Exclusive Look at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Building Redesign by Daniel Libeskind

After the mass murder in October 2018, the inimitable architect spent months speaking with survivors and victims’ families before drafting his design
aerial view of a building next to streets cars
An aerial rendering shows an angular roofline that’s dramatically cut in half by a skylight that Libeskind calls “the Path of Light.”Rendering: Courtesy of Lifang

Daniel Libeskind is no stranger to tragedy. The Polish American architect is best known for his crystalline designs that commemorate historical trauma, from the Jewish Museums in Berlin and Copenhagen to the World Trade Center master plan in New York. His latest project, though smaller in footprint, is perhaps more complex in scope: a new 45,000-square foot complex in Pittsburgh for a new national organization dedicated to ending antisemitism, simply called Tree of Life. It was there that on October 27, 2018—during morning prayer services for Shabbat—a gunman opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding 6 others, including several Holocaust survivors. It was the first mass murder of Jews on U.S. soil, shattering a congregation, a community, and the image of America as a haven from antisemitism. 

A rendering shows the exterior of the synagogue, which is located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Rendering: Courtesy of Lifang

For Libeskind, who is Jewish, the project is deeply personal. Tree of Life had been targeted because of its affiliation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which brought his family to the U.S. in 1959. He was selected as lead architect last year after an open call for proposals and spent months speaking with survivors and victims’ families. Although different in scale from the World Trade Center master plan, Libeskind says Tree of Life was similar in its challenges: “It wasn’t easy to bring all the different stakeholders to come together and to agree on all the aspects of the rebuilding.” 

The project was deeply personal for the architect, as the synagogue had been targeted because of its affiliation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which brought Libeskind’s family to the U.S. in 1959.

Rendering: Courtesy of Lifang

His design, which was unveiled today, features a new complex of event spaces and the merging of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Its angular roofline is cut dramatically in half by a skylight that Libeskind calls “the Path of Light,” unifying all spaces in the building and creating a sightline from one end to the other. The sun will cast dappled shadows onto a central hall through steel trusses. Each jagged form seeks to create beauty and strength from something that had been broken. 

A rendering shows what “the Path of Light,” as the architect calls it, will look like from within the space.

Rendering: Courtesy of Lifang

“It struck me like a bolt of lightning,” he says of his concept, citing God’s words in the Torah, “Let there be light.” Libeskind adds, “It’s an amazing, wondrous, and profound Jewish concept that there is light in darkness.” 

A portrait of Daniel Libeskind (75) in Munich.

Photo: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

Crucially, the building’s main frontage on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues will retain the historic limestone façade of the original sanctuary. Libeskind’s arresting designs are not the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a quiet, leafy suburb like Squirrel Hill, so the project required a delicate approach. “There is no other project that I’ve worked on like this,” he acknowledges, stating that, in such a residential neighborhood, the architecture has to be distinctive but “not in your face.” 

A sketch of the Tree of Life synagogue by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Sketch: Courtesy of Daniel Libeskind

When completed, in collaboration with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, the building aims to be a gathering space not just for the existing congregation but the broader community of Pittsburgh. The attack had targeted Jews, but also immigrants from various backgrounds. “I think I speak for every immigrant to this country, whatever their religion: It could have happened to them,” Libeskind says. “It’s a project that really touches on the ecumenical whole because there will be people from all walks of life coming to the Tree of Life for many different reasons. All sorts of joyous events.” To that end, he hopes, the new building “will be a seed of transformation and an affirmation of life.”