Influential architect and Inverness resident Daniel Liebermann died last Saturday due to complications stemming from either a heart attack or stroke. He was less than a month shy of his 85th birthday.
Dan was also a close friend of Sandy Jacobs, who passed away earlier this month.
Among his many professional achievements, Dan assisted with the construction of the Marin County Civic Center during the 1960s, as well as many other unique homes throughout the Bay Area. He apprenticed under American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Civic Center.
Despite Dan’s participation in that project, the body of his work focused predominantly on residential design and, for a number of years, furniture manufacturing for a cruise ship company in Norway. He is credited for creating the Radius House in Mill Valley, which reflects an organic architectural form that blends together structure and setting.
“He saw what houses should be and their relationship to the land and how people should live in them,” said Wanda Liebermann, Dan’s daughter, who is an architect living in Berkeley. “His physical creations started reflecting the density of his thinking, so that it was hard to start distinguishing between the space and the objects.”
Family and friends recall Dan as both a brilliant and unconventional man, even eccentric. He would comport himself in layers of wool clothing during summer heat, and kept a trove of artifacts—including old cars—at his home in Inverness.
In his latter years, Dan often attended weekly Thursday lunches hosted by West Marin Senior Services. There, as happened everywhere he went, he drew a dedicated following of people entranced by his wide intellectual knowledge and intrigued by his talents for oratory.
“He was very intelligent, so multifaceted in his life experiences,” said Susan Deixler, a care manager for West Marin Senior Services. “Sometimes you’d go crazy because he would kind of go off on tangents. But he was very passionate about his work and about doing things right.”
“And he loved living out here, up on the hill,” she added.
Born in West Orange, New Jersey, Dan’s family lived in Princeton before enrolling him in New York’s prestigious and private Fieldston School. His father was an engineer who often worked overseas on assignments, while his mother conducted laboratory research on malaria. Dan was the middle son of three children.
During his college days, Dan studied at many of the country’s most prestigious institutions. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, then pursued a masters at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design before dropping out and taking up sculpture classes in Boulder, Colo. But it wasn’t until he approached Frank Lloyd Wright directly and convinced the famous architect to accept him as a pupil at the Taliesen Preservation, in Wisconsin, that the path toward a career in architecture was laid out.
“I had written two or three years earlier [to Taliesen], and I got a letter from the secretary that there was a long waiting list,” Dan said in a recent interview with Marin Magazine. “But I went and asked Wright directly, and the fact that I had come all the way from Boulder—he sort of visualized that I had come on a horse and buggy or something—impressed him.”
In 1960, Dan began working for a landscape architecture firm in Marin County. That’s where he met his future wife, Eva, a likeminded landscape architect from Germany who earned her master’s degree in Hanover and worked for Frankfurt’s planning office. After the firm closed, he designed and completed the Radius House in 1962 on two contiguous parcels in Mill Valley. On that property, Dan developed two separate houses—one for his parents, who financed the purchase of the land, and one for himself and Eva, who gave birth there to two of their three children, Ben and Wanda.
Aside from serving as his home for several years, the Radius House has been lauded as a quintessential example of Dan’s work and an oft-cited forerunner of modern “green” design. As with his other houses, he situated the home’s framework within the landscape’s contours, while incorporating circular shapes to capture as much natural light as possible.
“We fell in love as soon as we saw the house and its surroundings,” said the home’s current owner, Kim Todd, in a 2010 interview with The New York Times. “It’s really quiet here, and the owls fly by at night.”
In 1966, Daniel and his family moved overseas for a nearly decade-long sojourn in Europe. First, they lived in Magliaso, Switzerland, occupying a house furnished by a local architect. While Eva raised the kids, Dan cast epoxy sculptures until money grew scarce. The family then moved to Norway, where he hand-built tables and lamps for cruise ships. The couple’s third child, Tobias, was also born during that time.
For over five years, Daniel and his family bounced between the cities of Trondheim, Frederiksborg and Oslo. From that time onward, his work retained the influence of a trio of Scandinavian architects: Knut Knutsen, Alvar Aalto and Reima Pietilä. He also, then, continued to pursue his penchant for sustainable designs.
“He reused materials and was very early with the thinking of sustainability,” said Sigmund Asmervik, a friend now living in Oslo who met Dan in Berkeley in the 1980s. “He was a pioneer in that.”
The family relocated to Germany after Eva procured an assistant professorship at her alma mater in Hanover—although, according to her, Dan seemed in Germany like “a fish out of water.” The family returned to the United States in 1974 and struggled for several years before Eva started working for San Francisco’s planning department. The couple separated around that time, and Dan moved near Eva’s residence in Berkeley to be closer to his children. He would remain in Berkeley, more or less, until the 1990s, when he bought a property in Inverness and lived in the house already built there.
That house was one of 45 homes that were destroyed during the Mount Vision Fire in 1995. For many years afterward, Dan sought financial restitution and, once received, set to the task of rebuilding what had been lit aflame. The result was the house where he lived for the rest of his life, on Sunnyside Drive.
Like the Radius House, his home in Inverness stands as an unfinished archetype of his work, displaying an extensive scope of ideas and creativity.
“I don’t believe he completed more than about a dozen houses, all of them in California,” said Richard Olsen, who conducted lengthy interviews with Dan for two books on architecture. “But every one of these dwellings relates to nature with perception-altering originality.”
Dan is survived by his former wife, Eva Liebermann; their three children, Ben, Wanda and Tobias Liebermann; two grandchildren, Max and Kate; his brother, Uriel Liebermann; and his sister, Judy Koltun.