wow, it’s much more than a legacy. It’s part of my very being. Studying under Joseph Rykwert at Essex; what a genius – a man who could read almost every language and understand history in such a deep, meaningful way. Meanwhile Dalibor Vesely had a brilliant philosophical mind. When I left the Cooper Union in New York, I had a professional degree, but t was totally ignorant because all I did was architecture for five years. On leaving I could venture out and really learn and see things in a different way. I spent my time in Essex, reading and meditating and studying 24 hours a day. I built up a library of thousands of books. Joseph and Dalibor profoundly influenced my life, in every way – how they thought and how they were. They were committed to architecture, but from different perspectives, not just from that of practice, but from a perspective of archaeology, history and philosophy.

And so what made you go to Essex from New York? It’s quite a jump.

It’s a big jump, yes. John Hejduk told me, ‘There is this guy, Joseph Rykwert, doing some research about the idea of the street and of the house, and he has this programme which no one is on right now. And there’s some weird Czech philosopher too’.  I think I was the first person on that course. I was not interested in going to Harvard, Yale, all those schools. This course was interesting and so far away from the centre of what people were currently doing.

What was the dynamic between Joseph and Dalibor?

Well, they were trying to shift architecture to a different place – and they did. It’s funny how just a couple of people can change five students – a group of misfits there, either by accident or whatever. Joseph Rykwert’s first project in his class was about Greek architecture, the position of triglyphs, the problem of the corner of Greek architecture. Now, that sounds very esoteric, right? Who wants to learn about that? But the way it was taught blew my mind. What I once thought was incredibly boring was now incredibly interesting. Later he and Dalibor introduced me to Edmund Husserl, to phenomenology, and to German thinkers, Heidegger – who had even taken these seriously in the 1970s? And then we discussed how all that changed our understanding of the world. At the time, it felt like being part of a revolution.

What are the similarities and differences between leading a design team in practice and teaching in studio?

Very similar, both involve open creative processes. You have to empower people in both sorts of studio, there is no hierarchy. Everybody’s the same and sometimes someone you don’t expect comes up with the most incredible idea. They might not have the tools to explore it, but they’re part of a team who does. But when you’re designing and drawing up a building in practice, you’ve got tremendous responsibility. It’s a legal document, among other things. The philosopher Jacques Derrida told me: ‘I can publish something on the internet and anybody can help me. But what you do, even a small house needs a legal permit’. But other than that, there is a door of discovery in both the studio and office.

Would you say there was anything missing from your education looking back on it?

No, I feel privileged that I went, first of all, to a full scholarship school. I came from a working-class background; my parents were good secretaries. I didn’t have any money to go to the Ivy League schools. And I’m so glad I did that. I went to a school, the Cooper Union, that had working working-class kids. Most architects start by building a house for their uncle or their parents. But I didn’t have that in my family or circle. People just worked in factories. So, I started in a different way. That had a big impact on how I saw the world and architecture. It meant I didn’t drift towards working for big companies with big salaries. That was kind of repulsive to me. I wanted a path that would lead me to architecture in a different way.

Lets go back to your time at the Cooper Union with John Hejduk. What was he trying to instill in students then?

He and all the teachers there, even the young Richard  Scofidio at the time, were trying to instill the same thing. The school was based on a rebellion against the corruption of corporate practice. Basically, they said, ‘We hope you’re not interested in designing those horrible buildings you see outside, which are all the same and all boring. We hope you’re interested in the ideas of architecture’. The Cooper Union was opposed to the ideas of other schools of the time – it was about looking at forms and the past in a different way. It instilled a different path, not about the business of architecture, but about the idea of it.

What would you say is one of the most important things architecture students should be learning about right now in the context of the contemporary?

You have to reject society as it is now, the society of authoritarians, the society that exploits nature, that accepts income inequality, reject the society that makes buildings just for the rich. Architects must have a social sense. But architecture is about drawing, too. Everything comes out of a drawing, even the little people you put in. Architects need a love of drawing, of tradition, learning from the great masters of architecture; not just the contemporary masters, but the ancient masters too. That’s what Joseph and Dalibor made very clear; they focused on the ancient mastery of the mind and the hand, and brought so much to my experience and research. So, again, I think to be creative is to be free and not to be funneled into practice immediately. You’ve got to be patient. For so many years, decades, people thought I was wasting my time not practicing. As far as I was concerned, I was studying architecture.

Do you have any other comments on how teaching has informed your practice or how practice has informed your teaching?

Definitely. Teaching is a form of practice in the sense that there is an experimental aspect. That’s what it’s about. It’s an experiment. It’s questioning whether it’s good to be such an expert. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, the definition of an expert is someone who has stopped thinking because [they think]  they know too much. And you teach because you want to learn, because you know you don’t know ‘too much’.