Michelangelo once said that to be an architect, you only need to know how to draw. Vitruvius said that an architect must understand music in order to design. Daniel Libeskind would add a few more qualities to that list: hand, emotion, sound, sculpture, diversity, and an appreciation for the unexpected. There are nearly as many components to Libeskind's architecture as there are Libeskind buildings.

Libeskind can link many of the great works of his dignified career to specific concepts, a seeming one-to-one correspondence between project and notion. That was one fact that emerged from his keynote address for the ARCHITECT 50 Leadership Lab: Despite the often graceful nature of his work, he is a literal thinker. (The other fact, a rather startling one, is that his career is surreally young: He got his start, at age 52, with the Felix Nussbaum Haus in 1998.)

Consider Libeskind's Jewish Museum Berlin, a project of deep personal significance to the architect. (Born in Lódz, Poland, he is the child of Polish Holocaust survivors.) Libeskind links the project to "emotion," the overriding concept behind the design. As he told the assembled architects during the keynote, he expressed the idea of emotion not simply through the jagged gash shape of the building, which opened in 2001, but through its interior spaces, designed without heating or cooling, and in some places without programming. He strikes more than one emotional note throughout: In addition to the voids, bridges, and abysses defined by the space, he also created abundant opportunity for natural light.

" 'Sculpture' is often a derogatory word" in architecture, Libeskind says, noting that the artist Marcel Duchamp disagreed: Every building—any building—is a sculpture with plumbing in it, the artist had said. "Sculpture" is another of Libeskind's terms, one he links to the extruding buildings of his Haeundae Udong Hyundai I'Park project—buildings that represent a sculptural shift away from post-war Modernism, Libeskind explains.

Libeskind never mentioned "defiance" as a frame for understanding his own work, the way that he uses "diversity" to explain Seoul's Archipelago 21 or "radical" to explain the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. But he might have. Libeskind's own umbrella concept for Zlota 44—a 54-story high-rise residential project in Warsaw, completed in 2012, that challenges Joseph Stalin's Palace of Culture and Science for dominance over the capital skyline—is "counterpoint." The arc of the building registers a counterpoint to the imposing figure of Warsaw's Stalinist tower, built to mirror Moscow's Seven Sisters—seven Stalinist skyscrapers that marked the rise of the Soviet Union.

"The realm of architecture is always a civic realm," Libeskind says. The "political," another framework for understanding his work, is the one he applies to the Military Museum of Dresden, the city destroyed by Allied bombing more than 65 years ago. By designing the addition to the hilltop museum as an arrow illustrating the vector of the city's destruction, Libeskind imposes a political reading on the museum itself. "It's a space that asks, 'Why do military conflicts happen?' " he says.

"Without democracy, you cannot have architecture," Libeskind says. He was himself reminded of that fact on Sept. 11, 2001—the day that the World Trade Center's Twin Towers fell, and the same day that Libeskind's Jewish Museum Berlin opened. That day, he says, he had hoped to put aside thoughts about history and politics. It proved impossible that day, just as it has ever since. But to say that Libeskind dwells on history would be putting it too strongly. Through his work, he atomizes history and experience, condensing massive narratives into specific focal points: diversity, sound, urbanity. And through these concepts, Libeskind is building his own architectural history.