by Vladimir BelogolovskyFeb 07, 2020
For the world who knows plenty about Moshe Safdie, the architect's If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture brings forward an extended introduction to Moshe Safdie, the human. For any young architect or architecture student who grew up learning, observing and understanding the projects of Safdie, his memoir is a retrospective of everything that led to that. Penning down over five decades of his professional life and 84 years of personal life, Safdie’s memoir is a timely treasure to relive his life in the form of words. Published by Grove Atlantic, the eleven chapters of the book hope to take the readers "behind the veil of an essential yet mysterious profession". Adding to the intriguing insights of getting to know the profession from its roots is the fact that the book comes directly from one of the legendary architects of our time.
The architect of Marina Bay Sands in Singapore begins the book by taking a trip to the same place, recollecting project's inception days. While coming across as a diary entry, the initial pages of the book take the readers through some days of Safdie’s life. Giving the readers a glimpse into the ivy-clad four-storey office of Safdie Architects in Massachusetts, it then moves to how Safdie perceives the function of the office and how every part of the space has a story and memory associated with it. From the 2020 frame of the Safdie office, the book dives into a black hole of time and ends up in 1938, when a Jewish kid was born in Haifa, Israel. If Walls Could Speak then goes into untangling Safdie's childhood, teenage and adulthood. In parts, it becomes a firsthand narrative of Jewish life during the Arab-Israeli wars. While presenting the city of Jerusalem, its narrow passageways, and his memories of streets, places and gatherings, the memoir is also a reminder of a place before it was torn in war. Realising that the protagonist isn’t just a Jewish kid who had to witness the Arab exodus of 1948, but a person who grew up in that unrest to become one of the renowned architects of the 21st century, draws much curiosity to know the events that led to it.
Further plunging into his life, Safdie goes from narrating the ruggedness of Israeli city to his exploration in Europe and then to the Canadian land. Bringing into perspective the birth of the architect, Safdie talks about how the city of Montreal in Canada and McGill University shaped his profession, vision and principles, throwing light on why the architect would decide to donate his professional archive to the university. Having learned architecture in the late 1950s, when modern movement in architecture was emerging, Safdie’s understanding of architecture seems to root in the new perspective that brought about a radical change in the architectural perspective of those times. With the emergence of modern movements led by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus school and the Amsterdam School, architecture transformed from an elitist symbol to one that concerns and benefits all people of the society. Safdie mentions how this change influenced him during his days of architecture school and how it resonated with the memories of his youth in Israel. Adding to the modernist influences was the architect from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. Further in the book Safdie shares how Roark’s antithesis influenced him for a while during his university days. While sharing his memories and stories of six years at McGill, he provides many insights to the readers on the architecture education of that time. However, all these converged to form a definition of architecture for the Israeli-Canadian architect. "Architecture is a mission, and an architect has a responsibility (to clients, to society) that transcends the self," the book quotes Safdie. If Walls Could Speak unravels his phases of learning, unlearning and etching his own style of architecture.
While we expect to know more about the architectural explorations of Safdie through his memoir, the book brings into the limelight the extended life of the architect. Anyone who has followed his work and life with admiration or criticism knows the relation he has to Israel and the extent to which the city has influenced him. Even then, the book unwraps parts of Safdie’s life which are much lesser known to the public. Across various chapters, while sharing his years of being in the architecture industry, Safdie keeps going back to his roots and the way they kept recurring at every phase of life. Going back and forth through the process of many of his famous projects, readers find the backstage preview of the hustle that goes beyond the iconic structures to take shape. Among the projects he discusses are Habitat 67, Marina Bay Sands, Exploration Place, National Gallery of Canada and The Holocaust History Museum, to name a few.
Habitat was always about more than its purely visual appeal or the quality of life for residents. It was also about revolutionising the way housing could be built and assembled. – Moshe Safdie
As Safdie's life unwinds through his own eyes in the book, he also talks about his personal life, mentors who introduced him to different aspects of architecture and people he met at different crossroads of life. For the current world, witnessing many new architects at practice everyday, Safdie’s memoir takes us back to a time from the past. A time without computational programmes and software to experiment with many options. A time when architecture defined more than just a building and a symbol of many things. A time when architectural style wasn’t simply design and visuals but a school of thought. A time with fewer architects, innovation and a niche to be radical.
Life and architecture are bound together, and the principles that guide one as an architect cannot be separated from the principles that guide one as a human being. – Moshe Safdie
If Walls Could Speak isn’t just a memoir. It’s a diary of one of the architects who saw the architecture profession transform. It’s a manifesto for the architecture student lost in the race of the modern world. Moreover, Safdie’s memoir leads to a question of architectural prose, encircling the decades of architecture discussed in the book. Where is the architecture industry of today heading?