Daniel Libeskind

Starchitect receives honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster. Listen to Libeskind's acceptance speech below.

Daniel Libeskind is a ‘starchitect’. That’s what you call a man commissioned to rebuild Ground Zero, whose designs have been realised in Berlin and Manchester, Copenhagen and San Francisco, and who has won everything from the Goethe medal and the Hiroshima art prize, to the Venice Biennale.

Libeskind’s impressive litany of achievements has been recognised all over the world, and last week it was the turn of the University of Ulster (UU), which bestowed on him an honorary doctorate at a special ceremony at Belfast’s Art College.

‘Please stand for the academic procession,’ the MC bellowed as piped trumpets blasted and a solemn troupe of profs in what Withnail & I’s Danny would describe as ‘far out looking capes’ filed past a full house of students, lecturers and assorted media. With the fake flowers and ivy creepers strewn across the stage the whole scene had a carefree, registry office wedding feel.

Warming to the theme, Richard Barnett, vice chancellor of the UU, described Libeskind in suitably glowing terms. ‘He is a visionary architect,’ he said as the squat, craggy-faced New York resident smiled bashfully, his red gown bunched at his feet. ‘This is the first time that the University of Ulster has awarded a doctorate in Fine Arts,’ Barnett continued.

Libeskind’s award is part of a calendar of events to celebrate 160 years of the Art College, though the Polish-born architect chose to remember a different anniversary. ‘This is particularly meaningful today, Armistice Day. When we think of all the men and women who died for freedom,’ he began.

Fiercely intelligent and refreshingly catholic in his tastes, Libeskind’s point wasn’t just the need for remembrance.

‘Architecture cannot exist in a totalitarian environment. A building is something that speaks to the soul of a human being. It has to bring hope across an abyss, across uncertainty, across all the evil in this world.’

A Polish jew whose family suffered terribly in the Holocaust, Libeskind knows all too well the importance of freedom and liberty.

Libeskind became an architect relatively late in life – he was a celebrated virtuoso musician in his early years and had to wait until he was 52 to see his first building completed – but he embodies the noblest hopes of his profession.

‘Architecture is a language that communicates a story. I believe there can be no more optimistic art than architecture. You cannot be a pessimist and an architect. Architecture lays the foundations for all.’

During his brief acceptance speech Libeskind spoke of the commission for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which effectively made his career when he won it in 1989. Amazingly, the museum was finally opened on September 11, 2001. ‘It was fateful that it opened that day,’ said the man charged with bringing life to Ground Zero once again.

Libeskind, who also gave a masterclass to architecture students at the Art College, appeared genuinely enthused about Belfast and its second university. ‘What an incredible place, incredible university with its energy, transforming the city. And the history of the Troubles that so effected this part of the world. I believe in you and I believe in this university.’

One thing is for sure, the UU is in the process of transforming Belfast – plans are at an advanced stage to move their Jordanstown campus into the city centre. Though admittedly not everyone shares Libeskind’s benevolent view of the college’s intentions.

But such debates are for another day. A quote from Churchill, an expression of gratitude, a trumpet solo and Libeskind was gone. Doubtless off to some other city to evangelise about the power of architecture. And really, it's hard to imagine a more becoming starchitect.

Peter Geoghegan