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Daniel Libeskind
December 2006

One of the first things that stands out when meeting Daniel Libeskind is that he doesn’t act like a Hollywood version of someone with a stellar international reputation. Far from it.

The renowned architect and designer of the Aura luxury high-rise condo tower being built on Capitol Mall is an open and friendly man seemingly comfortable with himself. He feels no need to play the role of god of architecture.

But he could if he felt like it. Just check out his resume: In 2003, he won the design competition to complete a master plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Since then, however, he’s lost sway on the project, with his ideas largely ignored by architects assigned to the five buildings at ground zero. Still, that hasn’t dimmed the impact of the long list of signature buildings he’s designed worldwide.

He designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin. And his work on the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is under construction. He’s designed eye-popping buildings in cities on three continents, including Mallorca, London, Copenhagen, Seoul, Tel Aviv, Milan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Boston, Denver and Toronto. And in summer 2008, the newly finished 38-story, $200 million Aura building will be his contribution to Sacramento’s changing downtown skyline. Aura will have 265 condos of varying sizes on one acre and will rise 400 feet.

Like Johnny and Roy
The 60-year-old celebrity architect, born in postwar Poland, has a signature look. Like Johnny Cash, he dresses in black. And like another country music icon, Roy Orbison, he favors thick-rimmed, black rectangular glasses. He met Aura’s developer Craig Nassi, president of BCN, five years ago while working on projects in Denver. Nassi brought him in to design his Capitol Mall condo high rise.

In summer 2005, Libeskind sat down with Nassi and knocked around some design ideas for the Sacramento project. Libeskind came up with a draft design. Nassi asked for another try. Libeskind came back with another rendering. Still, Nassi wasn’t buying. Once again, Libeskind returned to his drafting table.

“It evolved,” Libeskind says of Aura’s design. “We discussed many things. Nassi made it incredibly clear that it could not be just another building. It had to have shape, a sculptural form, be a visible icon.”

In short, Nassi wanted a Libeskind original. “His designs are one of a kind,” says Nassi. “I wanted something totally different, unique on the skin.” At the same time, the design had to be practical and present no obstacle to using simple, economical core construction methods.

Libeskind’s third design, which features sweeping curves along the building’s facades and works with standard construction methods, was just what Nassi sought.

Libeskind says in designing the Aura building, his goals were “to create a high-rise with a restaurant, an incredible lobby, a new skyline; a spectacular place where people will be able to live and have views of the city.”

Libeskind had visited Sacramento several times before doing this project. “I didn’t see it as a cow town,” he says, “but as an incredible destination.” As an architect on a project here, he says the challenge is: “How do you bring attractiveness to it?”

Rick Harper is the local architect with Stantec Inc. who is collaborating with Libeskind on the Aura project. The pairing set up by Nassi is a career highlight for Harper. He’s worked in Sacramento over the last 25 years, with high-rise experience that includes the Renaissance Tower downtown.

Harper and Stantec are providing the Aura building’s mechanical and electrical engineering and its landscape architecture. Sacramento’s Buehler & Buehler is providing the structural engineering.

Aura’s core will have a twin stairway, winding side by side, double-helix-style, for space efficiency. Centered for structural stability, the stairs, elevators and lobby will be encased by concrete 30 inches thick. Such high-rise structural design, emerging from what was learned from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, is the first of its kind in California.

Fun, Not Egocentric
Recalling their experience working together in 2005, Harper remembers Libeskind being impressed by the energy he felt in Sacramento. “He considers it a very positive place,” he says, adding, “What we found in working with Daniel is that he is not egocentric. He’s very collaborative and fun to work with.”

The Libeskind-designed Aura and several other downtown high-density residential developments are new to Sacramento. Homebuilders here have traditionally built neighborhoods of single-family residences farther and farther away from Sacramento’s downtown, resulting in ever-more sluggish freeway commutes.

Libeskind sees the shift back to downtown living as something locals will increasingly want. The preference for a relatively car-free urban life, he says, can be helped along by “creating a connection” to an amenities-filled urban center operating 24/7. With that in place, he says, comes a kind of epiphany: “People realize they’re just driving back and forth in a car from home to work to a city that is cool and sophisticated, where everything is available to a pedestrian.”

As a Manhattanite, Libeskind doesn’t see high-density living as anything but a source of energy and invigoration. In Sacramento, he says, people who decide to move from the suburbs to downtown in search of a better life are the catalysts for bringing in schools, retail and culture.

“We’re living in a time when living in suburbia is kind of old-fashioned,” he says. “There is almost a global renaissance of cities. It has to do with sustainability of natural resources. This is a responsible way of cutting energy costs.”

Having Aura as a new addition to the local skyline is a sparkling magnet for more downtown amenities, says Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. Ault’s office fields about five calls weekly from suburban residents in the region wondering where they might live downtown with access to amenities.

And so, the seeds of the great migration to urban Sacramento have been sown. At least for those who may have more than a few bucks in their pockets.

It Takes a Neighborhood
“We felt all along that in order for us to be truly successful in achieving an active downtown on evenings and weekends, it has to be with residents that call it a neighborhood,” says Ault, adding that includes neighbors of various incomes, not just well-off folks.

He figures it will take a “collective” of new downtown projects to bring about an urban core that stays lively on nights and weekends, adding that the Aura will help push ahead other downtown projects. He points to the development of the K Street mall and the longdelayed move of the Greyhound bus station on L Street, among other examples.

These days, he’s encouraged by the quickened pace of new downtown projects approved by the city of Sacramento. And, with a Libeskind building added to the mix, he sees another plus: prospects for Sacramento to heighten its national profile. “He’s got significant recognition,” says Ault. “The Kings are a great example. They increased the city’s name recognition tenfold.”

For Libeskind’s part, he says, “My goal is to build a great building and to treat each place as a unique possibility. The building has to be sensible relative to the site, to the atmosphere of the site, the sky and the light. A simple, uniquely designed building can cause people to see the city in a very different way.”