Architect Moshe Safdie: ‘I was hostile to postmodernism – and I paid the price’ | Architecture


OSince then, Moshe Safdie was the future. So he wasn’t. Now, decades later, it turns out that, after all, he was. In 1967, he produced Habitat at the Montreal Expo, one of the most memorable projects of that decade, a revolutionary model of urban living that didn’t quite catch on. In 2010, the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore was completed according to his plans, where the world‘s longest infinity pool is raised in a “sky park” 200 meters in the air. With the glass-roofed “paradise garden” and the world’s largest indoor waterfall he installed in the same city’s Changi Airport in 2019, it’s an icon of the era of Instagrammable mega-development. and ultra-spectacular that at least some of them we now inhabit.

Now 84, Safdie reflects on his legacy. He donated his Habitat 67 apartment (because he did what architects are often accused of not doing, which is living in their own developments) to his alma mater, McGill University of Montreal, as well as its archives. He wrote a memoir If walls could talk, which dates back to his birth in Haifa, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, to Jewish parents, his mother from Manchester and his father from Aleppo. Now, sitting in the London home of restaurateur Ruthie Rogers and her late husband, architect Richard Rogers, old friends of his, Safdie reflects on his career. “For a building built by a bunch of kids, it held up surprisingly well,” he says of Habitat.

Safdie, who moved to Canada with his family as a teenager, was working in the office of famed Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn when he got the chance to work on Expo 67. “I was a young immigrant of 25 years who had never built a building in his life,” he said. The project gave him the chance to realize what was essentially his student thesis project, a concept he had pursued with “obsessive” energy. It grew out of a tour he had made of housing in the United States, both the vast public housing projects in inner cities such as Chicago and the grassroots developments that private developers put up in the suburbs, especially the “Levittowns” that Levitt and Sons built. in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

“Social housing really shocked me,” he says, “monotonous…crushing…as if the residents were locked in cages.” So he decided to give the urban apartments the characteristics that drew people to Levittowns – so that “each apartment felt like a home, with its own garden”. These projects would be constructed using prefabricated building elements, for greater efficiency, but would achieve “variety in standardization”. He thus hoped to achieve “an urban option with a quality of life equal to that of the suburbs”, and thus “to stem the peri-urban exodus” which was then hollowing out the centers of North American cities.

Safdie’s Habitat 67 housing project in Montreal, created so that “each apartment feels like a home, with its own garden”. Alamy

Habitat thus created 158 houses out of 354 identical concrete boxes stacked like children’s building blocks, sometimes swaying dizzily in the cool air, with vegetation climbing up its terraces, a composition that may owe something to eastern Mediterranean towns. of Safdie’s childhood. It was built despite financial and political storms that shrunk it to a third of its original size and a minister’s threat to dump the concrete boxes before they were erected in the nearby St. Lawrence River. The project, said one reviewer, was “an extremely insane example of criminal naivete”.

But it was a hit of the expo, his image going as viral as viral then could get. This put Safdie on the cover of Newsweek. It was mostly popular with people who ended up living there, although there were some complaints about the humidity. “For a utopian project”, says its creator, “it was totally accepted by the public”. He had, however, hoped that the idea would “reproduce like mushrooms”, but it did not. Potential habitats in New York and Puerto Rico came to nothing. “In the ’70s and ’80s, his ideas were ignored,” says Safdie, even as his stepped terraces became a favorite motif of Mediterranean and Caribbean resort hotels.

Safdie began designing projects in Israel, for example, on the decades-long reconstruction of Jerusalem’s Mamilla neighborhood, which had been devastated by conflict and is now, according to his book, “among the few places where Arabs and the Jews take advantage of the city”. together”. Other projects included a terminal at Ben Gurion Airport. Safdie designed two memorials at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center at Yad Vashem and, from 1995 until it opened in 2005, the Holocaust site. He continues to work in Israel; although he says that the settlements in the occupied territories are a “tragedy” and that “what is happening there causes me a lot of frustration and pain”, c It is “a stupid mistake” to boycott the country completely.

He also built a distinguished career in North America. He was asked to return to work in Canada, after a break of a few years, where he designed the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (1988), the Vancouver Public Library (1995) and other cultural monuments. But Safdie was outside the mainstream of critically-approved architecture. “In the 70s and 80s, my ideas were ignored. I was hostile to postmodernism” – the style then in vogue – “and I paid the price for it.

Marina Bay Sands, with its 150 meter long infinity pool perched on the 57th floor.  Moshe Architects
Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, its 150 meter long infinity pool perched on the 57th floor. Moshe Architects Photography: Moshe Architects

He never really returned to that critical mainstream, but he designed the Marina Bay Sands “integrated resort” (2011), a $5 billion leisure and retail extravaganza complete with a convention center, exhibition halls and a casino, which took only four years from conception. Upon completion. Comprised of three towers supporting the curved, jutting, 340-metre-long, 200-metre-high beam of its aerial park, it’s not exactly subtle or graceful, but it’s become a Sydney opera house of turbo-commerce led by the city-state government of Singapore. “I had no idea it would become an instant icon of the city,” Safdie says, “but the public embraced it as boommm.

Then came Jewel Changi Airport (2019), where the shopping spree that accompanies modern transportation takes place in a simulated forest so lush and overwhelming that, according to Safdie, “when you’re there, you forget where you are.” More recently, his Raffles City project (2020) was completed in the Chinese city of Chongqing, an even grander variant of the Marina Bay Sands idea, whose cross-beam design bears sufficient conceptual similarity to the Singapore model. for causing the latter’s developer to sue Safdie, unsuccessfully, for reusing his own architectural motif.

Safdie's Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore.
“When you’re in it, you forget where you are,” says Safdie from her Jewel Changi airport in Singapore. Alamy

What, then, connects the idealism of Habitat 67 to the commercial mega-developments in Singapore and China? An enthusiasm for fusing his architectural compositions with big chunks of nature, to begin with. Formal audacity too, copious nerve and carelessness of ordinary good taste. Most important, Safdie would say, is the intention to design for the people who use the buildings – those terraces in Montreal, the trees in Changi. He describes how, even though the developments in Singapore and Chongqing are privately owned, he strives to provide public access to them. You don’t need to catch a flight or go shopping to enjoy the airport garden, which many Singaporeans do.

In his book, Safdie describes his early infatuation with Source, Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel that celebrates the vast creative ego of her architect-hero Howard Roark, which he quickly dismissed in favor of “care for life” for those he builds for. In truth, there are still plenty of Roarks in Safdie’s hugely ambitious projects, but I can also believe that they give more people more enjoyment than the same commissions in the hands of other architects.

If Walls Could Talk: My Life in Architecture by Moshe Safdie (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, £25). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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