Moshe Safdie believes the world needs architects now more than ever

Moshe Safdie, in an interview with Vladimir Belogolovsky, presses on his profession's need to expand responsibilities and work on macro scale to improve the quality of life.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Feb 07, 2020

Moshe Safdie, a citizen of Israel, Canada, and the United States, was born in 1938 in Haifa, Israel. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and after apprenticing with Louis I. Kahn in Philadelphia, returned to Montreal to establish his practice and build Habitat 67, one of the central pieces and major symbols of Expo 67. This housing complex, a model community and an adaptation of Safdie’s undergraduate thesis, was based on the idea of humanising high density living and making it enjoyable. The goal was to combine urban model with the suburban one by stocking houses in a denser way. Safdie’s motto was: ‘For everyone a garden’. In 1978, the architect was invited by the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University to head its Urban Design Program, which enabled him to move his practice to Somerville, Boston. He remained the program’s director until 1984 and continued teaching at GSD until 1989. Safdie Architects’ headquarters is still based in Sommerville with regional offices in Jerusalem, Singapore, and Shanghai.

Apart from Habitat 67, Safdie’s major projects include the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Vancouver Library Square, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, and Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. His original Habitat project led to many unbuilt residential schemes around the world but in the recent years its versions were successfully realised in Singapore and being built in Qinhuangdao, China.

Safdie’s biggest project to date, Raffles City Chongqing , is now rising in the centre of Chongqing, China. It features eight mixed-use towers – two 350 meters tall and six 250 meters tall, four of which will be supporting 300-meter-long ‘horizontal skyscraper’ with public amenities such as open-air gardens with infinity pool, restaurants, event spaces, and hotel sky lobby. The architect’s numerous awards include the Gold Medal from both the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the American Institute of Architects; and the 2016 National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The following interview is a condensed version of my conversation with Moshe Safdie at his studio in Somerville, Boston.

  • Habitat 67 built as part of the Expo 1967 | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Habitat 67 built as part of the Expo 1967 Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects
  • Habitat 67 became a huge example of housing in modern architecture | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Habitat 67 became a huge example of housing in modern architecture Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Let me read you the first paragraph from the 1971 Newsweek article. ‘At the end of his new book, Beyond Habitat, Moshe Safdie, the 32-year-old Israeli-born architect, rises to a pitch of visionary rhetoric. Tomorrow’s technology, he prophesies, will allow each man to form his own house as easily as we now program computers with punch cards. The profession known as “architecture” will die. In its place, he says, “I would like to design a magic housing machine… a huge pipe behind which is a reservoir of magic plastic. A range of air-pressure nozzles around the opening control this material as it is forced through the edges of the pipe. By varying the air pressure… one could… extrude any conceivable shape, complex free forms, mathematically non-defined forms. People could go and push the buttons to design their own dwellings.” Finally, he concludes, “Technology can make industry as flexible as nature.” So, do you still think ‘the profession known as architecture will die?’

Moshe Safdie (MS): Well, today I would say that the need for architects is more urgent than ever. Of course, many pressing decisions such as forming urban fabric, relationships between parts of cities, zoning, public realm, these issues are largely affected by building departments, politicians, and developers. Architects need to expand their responsibilities beyond micro scale of designing buildings. We must work on macro scale to improve the quality of urban life. That is the focus of my own career – to establish a framework on mega scale of urban life. Not that I don’t enjoy designing on a small scale; I did a winery in Israel, a house in Scotland, my own house here in Cambridge, my own apartment in Habitat in Montreal. I love working on the smallest details, it is very critical to any work of architecture. But people don’t come to me with small projects. It is my life as an architect – dealing with grand scale and details that multiply thousands of times.

  • Crystal Bridges Museum, a complex for American art by Safdie Architects, traverses a stream within the wild landscape | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Crystal Bridges Museum, a complex for American art by Safdie Architects, traverses a stream within the wild landscape Image Credit: Courtesy of Tim Hursley
  • Habitat Qinhuangdao offers a bold new concept for urban living: high density housing in a garden environment  | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Habitat Qinhuangdao offers a bold new concept for urban living: high density housing in a garden environment Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects

VB: It is impossible to talk to you without referring to your very first project, Habitat 67. What is it to you? It was an expression of your idealistic vision of a family living in Israel of your childhood, wasn’t it?

MS: While my agenda for Habitat was responding to what I perceived were housing needs in North America, there was the influence of my childhood: the village settlements on the Mount Carmel in Haifa, in Northern Israel where I grew up. It is a hill town. It is Mediterranean lifestyle with very tight family life. So, the images I had in my mind, when I was designing the project, were Arab houses clustering in the topography. Obviously, there is no hill in Montreal.

It is important to remember that the original Habitat was 25 stories high, supported by a huge megastructure. If that got built, I think, the impact would have been very different. What actually got built was the village scale. What didn’t get built was the city scale. The original Habitat would include a school, shops, and so on. It was envisioned as a three-dimensional city. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to do the whole thing before the Expo. I was actually heartbroken when the government decided to build but a small part of the whole.

The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore is linked at the 57th floor by an expansive and lush 2.5 acre garden skypark | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore is linked at the 57th floor by an expansive and lush 2.5 acre garden skypark Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects

VB: You said, ‘Unfortunately, Habitat did not proliferate. It did not become the common answer to rethinking housing.’

MS: For many years, it did not. Today I would argue that the concept of Habitat has become the mainstream. So many architects now are doing housing projects in the spirit of Habitat, of turning every apartment into a house with a garden. Look at the work being built by WOHA, Bjarke Ingels, Mecanoo, or Herzog and de Meuron, just to mention a few leading firms. The same is happening in the universities. The students are exploring these ideas. So, slowly, the ideas of Habitat are being rediscovered.

Many architects are still producing wow statements, as if they were fashion designers, but there are others who are seriously concerned with the questions of livability and improving quality of urban realm. Philosophically, these are two different positions that now coexist in architecture. But the first one is losing its steam, for sure. Architects should be asking such questions as – would people enjoy being in their spaces? How will they interact with the building? What is the building’s relation to the city, the street? Those are the most important questions for any architect.

  • Khalsa Heritage Centre is a museum of the Sikh people located in the holy town of Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab, India | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Khalsa Heritage Centre is a museum of the Sikh people located in the holy town of Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab, India Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects
  • Sky Habitat, Asia - a three-dimensional matrix of homes with terraces, balconies, and communal gardens | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Sky Habitat, Asia - a three-dimensional matrix of homes with terraces, balconies, and communal gardens Image Credit: Courtesy of Edward Hendricks

VB: You worked for Louis Kahn for a year early in your career. And you said that at the time, Kahn was the only practicing architect who interested you. Could you talk about his influence on you?

MS: The reason I asked Kahn, to work for him, was because shortly before that I visited his Richards Medical Research Laboratories in Philadelphia. I thought that was a real breakthrough because he did something that nobody has done before. He recognised that the systems that serve architecture are so massive that they must be articulated separately from the spaces they serve. I am, of course, talking about a clear articulation of served and servant spaces. That was a springing point for such younger architects as Foster, Rogers, Piano, and others. Their interpretation of the concept differed from Kahn’s, but they did address this very issue by giving serving spaces their particular expressions. I am always conscious of the diversity of building systems. But I learned from Kahn much more. I learned how to be an architect, the whole process, which is very much hands on from the beginning to end. I sketch and care about all details myself, as he did. I pay attention to construction techniques and materials. We build models, mock-ups, we keep changing and refining. And in some of my projects you can even recognise his preference for basic geometries.

VB: Is architecture an invention to you?

MS: I think an invention is a dangerous word.

  • Raffles City Chongqing, although vertically organised into a series of towers, strives to connect to the city's existing network of streets and systems | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Raffles City Chongqing, although vertically organised into a series of towers, strives to connect to the city's existing network of streets and systems Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects
  • Jewel Changi Airport combines two environments—an intense marketplace and a paradise garden | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Jewel Changi Airport combines two environments—an intense marketplace and a paradise garden Image Credit: Courtesy of Tim Hursely

VB: You once said that you don’t want to repeat what you have done before, right?

MS: This is not true. I repeat myself a lot. I have done many habitats and residential projects. I try to learn from one project to the next but there are certain ideas that I carry through my work. It’s evolutionary. Where I try not to repeat myself is when I am doing symbolic buildings that have uniqueness about their location, sites, and programs. It is true that many of my buildings are quite unique and different from each other. But the reason I am suspicious of the word invention is because invention is the opposite of evolution. So, I would say architecture is 80 per cent evolution and 20 per cent invention. Nevertheless, there are certain moments that could be called inventions. For example, I invented various ways of bringing light to lower levels of a building. Is it a real invention? As Ecclesiastes states: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’.

  • Habitat 67 in Montreal stood as a landmark demonstration project, pioneering a vision for urban housing using the technology of pre-fabricated construction | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Habitat 67 in Montreal stood as a landmark demonstration project, pioneering a vision for urban housing using the technology of pre-fabricated construction Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects
  • Qinhuangdao in China is a project that organises the housing into a series of linked mini blocks that created multiple towers | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Qinhuangdao in China is a project that organises the housing into a series of linked mini blocks that created multiple towers Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects

VB: A client once asked you – ‘Will you give us a modern or traditional building?’ To that you replied, ‘If I succeed, you will not be able to tell the difference.’ Why would it be a goal of a modern architect to build a building that would feel like it was always there?

MS: Because one of the tragedies of modern architecture is that whenever it came in contact with historical architecture, it created a conflict. But when Frank Lloyd Wright designed a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, he did what I would have done. He tried to make a building that feels like it belongs there. What he proposed did not mimic a venetian palazzo – it was a Frank Lloyd Wright building – but it felt just right. To a certain extent Le Corbusier tried that idea in India. I think he succeeded in Ahmedabad, with the Sarabhai House, but I don’t think he succeeded in Chandigarh. The reason I want my buildings to belong is because I am respectful to what is already there. I don’t want to harm it. This is what drives many of my projects in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem. We can subdue ourselves, a bit. (laughs) Bruno Zevi kept attacking me for my projects there. He felt I lost my identity. He would expect a strong contrast between old and new, to the point of using such material as glass and steel. On the other hand, Kenneth Frampton never used my projects in Israel to illustrate his ideas about ‘critical regionalism’. But in my mind, these projects responded to the same issues that he raised. I don’t think my work is always understood by the critics. But I enjoy great support and many compliments from the general public. I always go somewhat against the grain. My work was certainly out of the mainstream during post-Modernist hype.

Qinhuangdao combines numerous private and public gardens in the sky with a fully landscaped ground plane | Moshe Safdie | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Qinhuangdao combines numerous private and public gardens in the sky with a fully landscaped ground plane Image Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects

VB: What do you think about today’s moment in architecture?

MS: We are at a critical fork. In just one generation architecture will be a different profession. We are facing new and different problems. Architects will have to address such issues as higher density, urban mega scale, new kinds of transportation, new materials and construction techniques. Improving the quality of public realm is central. Finding ways for connecting towers will become more and more important. In the future buildings will be connected by bridges for parks, public programs, and just better connectivity. My projects, such as in Singapore Marina Bay Sands and Raffles City Chongqing in China are just the beginning of imagining new potentials. This is going to be the preoccupation of the future generations of architects. It will be fascinating to see where this will take us. I know our profession will find exciting ways to respond to these and other challenges.

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About Author

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky is an American curator, critic, and a columnist with STIR. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture (1996) and after practicing architecture for 12 years, founded New York-based Curatorial Project for curating architectural exhibitions. He has written nine books, including Conversations with Architects, curated over 50 international exhibitions and has lectured in more than 30 countries.

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