Printer Friendly

Moshe Safdie architect.

We all want our cities to be beautiful, but so much gets in the way: red tape, institutional inertia, hostility to new ideas, and--always--the bottom line. But one of the world's great architectural visionaries has long argued that we have a duty to create buildings that are beautiful, functional, and nothing less than a tribute to our civilization. Canadian Moshe Safdie first amazed the world at Montreal's Expo 67 with his extraordinary Habitat project. Today, he continues to prove his case for revolutionary architecture--from Singapore to Vancouver to Punjab. Here he discusses with Eleanor Wachtel his life in architecture, and his blueprint for a brave new century of building.

ELEANOR WACHTEL: You were born in 1938 in Haifa in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, and your family left for Canada in 1953. What was your first impression of Montreal when you arrived at 15 years of age?

MOSHE SAFDIE: First of all, there was an interlude. We had to wait for our Canadian visas in Milan for a month. Not a bad place to wait for a visa. It was spring in Italy-Lake Como and Rome--and then a little stopover in Paris. And then it was late March in Montreal, which is when the snow melts and all the stuff that's accumulated over the winter reveals itself. It was a very depressing arrival. There was still snow outside, and it was very cold and grey. I came from Haifa, which was a white city, all Bauhaus, modern architecture climbing up the mountain. And all of a sudden, here we were at the Queen's Hotel, since demolished, in downtown Montreal. It would have been better to arrive in October, with the fall colours. But that wasn't my experience.

You were in Montreal. You finished high school, and then you went straight into architecture school at McGill. Why architecture?

It was rather bizarre. I was a poor student in Israel, because my social life took all my energy. Then I arrive in Montreal. I have no friends to speak of, and I'm in Westmount High School. I had some wonderful teachers. And all of a sudden, I'm reading and doing my homework, and getting good grades. My parents didn't recognize me.

There were aptitude tests administered during Grade 11, and one of them showed me excelling in mathematics and in arts, and it said: "suitable for architecture." I knew nothing about architecture. I'd never met an architect. But I knew that I loved designing and making things, and thinking about buildings and cities. And so I said, "That's it!" My father was shocked. He wanted me to join the business, which is traditional in Sephardic families-the eldest always joins the family business. So there was some tension about that. But I seemed totally determined about something I knew nothing about. It's interesting that by the third or fourth month at McGill, I knew that this was my destiny. I just loved every moment of it, even though we were not yet even designing anything--it was just courses. But it was love at first sight.

Did you doodle? Did you draw" Was that something that you'd done as a kid?

I doodled a lot. I used to doodle buildings and cars. I used to think of myself designing cars. And I know that the trip to Europe had some impact because I remember how excited I was in Milan, visiting the cathedral and going up on the roof and discovering Gothic architecture, which I'd never seen before. And then in the Lago Maggiore, all these palaces set as islands in the water--I was very excited about some of the architectural sites that we visited on that journey to Canada. I think that just reinforced it. And as soon as we got into serious architectural studies, the design studios, I was completely possessed. And I did well as a student and was on scholarship. My parents, who first objected, were a bit in shock and awe as they saw me doing well, and at that point were more encouraging about it.


Your design for Habitat 67 grew out of your McGill thesis project. How did a thesis project by a kid in his twenties, who'd only been in Canada for about a decade, end up as the centrepiece of Expo 67?

I did the thesis design, and I submitted it. While it was highly recognized at McGill, I did not win the Pilkington Prize--awarded for the best thesis of any Canadian school of architecture. It went to a very traditional opera house design, which somebody did at the University of Toronto. So it was controversial enough not to be totally acclaimed. Then I went to work for Louis Kahn in Philadelphia, who was the architect I admired most amongst living architects of the moment. I had a kind of dream of going to work for him, and then had the opportunity to do so.

While I was there, just about to leave for India to supervise one of his buildings, my thesis advisor, Sandy van Ginkel, showed up in Philadelphia and said, "Guess what? There's going to be a World's Fair, and I've been put in charge of developing a master plan, and I want you to come back and head the team." And I apologized to Kahn and said that this was an amazing opportunity. Then I said to van Ginkel, "Will I be allowed to propose my thesis as one of the pavilions?" And he said, "Well, there's nothing wrong in trying, so of course, you can try."

I came in as a civil servant, heading the team on the master plan. And we heard from the cement companies, who offered $50,000--a lot of money then--for a feasibility study as to how they might contribute to Expo. So I grabbed that and started using that money to develop the thesis for the higher engineers, and so on and so forth. And things escalated. The management of Expo loved it. They gave me more resources. I developed it further.

Eventually, we went to Ottawa to present this to the cabinet, with Mitchell Sharp, who was the minister in charge, and Lester Pearson. I was then 25, had built nothing. I made a presentation of the scheme. When we came back, and the federal government had approved the idea of building this, Ed Churchill, who was in charge of construction at Expo, called me in and said, "You're fired." I looked at him, a little confused. He smiled and said, "Since this has been approved, and we're going to build this, there's no reason you should do it as a civil servant. Go and open your own office and do it as an independent architect." That was a fairy tale, an amazing fairy tale. These people had a great deal of courage to entrust to a 25-year-old--who'd never built a building--the creation of something so far out.

Habitat was like nothing Canadians had seen before, with its asymmetrical stepped form made of prefab concrete boxes. Visually, what inspired its design?

I think it was a cross between Italian or Mediterranean hill towns ... with the hill taken away.

With no hill!

No hill, but a hill town. It had many generative ideas in terms of design. There was the idea of prefabrication. So there were these boxes that you would factory-produce and stack up. And you could install the kitchens and bathrooms and windows all in the factory. So it had this mass-production, assembly-line idea. They had to be made of concrete because there was no material that was fireproof other than concrete. So they were too heavy for their own good. So there was this technological idea.


Then there was the idea of a garden for everyone. So they stack in such a way that every house has a garden on the roof of the unit below. And then streets in the air rather than corridors. All these different ideas. But basically, it was rethinking the apartment building. You take an apartment building and you rethink it in a way that you fractalize it--you break it up into component parts so that it becomes porous, the air moves through it, and each residential unit within it has views in three directions. It's metaphorically--almost literally--suspended in space. You walk out into a garden that's open to the sky, which is fundamentally different from a balcony that's attached to a building. And indeed, when people walked through Habitat, there was a sense of miraculous disbelief: how could these places look like houses when in fact this is a high-rise apartment building?

One writer, I remember, compared Habitat to a "modernist beehive," and I thought it was curious because there was a beehive in your family's rooftop garden in Haifa when you were a kid.

I was fascinated by bees. We went though a period when food was very scarce and was rationed. I had chickens, and I had a couple of goats, and I had the beehive, which produced wonderful honey. I didn't take it as a compliment at the time--having Habitat compared to the beehive--because to me the beehive is mechanical, repetitive. And, in that sense, it has the problems of public housing, which is repetitive and without variation. I thought Habitat was all about a hill town, where houses are slightly different--some are large, and some are small, in different orientations. My sense of comparing it to anything would be to a hill town or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon rather than a beehive. But it was okay.


You mentioned that you had spent a year working at Louis Kahn's office in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. He was one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. In what ways did he affect your attitudes to architecture?

I think in terms of his philosophy, he had a particular insight, which is what drew me to him. Even though I have a great admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, they were still thinking of buildings in nineteenth-century terms, meaning buildings were essentially skeletal. They were all about structure--they were all about concrete or stone.

Kahn recognized that the contemporary building is more like an organism because air conditioning and electrical services and ventilation and all these things occupy space. When you dissect a modern building, a contemporary building, it's all these systems--the arteries, lungs, and digestive system are part of the organism of the building. And he started articulating that in his buildings--in the Salk Institute and the Richards Lab buildings--where he actually gave them architectural expression. I think that this sense that buildings are complex systems, and that we must find a way to integrate this architecturally, was the obvious lesson.

But the greatest influence, I think, was that I fashioned my practice as an architect after his way of being an architect. And his way of being an architect was total involvement with every phase: concept, detailing, the mock-ups of materials and methods, improving every detail as construction took place--it was total involvement from beginning to end. And that's the way my office evolved, because that was the way I'd seen architecture being made. And I recognized that architecture is material--it's physical. It's not drawings, not renderings, not Photoshopping. It's the real thing that you work in and experience. It's three-dimensional. And I think that was the lasting influence--that I work like Kahn. I work in his method.

You've often quoted Kahn, saying, "Let the building be what it wants to be." What does that mean to you?

There are schools of thought in architecture that consider the architect to be a great sculptor. If the architect is an artist who creates urban sculptures, then form and shape are completely discretionary. Program is secondary.

But I think Kahn passionately believed that the building fulfils a purpose. And the first, profound definition of purpose is what I came to call "the life intended for the building." So if it's a school, it's a wonderful place for learning. If it's a performing arts centre, it's a place that's sublime, that makes it possible to listen to music or theatre in a sublime way that has wonderful acoustics, that has wonderful interaction between the people partaking in the process. And he, in his very poetic way of saying things, managed to say it in one sentence: "Let the building be what it wants to be."


I think that meant that if you understand the essence of the life intended for the building, you shape and form it to resonate with that purpose. And architecture at its greatest resonates with its purpose rather than just being a freewheeling, formal exercise that has to do with the architect's whim--which is to say, architecture is an art with extraordinary constraints acting upon your imagination all the time, and not an art of extraordinary imagination acting freely out of context.

Another concern I have is that the marketers take over. Now architecture starts being sold as a brand. What does that mean to people's perception of what architecture really is? That's worrisome. People still believe that wild form-making in architecture is avant-garde and that it's the antithesis of functionality and architecture that meets its program. To me, the opposite is true: the greatest architecture is when form-making and responding to the purpose of a building resonate. When it's simply a formal exercise, it's just much less rich, and it doesn't drive to the same level of architectural experience. But the public at this point is being pumped with ideas that equate notoriety with creativity. And that's dangerous in terms of what motivates clients and what motivates the whole design process, what propels it in terms of what clients expect, what they demand.

My best buildings are made when I have strong clients, and I engage them in an intense dialogue. The National Gallery--Jean Boggs was an opinionated client who knew exactly what she wanted. That dialogue with her produced what I feel is one of my best museums and what a lot of curators still feel is one of the most workable museums of recent decades. I think weak clients, or clients that are intimidated, allow architects to do things that tend to be more caricature-like, more exaggerated.

You worked with Jean Boggs, the director of the National Gallery, to come up with the concept of the gallery. What's most striking about it is the way it reflects the parliamentary library in its conical design.

That didn't come from Jean. One of the reasons for choosing me was stated to be that my architecture responded to the specific location, that it was informed by the setting and by the site and by the cultural setting and so forth. That's why I was chosen. I responded, I think, in terms of making a building that's very specifically Ottawa.

But Jean had very specific thoughts about the organization of the museum, about the circulation, about the use of daylight in the galleries, about the type of spaces that are best suited to displaying various types of art. That all comes through the discussion that we had together as the scheme evolved.

You've been called a "superstar international architect without a signature style." In other words, people don't instantly recognize your buildings as a Safdie, in the same way that they might recognize a Libeskind or a Gehry. For instance, your works in Canada--including the Vancouver Public Library, the National Gallery in Ottawa, the new Terminal 1 at Toronto's Pearson Airport--they all look very, very different. How do you respond to critics who take you to task for what they would call inconsistency?

I say that's a strength of my work. My work grows from sets of considerations that are common and others that are unique to the place. The common elements are the methods of construction and the expressiveness of those methods, the obsession with gardens, with the relationship of indoors to the outdoors. I certainly have a daylight obsession that dominates all my work. These things are common to all my buildings.

But if I'm building an airport in steel, it's going to be very different from a museum I'm building in Arkansas that's all built of wood and concrete. And if I'm building in India, the national museum of the Sikhs, and it's a building with which the Sikh community identifies, it's going be very different from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which is (a) in Jerusalem, (b) it's about the Holocaust, (c) it's on a specific site, which is sort of a hill through which I excavated because I didn't want to have a building on top of it, whereas the Sikh museum is stone and concrete, yellow-golden stone from the region. It sits on top of sand cliffs, and it overlooks the fortress of the last guru of the Sikhs. It relates to the temple architecture of the Sikhs, which is across the valley from it.

If I landed the Holocaust museum, the Sikh national museum, Crystal Bridges in Arkansas, and Toronto Airport, and they were all the same language, I would feel that I had totally failed to understand the place and to understand the specificity of the program. That's why architecture is so exciting to me when I take on something I've never done before, like the first airport or the first library. Because you go back to first principles, and you rethink the whole framework of it.

But in terms of responding to the specifies of the site, how does downtown Vancouver inspire a Coliseum-like library?

What was going on in my head at the time was, first of all, that Vancouver was like a catalogue of glass, of samples of a glass supply company. Dozens of high-rise buildings in the downtown, all different-coloured glass and different finishes, without any kind of anchoring of anything. Also, downtown Vancouver didn't have a single civic building. Except perhaps for Arthur Erickson's courthouse, it had no civic buildings of any significance. And I wanted a building that really had a bearing, that would anchor that whole part of town. Also, I wanted to make a library that was more than just the traditional library, which is more secretive.

So the whole idea of the urban room that is open 24 hours a day -that has shops and cafes and places where people meet--inverted the library plan. And out of it came this idea of that free-standing wall that contains the library within it, a whole series of curvilinear walls. I did not want the building to hold the street corners because I wanted to draw the people into the site.

All these considerations brought about a building that was oval and was precast concrete, which I made red because I used the local rock from the mountains, which is reddish, which seemed to me to be about the Rockies. And then people called it the Coliseum, which was fine. I wasn't out there looking to make a Coliseum any more than I was in the Sikh museum trying to imitate a Sikh temple.

So the answer to your question is: when you consider place, and when you consider the very specific materials and methods of a place, and when you try not to camouflage them but, even, to exaggerate them, you're going to get, formally, different moods and different characters. That's what happens in my work.

I did two airports. Let's compare them: Toronto's Pearson Airport and Ben Gurion Airport. The Toronto airport is bigger, but both have the same program requirements.

Ben Gurion is in Israel, in Tel Aviv.

Yes it's the international airport in Tel Aviv. The Toronto project was the new Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport. Both have gates, concourses, baggage returns, etc. That's common to both. What are the differences? First of all, technologically, Pearson is a steel building and had to be and should be for economic reasons. Ben Gurion airport is a precast concrete and stone building. That's already a major difference. The climates are very different. In Pearson, you're trying to draw light into the building--you're worried mostly about winter, people standing by the curbside on the north face of the terminal. It's all about getting sunlight in, and glass is manipulated in a particular way. And at Ben Gurion, it's the Mediterranean climate--light has completely different behaviour.

By the time I finish going through the various considerations, the two airports look very different. People come into Ben Gurion and say, "As soon as I enter, I feel I'm in Israel." Now, some of it I did consciously, like using the golden Jerusalem stone on many of the walls, bringing archaeology into the building as display and artwork, and so on. Whereas at Pearson, when we came to do the art, it was Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt--international art of great scale. For me, Pearson was all about Toronto wanting to be a great international city, and it wants its airport to proclaim that it's a great international city.


It's interesting that, in terms of scale, you're very attentive to not intimidating the individual. And in the case of Pearson, the necessity of the project required an enormous scale. There are great distances between arriving and going through customs, or checking in and getting to the gate.

But still, the common denominator is that in every one of my buildings, even the most monumental in scale, I try to bring it down to the individual human being. And not to overbear. In Pearson, I say, you follow the light. You always know where you are if you follow the light. The light helps to humanize the spaces. So you want a generosity of space, but you really don't want to create spaces--at least, I don't -that are overbearing and intimidating, which is one of the weaknesses of nineteenth-century classical architecture--that it did intimidate and was overbearing, and people did feel small in its presence. I want people to feel good about themselves in my buildings.

Most buildings going up all over our cities clearly have little or no architectural input in their design. Practically everything is predetermined by developers. In fact, you recently quit a major commission in Montreal, in part because of this. Can you tell me about the "mega-hospital"?

I was asked to participate in the design of McGill's mega-hospital about two or three years ago. And I was really excited about that because my most rewarding professional experiences are when I do a building type for the first time. And the one building type I've not done--I think it's perhaps the only building type I've not done--is a hospital. And here was McGill, embarking on building a new mega-hospital that replaces five existing hospitals, with the motto that they're going to reinvent the hospital to meet the needs of the medical care system of the twenty-first century, maybe the first large-scale undertaking of its kind in our century in which the realities of medical care, as they exist today, would be given architectural response. So here is a very ambitious client, McGill University and its hospitals: what could be a more noble mission?

Step two: the government gets into the act--the government of Quebec in this case--and prescribes a procedure, which is very popular these days, to minimize government's involvement in the building. Under the "P3"--or public-private partnership--the government says to developers, "We have this much money. Please give us proposals. You design the facility; you operate it; you hire the architects; you hire the engineers; and give us a product within our budget. We'll review your plans, but you have the ultimate responsibility." That's happening across the board. It's happening with jails; it's happening with airports. And now it's happening with hospitals. I suppose, at some point, it'll happen with houses of parliament. Who knows where the end of the line is?


I felt that this process negates any kind of innovation. The developers are out to deliver a product at the lowest cost. They have to, because that's the process; otherwise, they won't get the job. They hire architects who will try to create something expeditious. There's certainly no place to reinvent or rethink anything. It's going to be the lowest common denominator that's passable within the specification. And I felt that under these circumstances, not only could I not be part of it, but I had to point out that the method on which they're embarking is futile. So I resigned, and I did so publicly, explaining why I did so, because I thought the process was a negation of responsibility on the public-sector side.

What can be done to balance the needs of the true clients, such as the patients in a hospital, and the commissioning clients, the government or developer? Is the architect stuck in the middle?

I think, in a way, architects are somewhat responsible for an attitude that says: You get an architect overly involved in a large project like a hospital, and it's going to be out of control. It's going to be over budget, behind schedule. There's only one way to avoid that: get the private sector, who are more ruthless, and managerially more experienced, to run the show, including the architects.

And there is some truth to that, but you have to recognize that when you do that, you're going to get something that is the lowest common denominator. So I think it's okay for a warehouse, and it might be okay for some warehouse archive, and it might be okay for parking garages. But as you go up the ladder to buildings of greater cultural and functional purpose, it becomes more and more questionable. And I think that we do have a responsibility in our major public buildings. I mean, this hospital is going to be there for 100 years or so. It's going to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And its utility is not going to be something you write off in 15 or 20 years, the way you might in the case of a parking garage.

I'm working on my next book, which I've decided to call Building in Our Own Image. When we say the private-sector developer will decide what our hospitals look like, what our libraries look like, we're saying the marketplace is going to decide our image. And I mean image in a fundamental sense of image--like God made man in his image. Churchill was the one to say that our buildings tell the story of our culture. And when we delegate that to the marketplace, to the lowest common denominator, we are saying something about ourselves.

You're involved in a massive project in the island city-state of Singapore called Marina Bay Sands. I generally don't think of resorts as places where one finds great architecture. They tend to be developer-driven and therefore profit-driven. This is a project of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. How is it different?

It's fundamentally different because of the way that the Singapore government set it up. And that takes us back to the Montreal hospital. Because here are two examples of governments behaving fundamentally differently.


The Singaporeans, first of all, have a rich planning tradition. The planning department is staffed by very strong people. There's a planning policy about transportation and land preservation and so on that's second to none in the world, in my opinion. They send their young people to Harvard and Yale for degrees; many of them were my students at Harvard. They set this project up, as they did several other projects of national significance, in a way that's designed to contribute to the overall urban development of Singapore. So the first thing they did, since the land was publicly owned, was to say that they were not going to give the land to the highest bidder, but they were going to fix the price of the land. The price of the land was fixed at US$800 million.

Then they short-listed ten developers, then brought it down to four, and asked them to submit detailed designs. And they said that they have certain urban objectives: continuity of the promenade around the bay, open vistas, lots of green. The area to be built was to be around 7 million square feet. Basically, they said, You can build that much. We want certain features in terms of the urban development. You decide what the program should be. We want it to contribute to urbanism and tourism and to bring people into Singapore.

Then we came in as architects. And this is the best of all worlds for an architect--because every idea you have that resonates with what the Singaporeans are looking for, the developer agrees to. It was amazing what I got away with in the competition phase. Every one of the competitors is after this because it's a wonderful business opportunity.

And once we've been selected, the government of Singapore is now engaged in making sure that all the promises are fulfilled. So, in a sense, our design is being built with every one of the goodies and promises of the original submission because it's become part of a contractual agreement between the developer and the government. This is a circumstance in which all the qualities of the project that make a difference, architecturally and urbanistically, are there, being protected. So everything about that process was designed to bring quality and to contribute to the overall richness of Singapore as a city. I'm full of admiration for the way in which they've gone about it.

Although, in the past, you haven't hesitated to criticize tall buildings and what you call "mega-scale." Marina Bay Sands is a massive project that includes three interlinked, 50-storey hotels. How do you avoid the problems of mega-scale here?

I'm not against high density. I'm the last person to say anything against high density. I just want it to be humanized. So what have I done here? I was the only one to say that the whole waterfront is going to be low-rise buildings. I'm going to push the three towers all the way to the back, which creates a much more comfortable scale relationship between the water, the low-rise buildings--which include the casino, two theatres, a convention centre, a museum of arts and science, and some shopping--and the three hotels.

The next dramatic act was to separate the towers in such a way that great windows--50-storey-high windows--are opening the view of the sea from the city and vice versa. When you come by ship into Singapore, you see through the three towers into the downtown. And all this is crowned by a two-and-a-half-acre sky park, which spans the three towers. So it's the size of an aircraft carrier, with swimming pools and jogging paths and restaurants and a public observatory. All these things--the park space and the open space--mitigate megascale.

I could never have done all that in the traditional developer-architect relationship. It took this third player, the government, to make that possible. And that's why I think it's going to be a miraculous happening when the project opens at the end of 2009, because people will wonder, How did this all come about? I don't think developers acting on their own go that route. Which is to say, governments must play their role in taking responsibility for setting the whole tone of development. We're in an era where any regulation, any regulatory constriants, are considered to be anti-marketplace. But I believe that we're just at the beginning of discovering how to create regulations that can encourage the creative urge of the private sector, while at the same time mandating a certain level of quality. I think we're about to discover how to go down that path.


ELEANOR WACHTEL is the host of CBC Radio's Writers & Company and Wachtel on the Arts. She is the author of four selections of interviews, including Original Minds and Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields. A version of this conversation was broadcast on Wachtel on the Arts on IDEAS and produced by Sascha Hastings.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Queen's Quarterly
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wachtel, Eleanor
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Previous Article:Sean Yelland: Vanishing Point.
Next Article:Margaret Watkins, photographer: seduced by the modern.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |