You started as an architect late in life, right?
I opened my office when I was 44. I’ve had many interests. I was a virtuoso musician. I painted. I loved mathematics. I drifted into architecture because it combined all my fields. People said, “You’ll never be an architect. You just have paper drawings.” We should not underestimate the power of ideas. And it takes time to develop ideas.
When did you know you’d found a passion?
My very first projects were the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Felix Nussbaum Museum. Both of them opened when I was over 50. I always say, “It’s good to be a late bloomer because there is no purpose in rushing.” It’s better not to go with the crowd but to strike off on your own. Of course, it’s an adventure. It’s not always easy, but in the end you have an original door into your interests.
What are you trying to do with your new buildings for older people in New York?
They will be some of my most important buildings because they deal with reality, affordability and how to make a life after the pandemic.
Were architectural problems a factor in nursing home COVID-19 contagions?
The kind of spread that we saw at the nursing homes was inevitable. It was kind of an imprisonment and often a sentence of terrible things for the people who came to these homes.
For people who are older, what are the most important parts of a residence?
You have to make a building that is easy to navigate, that is easy to enter. Of course, to me, it’s less about functionality, about here is the best kitchen, here is the best bathroom, here is the best sink. It’s about creating a total environment, a sense of home. I never believed that the home is like a machine, like a robot. A home is something spiritual.
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How can we make these kinds of buildings more human?
I’m working on a cancer-care facility in London. It’s not just a factory or an industry of illnesses. It’s a place to acknowledge that people have depth. Even if they have a bad diagnosis, they need to share it, to have a space that is private and a space for a kitchen for dinner with other people, a space to do yoga, a space to read a book, and so on. Again, it’s very close to my heart, not just because of my age but because that’s the humanistic tradition of architecture that I have always believed in.
What wisdom have you acquired later in life?
I’ve turned 75. I’ve learned that it takes time to be young. When you’re really young, you act really old. You have these limited ideas of the world, like an old man. But when you live longer and have some perspective and love, of course, for kids and grandkids, then you realize that the world is a joy. It’s a wonder to be alive.
What drew you to the Tree of Life project?
They came and murdered Jews in a synagogue. It shocked me because when we came to this country, we believed we came to a country where Jews are free to be Jews, where there is no violence and people can practice their religion and their beliefs. That’s what drew me to Pittsburgh.
What are your dreams for that assignment?
You have to create something that affirms Jewish life in America, that affirms that we are an integral part of the very fabric of this country.
You were a master planner behind the Freedom Tower to commemorate 9/11. What did that mean for you?
History is a testament to those who are not there to testify as witnesses any longer. At ground zero, for example, think about some 3,000 people, from all walks of life, who perished. It’s a testament to create memories as an urban space. Monuments are for those who don’t know or haven’t experienced the history.
What are you most proud of with that project?
I wanted the maximum amount of public space possible. And I achieved it. Because out of the 16 acres, more than half — more than 8 acres — is space for the public. It’s a place for people to come: You can have lunch, meet your friends. You can exit from the subways and come and have a sense that it’s a meaningful place.
How has being the child of Holocaust survivors shaped your work?
I grew up in Poland in Lodz, a city that had hundreds of thousands of Jews. There was nobody [Jewish] left. It taught that you should never give in to authoritarianism. You should never bow your head to fear.
Do you still believe in the American dream?
Yes, I am a true believer. Of course, the dream is very vulnerable.
And you try to project that in your work?
Architecture is not just about bricks and mortar and nice objects. It’s about ethics. It’s about others and not about you.
Interview by John W. Miller a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal correspondent