Programme and place – Moshe Safdie on his career


1st January, 1970

Programme and place – Moshe Safdie on his career

he winner 2015’s LEAF Lifetime Achievement Award, Moshe Safdie is currently working on an unprecedented scale in a career spanning more than five decades. He speaks to Phin Foster about the humanisation of mega-scale, working in Asia and the need for a seismic rethink in how we approach public planning.


Few industries have been more transformed by globalisation than architecture. We live in an age of the mega-practice, boasting multiple international offices; fast-growing economies of the East undergoing unprecedented urbanisation and affording unprecedented opportunity; and the globetrotting US architect, more likely to have a project under construction in Chengdu than Chicago.

Yet the choice of ‘Global Citizen’ as the title for a retrospective of Moshe Safdie’s work, currently on display at New York’s National Academy Museum, carries a little more nuance than the contemporary caricature of a jet-setting pen for hire.

While much of his work over a career spanning more than 50 years has seen Safdie accrue his fair share of air miles, the projects undertaken have generally been far removed from those found in the portfolios of corporate architectural behemoths. Whether it’s the Salt Lake City Public Library, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem, or the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex in India’s Punjab, the best examples share no signature style, but are all heavy with a sense of place, an acknowledgment of context, an understanding of locale. In fact, his global citizenry is best defined as a rare ability to adapt to starkly contrasting surroundings, rather than bending them to his will.

“The term actually came from the curator and at first I too was a little confused,” Safdie acknowledges. “But then, thinking about it, I do feel my personal and professional histories merge to make the title rather apt. I was raised in the East and educated in the West. That developed my sensibilities in a way that makes me open to the complexities and subtleties of different cultures.”

On the move

Born in Haifa in 1938, Safdie’s family left Israel in 1953 for Canada. He graduated from McGill in 1961 and, having departed Montreal to work under Louis Khan in Philadelphia, was back less than three years later to oversee the construction of Habitat 67, a project first conceived as his master’s thesis.

The flagship of Montreal’s Expo 67, Habitat sought to combine the pleasures of suburban living with the requirements for a high-density urban environment, creating a three-dimensional landscape of 354 prefabricated and stacked concrete boxes, each with its own roof garden and accessed by an external street. Safdie called it “a vertical village”.

The project thrust its architect into the public eye. At the time of completion, he was still only 29. The Rolling Stones were already playing Paint It Black, Let’s Spend the Night Together and Satisfaction in 1967. They’re still performing them now, alongside little that has been written in the past 40 years. Thematically, you can also trace much of Safdie’s work back to his formative years but, while there have been troughs as well as peaks over that time, including ‘difficult second album syndrome’ – just one built project in the 14 years after Habitat – he is unarguably more successful, influential and prolific now than at any other point in his career.

“Habitat was a fairy-tale period, but it was also quite radical,” he says. “There were then a number of years of unrealised projects, conceived in the same spirit. There were also the beginnings of large-scale contextual work, particularly in Jerusalem, followed by a period when the practise, in a sense, specialised in significant institution projects, civic buildings of various kinds.

“My own focus also increasingly shifted towards a heavy emphasis on programme and place, those became absolutely central and many of our projects were quite symbolically charged,” he adds.

But in this latest stage of Safdie’s career, it can feel as though the architect has come full circle. While a number of his studio’s residential projects over the past five decades have incorporated the fractal-geometry surface patterns, dramatic stepping of structure and streets that interconnect and bridge community aerial gardens first evident in Habitat, it has now been afforded the opportunity to explore these elements on an unprecedented scale.

Manifest destiny

Perhaps the most visible manifestation is the Bishan Residential Development, nearing completion in Singapore. This is Habitat on steroids; a 38-storey complex formed of two staggered tower blocks linked at the base and then by three bridges that connect the upper levels. The lower two spans are landscaped circulation routes, while the upper bridge contains an elevated swimming pool, which presents views across the city’s skyline.

“What constitutes a good living environment or work space has remained pretty constant, but the context in which you need to realise that has been altered dramatically,” Safdie explains. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined the densities we now face when I conceived Habitat; it seems like a joke that it was proposed as a response to high density.

“On this scale you have to be willing to mix it up a little more; not every garden can be open to the sky, some must be more like tree houses. It’s a combination of typologies that enables you to maintain permeability and openness.”

Safdie is also employing a number of these lessons into his work on the Chongqing Chaotianmen mixed-use development, located at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. The largest undertaking in his studio’s history, encompassing 817,000m2, he clearly sees it as a huge opportunity – “You don’t normally get the equivalent of the tip of Manhattan to work with” – but acknowledges that even a project on this scale has not afforded him the chance to explore all of his ideas surrounding the humanisation of mega-scale.

“I have ten million square feet and a very central site, but there are certain paradigms driving the scheme that are antithetical to where I’d want to be in terms of the line between private and public realms,” he explains.
It raises the question: does visionary architecture require visionary clients?

“It’s important to remember that you can’t transcend them,” Safdie responds. “What I’ve come to learn is that on very large urban projects there are actually two parties that share that role: the direct client and the local authority. It matters little how enlightened the former might be if the latter is either insensitive or corrupt.

Perfectly in synch

Perhaps the closest Safdie has come so far to finding such alignment is on the project that ultimately gained him access to commissions of this scale: Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. The $5.7-billion, 154,938m2 mixed-use development includes luxury hotels, a vast casino, expansive retain space, and an expo and convention centre. So far, so not Safdie. The most immediately visible signature is the 9,941m2 Sands SkyPark, connecting three towers 200m above ground level. At 340m, it is longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall and has become firmly established as one of South-East Asia’s most iconic pieces of contemporary architecture.

But much of what truly enthused the architect could be found closer to ground level. “Following a number of cultural projects, Marina Bay was a return to urbanism,” he explains. “It afforded a rare opportunity to redefine the public realm through a large commercial project.

“People asked, ‘why do you want to build a casino’, but that’s only 5% of a huge site in downtown and an opportunity to create something entirely new in the public realm on a large scale. The typical Asian typology is the cluster of towers above a shopping mall; this is a rejection of the idea that you drain people, make them introverted, turn their back on the city. If you connect the internal spines of a project to the surrounding environment, I feel you increase its commercial value and enhance the public realm.”

Built on reclaimed land, the vast complex includes a promenade along Marina Bay, two theatres, an arts and science museum, and creates a direct link between the city’s downtown and waterfront areas. Safdie credits it with transforming the mentality of his 120-person Boston-based office: “Here we were, controlling an entire $5-billion project, from envelope to interiors. Our self-perception changed, as did the perception of clients seeing us working on this scale.”

Talking of visionary clients, developer Sheldon Adelson approached the architect having been hugely impressed by Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum – “To his credit, it was quite a connection to make,” Safdie laughs in acknowledgement. However, it’s Singapore’s development authorities – Safdie is also currently working on an extension to Jewel Changi Airport – for which he reserves his most forthright praise.

“Singapore is decades ahead of its neighbours – and arguably everyone else – in persistently putting heavy emphasis on regulatory and planning,” he argues. “Marina Bay is a great example of private-public partnership. Left to his own devices, the developer would not have proposed this scheme. The Urban Redevelopment Authority then stays involved – some might say in control – throughout to ensure that everything is fully realised.

“The key is that they fixed the price of the land and declared that qualitative issues would carry the day. I can’t imagine that being the case in the US at this point. They may have the legal means but they certainly don’t have the guts.”

One wonders whether he sees that changing. Upon accepting the AIA Gold Medal in Atlanta in May 2015, Safdie evoked a speech made in the same city over half a century before: “I have a dream of high-rise cities transformed, penetrated by light and sun, with plant life and gardens on land and sky,” he declared. “Towers clustered into communities, served by innovative modes of transportation – mobility restored.”

He comments somewhat dolefully that we are yet to see “the 21st-century Rockefeller Centre”; a cluster of buildings in the heart of the dense city that makes a serious attempt to expand the public realm in a civic way.

“We’re coming out of decades of ‘market knows best’, when the whole discipline of planning and urban design became discredited,” Safdie says. “The question is: will we as a society recognise once again that planning, urban design and the regulatory systems that control private development are not only necessary but essential. It’s a huge dilemma.”

Does he believe that architects are plying their part in engendering such a shift?

“It’s a mistake to think that because many of the challenges that mass urbanisms creates are generic, so too should be the responses,” he begins. “I see two dominant influences in architecture today. One is an emphasis upon branding, on signature styles. That implies an indifference to place by definition. The other comes from clients, particularly in emerging economies, who consider certain architectural styles progressive, demanding pristine glass structures regardless of climate.

“Far too much of the architecture we see today displays an indifference to place and there are numerous forces acting against actions of differentiation. I guess I’m committed to discovering it.”

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