DURING A RECENT lecture at Toronto's ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM, Daniel Libeskind took the podium and ran away with it. Before a standing-room-only crowd, the diminutive American architect delivered a stream-of-consciousness speech that was more freestyle rap than explanation of his designs for the museum's avant-garde, $200-million facelift. In fact, he barely mentioned the ROM at all. Instead, the museum's modernizer (and proud winner of the universe's best-known architectural commission, the World Trade Center site in New York City), spent his 45-minute set addressing the cosmopolitan gathering in one long, breathless sentence. That sentence flirted with music, memory, the book of Exodus, the birth of mankind and, of course, the meaning of life - restlessly flitting from one subject to the next without settling to explore any of them. There was the pervasive sense that the man's mind simply moves too fast to be constrained by an audience's fund of general knowledge, and Libeskind does not condescend. If he weren't so well-educated, it would be reasonable to question whether he knows the meaning of the word.

Despite most of his talk being located in the Alpha Centauri regions of far-out academic discourse, the crowd liked him. He got laughs when he joked about a conversation he'd had with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, nods when discussing how Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum fundamentally altered ARCHITECTURE in New York, and thoughtful silence when touching on why his design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin was a shattered Magen David, the six-pointed star on the Israeli flag. It was a stunning display of intellectual pyrotechnics. It was also terribly confusing, but that didn't seem to matter very much. That his audience stayed with him is a measure of the man's charisma, and also speaks to his new-found social status. Daniel Libeskind is famous now - not just a little famous, a lot famous.

Clad in his customary black ensemble, wraparound French glasses and cowboy boots ("I bought them because they were good proof I was in Montana; they were so comfortable I never got out of them!"), he radiated self-assurance at the podium. And why not? This is his moment. He knows it. "You have to be lucky to be doing whatever it is that is interesting to you," Libeskind says in a light Eastern European accent that betrays his Polish birth. "I often tell my students, 'Don't worry about success. Do what you love and you will never fail because you will always be doing what you love to do.' "

On Wednesday, May 28, the ROM breaks ground for the construction of the Michael A. Lee-Chin Crystal building. Libeskind's jagged structure looks like an iceberg, and will envelop portions of the heritage buildings in sharp shards of steel and glass. He says he was inspired by the ROM's crystal collections, and sketched his first plans for the building on napkins from the museum's restaurant. Construction of Libeskind's Crystal is slated for completion by December 2005, and will generate both 40,000 sq. feet of new exhibition space and a publicity blitz. The ROM hopes that the refurbishing, which also includes renovating the existing buildings by the end of 2006, will attract some 1.6 million visitors per year, more than double its current attendance.

Although previously distinguished in architectural circles, Libeskind hit the celebrity jackpot on Feb. 26, 2003, when his firm, Studio Daniel Libeskind, which he operates with his Ottawa-born wife, Nina, was selected by New York's Lower Manhattan Development Corporation as the design team of the new World Trade Center site. That announcement vaulted his name into the pantheon of architects who are common cocktail-party fodder, like Mies van der Rohe or Gehry. Libeskind's WTC design, called "Memory Foundations," features New York's tallest building (1,776 feet - a reference to America's year of independence) while retaining the seven-storey-deep "bathtub" left by the original buildings. And it's spoken of with the same reverence that Frank Gehry, the Toronto-born ex-pat who is currently working on an extension for the Art Gallery of Ontario, enjoyed after completing his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

At the ROM lecture, museum president William Thorsell noted that the institution had picked Libeskind to lead the museum's buildings out of their fortress-like past and into their post-modern future exactly a year to the day before the architect received word from New York. "To create a museum that is outgoing, that is a beacon, a magnet, a destination, will have a huge impact on the identity and economy of Toronto," the 57-year-old architect says. "People will come. Land values will go up. Suddenly, it's a quantum leap." Thorsell agrees: "You'll come back in 2005 or 2006, and have the sense that we have one of the world's great museums here. And you're going to be in one of the world's most interesting architectural environments, no question about it."

Both the ROM's glacial redesign and the construction at Ground Zero are political hot buttons. Where the former entails a drastic overhaul of one of Canada's premier cultural institutions, the latter memorializes the destruction of the Twin Towers. Civic architecture inevitably galvanizes public debate, and Libeskind's audacious designs have led some critics to foam at the mouth. In a Globe and Mail column last year, Ray Conlogue wrote that the Crystal, although "undeniably beautiful," is "actually more closely related to Godzilla" and that "it breathes disrespect. It seems to actively dislike [the old ROM]. It is an ego looking for more room." In February, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp dismissed the WTC design as "stunted" and "predictably kitsch."

Earlier this month, the Ground Zero design was subject to a stinging attack from architect Eli Attia, who, in an interview with the New York Times, called it "a national embarrassment." Attia, who had his own plans for the site, noted that one of Libeskind's central elements - the "Wedge of Light," which was supposed to illuminate a plaza at the site between 8:46 a.m. and 10:28 a.m. each Sept. 11 (commemorating the period from when the first plane hit to when the second tower crumbled) - would actually be shadowed by buildings. In an Internet screed titled "The nine lies of Daniel Libeskind," Attia writes: "Rather than answering death with life, Libeskind's Wedge thus turns Ground Zero into a perpetual mouthpiece for al-Quaeda's [sic] last word: Shadow conquering the light." Libeskind responded by admitting that shadows would extend across the plaza, and that he had never intended to give any impression otherwise.

The architect has never shied away from projects that are as potentially explosive as smoking while pumping gas, and he's known for such politically difficult enterprises as the contemporary extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (his "Spiral" is a contemporary, steel-and-ceramic edifice connected by bridges to the V & A's more reserved buildings), and Berlin's Jewish Museum, whose design emphasizes the Third Reich's Jewish genocide. Libeskind, who is Jewish, spent the first two decades of his professional career teaching architecture. The Jewish Museum in Berlin was the late-bloomer's first building - he designed it when he was 43.

Born in Lodz, Poland, Libeskind is the son of Holocaust survivors. His parents left Europe in 1957, settling briefly in Israel before moving to New York. "My father once counted that we lost 85 people to the Holocaust in his family," Libeskind says. Berlin's Jewish Museum - a frightening, uncomfortably askew, zinc-and-concrete structure - opened to the public on Sept. 10, 2001, attracting over 200,000 visitors in its first two months. Many of Libeskind's New York relatives had travelled to Germany for the ceremony and were grounded in the no-flight aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. "I have deep connections to New York," Libeskind says. "My brother-in-law worked for the Port Authority for 30 years in the towers. I went to school at Cooper Union, right next to the towers. My father worked right next to the towers for 35 years. As I watched it, it wasn't something abstract - it wasn't something that happened far away to some other people. It happened to me."

Noting the emotional resonance between the Holocaust and 9/11, Nina Libeskind says that for her husband, "[The Jewish Museum] was not an intellectual project. Likewise, as a New Yorker, when he went down into the pit to look at Ground Zero, he immediately understood what he wanted to accomplish."

Libeskind's ties to Toronto also run deep. Earlier this year he was named the Frank Gehry International Visiting Chair at the University of Toronto, where he also taught in the '70s. His wife is the daughter of NDP co-founder David Lewis and sister of Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader who now works for the UN in Africa. The couple jokes that they are "welded at the hip," and is often compared in the press to Mike Myers' "Sprockets" characters from Saturday Night Live - Nina also wears all-black ensembles, though her hair is slightly shorter than her husband's and her job description is vastly different. She negotiates the Studio's contracts, solves political disputes and, she says, "keeps Daniel laughing." They will soon be based in New York, and have three children, two sons in their 20s and a teenage daughter. "I'll tell you a funny story," Libeskind says. "We were having lunch with [New York] Governor Pataki and Mr. Seymour, the head of the Port Authority. The governor said to Mr. Seymour, 'So are you negotiating a contract with Mr. Libeskind?' and he said, 'No, that would have been easy. I'm going to be arm wrestling with Nina.' And the Governor says, 'I know.' "

Nina reinforces the sense that her husband is the visionary while she's the more practical one. "Our sons will call him up from around the world just to discuss one line from a poem by Emily Dickinson. After 10 minutes, I say, 'You could have bought 20 books for this price.' He's like that in our office also, I swear to you. He'll be talking about door handles, or how the wall hits the floor, or baseboards, and suddenly he'll discuss a moment of Proust. That's the way he thinks about architecture. That's the way he thinks about the world."

Yet Libeskind insists he's attuned, and accountable, to the public. "I'm not in some studio like an old-fashioned architect, sitting behind a big desk in a corporate office in a penthouse - I'm on the streets," he says. "At the same time, I have to deliver a project with integrity, which I take responsibility for. No one ever composed a symphony by a team. You couldn't get Beethoven's Fifth Symphony by having 50 people around a table saying what it should be."

The most unshakeable criticism Libeskind engenders is that he does death very well, an unfortunate association for a man so steeped in creating buildings that house public life. Although he's working on several projects that don't commemorate grave events - a shopping mall in Switzerland, a media centre in Hong Kong - the architect has been typecast. The fame he earned from the success of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, his Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England, and the WTC commission is a double-edged sword.

He knows this too, and rails against it. "Architecture is not about death at all," he says. "It's to show hope! Out of death's condition, out of the darkness, to show that humanity not only survives but that humanity can come out of it with a new understanding and a new will to live, and celebrate life! You could not be an architect if you wanted to focus on the negative, because architecture is always about the positive. It's about reaffirmation, construction, making something. That's the root of the word 'poetry!' It means 'to make something.' "

Maclean's May 26, 2003