Wheels and towers

Daniel Libeskind became a celebrity when he was selected, amidst much controversy and eventual, bitter infighting, to provide the master architectural plan for Ground Zero. But before that, he was a minor hero of mine for orchestrating the construction of a funky 16th century contraption called the “reading wheel,” basically a precursor of modern hypertext. Libeskind’s studio took great pains to reproduce this machine:

“To try to become the pure medieval craftsman — that’s really the object of this exercise … So we did it that way. We got up at the crack of dawn, four o’clock in the morning. We built this machine in a small place without any power tools, just with hand tools; with no electricity, just with candlelight. We went to bed early because with candlelight you can’t work late. And we did it in silence because there is nothing to talk about when you work like that.”


One wonders if real students of Libeskind’s style and oeuvre could chart a linkage between his interest in the reading wheel and the twisting, aerie-like Freedom Tower. Perhaps it is the turbines in the lattice at the top of the structure? (Not sure about that one; didn’t Skidmore add that?) Who knows, but I like the tower better for it.

The wheel itself, though not Libeskind’s version, pops up from time to time in literature and art. Richard Lester used some version of the wheel as a pratfall prop in his Three Musketeers. And, most recently, in The Confusion Neal Stephenson uses the wheel, called a Bücherrad, as a literary device (literally) in the lab of Gottfried Leibniz. Wheel on over to Amazon and read a bit.

Elegantly primitive, technologically advanced, but most of all beautiful in how it addresses a simple need, the wheel is truly captivating. If Libeskind achieves half that with his tower at Ground Zero he’ll have accomplished quite a lot.