On Building

Demons as Muses
(Part 5 in a Series)

This article appeared in the October 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

When the past haunts us, it rarely feels like a boon to creativity. Old, unresolved issues can stifle confidence, sap energy, cloud perceptions and prevent us from presenting our talents in a full, unmediated way. How unusual, then, that Berkeley architect Dan Liebermann, 76, draws on deep pain as a fertile source of inspiration.

In my March column, I described his soaring elliptical houses, which feel much bigger than they are. The May column examined the way his architecture unifies opposites: small and big, narrow and fat, heavy and light, rough and smooth, yin and yang. These contrasts create a dynamic space, but Liebermann aims to make far more than an aesthetic statement.

He also seeks to resolve the conflicts that worked their way into his core for decades while his parents took their unhappiness out on each other. “Absurdly different” from each other, his mother was a frustrated medical genius and a firebrand, his father a phlegmatic civil engineer. “They gave it to each other,” Liebermann told me. “I had an inside front box seat into the opera of human struggle.”

The impact on him became apparent in the mid-1970s, just before his mother died. Liebermann, then about 45, repeatedly had nightmares reflecting deep-seated turmoil. In these dreams, he says, “The energy between my parents was so completely negating, it eviscerated my entire personality. It completely sucked out my ego, my will.” He likens the experience to being caught between two big magnets, the forces “castrating you, neutralizing you, taking the juice out of you.”

He says this family pain “caused a tremendous need for integration and synthesis in me,” launching a lifelong quest to reconcile contradictory components in his architecture, “to find a commonality in opposites or a meaning in opposites.” Liebermann explains, “To create something to balance the negative, I had to do something equally complexly positive.”

Liebermann maintains that his architecture ties together “economy and yet harmony, beauty and frugality, energy and quiet, peace and dynamics, revelation but restfulness, spirituality but also neutrality.” He notes, “Architecture can be quite animated and deep in this respect. I think my buildings express these tensions and the vibration of life.” He observes, for instance, that ample skylights open homeowners’ eyes to the shifting of light and shadow throughout the day and year.

His buildings also tie together disparate, found materials. An inveterate scavenger, Liebermann salvages junk because it’s a cheaper and more environmentally conscious way to build. When people tear down mansions and high school gyms, he shows up to claim the lumber. Frequenting reuse centers, such as Urban Ore in Berkeley, he delights in finding a stainless steel prison toilet or a $5 door. In one Mill Valley house by Liebermann, the skylights originated as airplane windows, including the navigator bay of a B16 Flying Fortress. Like a bird, he gathers these treasures and weaves them into a tight nest.

Moreover, the buildings draw together his beliefs about perception, sustainability, efficiency, communalism and more. “I learned to survive by synthesizing all my visions and all my dreams,” he says.

In Liebermann’s mind, his houses can heal their occupants, not just the architect. “I think of the house as a great nurturing place for families,” he says. “I believe dysfunctionality can be healed by a salutary architecture.” While acknowledging that this “may be naive and idealistic,” he attributes poor family dynamics to the way our culture “derails” us from a deep, creative fulfillment, thereby stifling dreams, hopes, ideas and the imagination. If so, one could conclude that an abundantly creative atmosphere would help resurrect those atrophied parts of the personality, reducing frustration and aggression.

Liebermann, who has been building a hillside colony in Inverness Park (Marin County) since 1996, plans to make some of the space available for political conflict resolution. He feels that his buildings lend themselves to that type of activity: “My architecture is conflict resolution.”

According to Liebermann, architecture frequently springs from people’s need to exercise demons: “Architects are liars when they say, ‘Oh, we’re professional. We do this for the public.’” His voice cracking as it rose an octave, he said, “Bullshit! Artists are artists because they’re self-therapeutizing. Look at Vincent van Gogh. The guy was a psychopath unless he painted. I may not be that bad, but I think serious artists do function that way. They reconcile, they pacify, they harmonize.”

Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.

For my other writing about Dan Liebermann:

Oct. 2006 Builder/Architect column: “Turning Frustrations into Creative Freedom”
March 2007 Builder/Architect column: “Defying Perspective”
May 2007 Builder/Architect column: “A Union of Opposites”
July 2003 San Francisco Chronicle profile: “Life Ahead of the Curve”, as well as an accompanying sidebar about a colony Liebermann has built