My best teacher - Daniel Libeskind

12th September 2008 at 01:00
His mother and a classmate helped this architect learn English and think for himself

My parents, my elder sister and I had just arrived on the boat from Israel to New York, when I turned up at the Bronx Junior High School at the age of 14 unable to speak a word of English, and met Tony Roccanova.

This classmate - himself the son of Italian immigrants - set out to teach me English. It is to him that I attribute the fact that I learnt English so fast, which meant that I was able to make the most of what was on offer in the American education system.

Tony used to point at objects and make me tell him what they were in English. After school we would roam around and Tony would take me into diners, libraries and museums, constantly pointing at things around us for me to name.

I was born and brought up in Lodz, Poland, before leaving at the age of 11 for Israel, where I spent more than two years, so to me New York was a scary place.

The Bronx Junior High School was an awesome and frightening concrete and glass building. After the kibbutz and the small school I had been used to in Tel Aviv, it seemed enormous. I had never seen anything like it in my life.

Meeting Tony was an important experience for me. We drifted apart for a while since his excellent teaching meant that after two years I managed to get a place at the Bronx School of Science, which was full of bright pupils being trained to chase the Russians in the space race.

Strangely enough, although we went to different high schools, we both became architects and met again at the Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan. He is now a professor of architecture at the University of Kentucky. I still see him from time to time. I have a lot to thank him for.

There is no one else during my pre-university days who stands out for me as a teacher other than my mother. She was a powerful personality and a major influence on me. From her I learnt above all that it was a wise thing to be different.

Now I can see her objectively - she died in 1980. Small and dark, with prominent Jewish features, she came from a famous Hasidic religious family. On the outside she was a typical exploited worker who only spoke Yiddish and Polish and spent her days as a seamstress in the sweat shops in the Bronx. But back at home, she would read Nietzsche, poetry and the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

From her I learnt to follow what I believed in. I can remember in primary school in Lodz having to complete a drawing assignment to represent the life we lived. I got a low grade for my drawing in which I tried to show what life was really like for a small Jewish boy at the time.

The child with the top marks produced a saccharine drawing, which really upset me. My mother told me that despite my low grade I was on the right lines.

She had a flaming personality and never behaved in a normal way. She encouraged me to defy the teachers if I thought they were wrong.

To my mother I owe the fact that I ever became an architect. I was at the Bronx School of Science and feeling the lack of a cultural input in the curriculum there, although I loved mathematics too. I would spend all my spare time drawing and yearned to be an artist.

One Friday night as I sat in the kitchen drawing at the table and my mother cooked the evening meal, she said: "Daniel, why don't you become an architect, because you can be an artist if you are trained as an architect, but you can't be an architect if you train as an artist?"

Her notion was all about practicality, and it had never occurred to me. My only regret is that she never saw the completion of my first building or the development of my career. I have the feeling though that if she were here she would say she was not at all surprised - she always had faith in me.

Daniel Libeskind, 62, is a renowned architect. He designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. He won the competition for the masterplan to rebuild the World Trade Center site in New York. He was talking to Rachel Pugh.

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