TELLING STOREYS My work addresses not just the surfaces of things, but how architecture, urban space and buildings can tell a story, and how they can bring hope to often gloomy pasts. As a child of Holocaust survivors, who grew up under communist dictatorship in Poland, I didn't have to research these issues in the library - they're part of my own visceral past. I understand what it means to be free, what liberty and open space mean. Perhaps the fact that these themes have been so much a part of my life creates the resonance [with the public]. The Jewish Museum in Berlin [Germany] was my first building. I discovered that while it's relatively easy to win a competition with a design, it takes stamina to persevere with a difficult project. It's a marathon: capturing the spirit of a building and doing something beyond the average. It's a struggle, too, but it's a creative one. When you do something that's never been done, of course people raise their eyebrows. But when it's built, they realise that it's unprecedented. I've been asked to come back by many of my clients. Just across the street from the Jewish Museum I'm doing an additional educational facility, for example. And anyway, look at great composers. When Beethoven's Fifth [Symphony] was first performed it got miserable reviews. Great painters were considered to be doing ridiculous things; great books were often parodied. I think that in every creative art there is that need to express something and do it against the odds.
BUILDING A MEMORY My parents were working people in New York and, when creating the concept for [Freedom Tower at] Ground Zero, I pointed out that they would never have been in megatowers, but in the streets of New York, in its subways and public spaces, like most other people. The design is not just for the way it looks on a postcard, but about how it feels to working people in New York. What the streets should feel like and the urban space should feel like, that was uppermost in my mind. Every project I do is a personal project, not an assignment, so I have to have a connection to it and see that it deserves a unique answer. It's an absolutely gigantic responsibility, not just to the client, but to the public at large; to those no longer there and those who are yet to be born. I compete for projects with sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, but I am lucky to be selected often because those viewing see not only something practical that can be built, but they see virtue in the spaces, light and temperature; in the humanistic environment. Often architecture is described in terms of infrastructure and technology, but it is a humanistic art to me, like music, like jazz.
CREATIVE LICENCE Hong Kong is a fantastic city, and the Creative Media Centre [at City University] is exploring an industry that's emerging here. I liked the challenge of creating a building for creative people, quite literally thinking outside of boxes of formulas. The build- ing harnesses that energy in its technical spaces and the interaction between art- ists and creative technologies. It had to be a fundamental place of encounter, a building that gives you inspired perspectives on Hong Kong, the harbour, the mountains, but that gives the range, too, of intimacy and public-ness. Universities are a realm of free inquiry where everything can be asked, everything can be challenged, and that's why I still teach and lecture. It's great to debate, pose questions. I'm inspired by young people. They are the key to developing a new set of possibilities around the issues we're facing: how to sustain humanistic architecture in an expanding world, deal with shrinking resources and our density of living.
PERSONAL SPACE Burn-out is a danger; there are tough schedules and responsibilities. But I listen to music, I think, I meditate, and there are books by my bed. I draw on the go, so even during busy schedules, I find it necessary to find spaces that are really open, and that give you a chance to do or think about something totally different. And how could I do the work without listening to the music of Elizabethan England, to [composers] Tallis and Byrd, or to Nono, an Italian contemporary composer who's a great inspiration? Or reading a wonderful book? I'm also lucky to work with my wife and creative partner, Nina. She does many of the things I would not be happy doing. This gives me the chance to concentrate on the cultural aspect of the civic spaces that I'm asked to do, rather than the negotiations that are often tedious and at the same time very important. There's a lot of prosaic stuff in architecture.
SMALL CAN BE BEAUTIFUL I recently designed a small house in Connecticut [in the United States]. It was refreshing; I've never done a project that didn't have to go through community boards and please thousands of people. The clients came and I spoke with them, and thought they were really interesting people. They are highly educated artists and they said, 'We know art, we own it, and we want our house to be art, as well as filled with it.' I made a very small house and they like it very much: it has a beautiful stainless-steel exterior and a wooden interior. It was incredible, doing something so tiny in such a beautiful landscape. And I discovered that it's no easier doing something small; you use the same intensity on things such as putting a doorknob onto a door. People often come to me with difficult projects and almost no money, and it may take them years to gather the resources, and the building can go on. But architecture is not about immediate gratification and it must respond to others. We need more good housing, beautiful neighbourhoods, places for people to work, and it's a horizon of many challenges that I'm ready to take on. It's a social responsibility.