One of the world’s most renowned and prolific architects, still engaged in projects across several continents, reflects on a career that almost wasn’t.
Had Moshe Safdie become a farmer, some of the most striking buildings on the planet might never have been built.
One of the world’s most noted architects – as well as urban planner, theorist, educator and author – Safdie was born in Haifa in 1938 into what he describes as a typical pre-state childhood spent raising bees and chickens and attending Scout meetings with his school chums. He remembers the economic austerity, as well as World War II, yet it was a time of boundless passion for the budding State of Israel.
“When we were 13 or 14, we all pretty much figured we’d go to Nahal [an infantry brigade known in English as the Fighting Pioneer Youth] and then form our own kibbutz,” he says. “I was going to study at Kadouri Agricultural School, where Yitzhak Rabin had studied.”
But the winter he was 15, his parents moved the family to Canada following six weeks of sightseeing in Europe as they awaited their paperwork. “I was uprooted,” he recalls. “It seemed extremely traumatic to leave Israel in its infancy, being an ardent Zionist and socialist – if a 15-year-old can be that, and I was.” In Canada, farming was no longer an option. An aptitude test taken toward the end of high school revealed that Safdie’s strengths in math and art pointed toward the architectural field. “Had I not left Israel,” he reflects now, “I might not have been an architect.”
Inspired by culture and nature
Guided by the belief that “a building cannot be experienced as independent of the land in which it is rooted,” Safdie’s designs are specific to place and culture. “My immediate inspiration comes from the site itself, the land, the physical context and the culture of the country, as well as the particular character of the institution I’m building for,” he says. “Each embodies a culture, a history, a memory and particular symbolic issues.”
He draws his larger inspiration from the vernacular, indigenous architecture of world cultures, as well as Mother Nature. “I am interested in how nature evolves designs to respond to the survival of an organism and in applying these principles and sensibilities to architecture.”
Much of his approach is a byproduct of the six years he studied at Montreal’s McGill University, where he wrote a groundbreaking thesis on experimental prefabricated housing. After working for a few years in Philadelphia, he accepted an assignment to use his thesis as a basis to create the master plan for the 1967 Montreal International and Universal Exposition. “I proposed a habitat – a sort of a fairy tale – and it got approved and built. That was the beginning of my professional practice,” he explains.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, Safdie returned to Israel for the first time in 14 years at the invitation of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and the International Congress of Architects. Kollek and Housing Minister Mordechai Bentov engaged him for several restoration projects in the ancient quarter of the capital city and the reconstruction of the area linking the new and old sections.
By 1970, he had opened an office in Jerusalem and started spending one week a month in Israel. “I did this for 30 years,” he says, speaking from his Boston-area headquarters. “I do a little less of it now, but I still come to Israel often.” Safdie Architects also has branch offices in Toronto and Singapore.
He and his wife, Jerusalem-born photographer Michal Ronnen Safdie, live in the Boston suburb of Cambridge. He relocated to New England shortly after becoming director of the urban design program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1978. Twelve years on, his practice had grown too large to allow him time for academia.
Communities forged of strangers
“Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie” premiered at the Safdie-designed National Gallery of Canada in October and will travel around North America over the next two years. The exhibit’s curator, Donald Albrecht of the Museum of the City of New York, said Safdie is “especially adept at realizing the aspirations of a surprisingly diverse group of clients. He has created buildings where communities are forged of strangers, memory is enshrined and identity is created in built form,” Albrecht says. “Few architects have been able to so fully realize their philosophies in practice.”
Safdie’s works in Israel offer some prime examples. Safdie identifies Yad Vashem, the multi-building Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority, as one of his most challenging assignments “from the point of view of coming up with architecture that can resonate with the charge of memory and history.”
Designing Ben-Gurion’s new airport presented a different sort of challenge. “I recognized that the building represents the country, and it has to be Israel’s airport – not just any airport.” To achieve that feel, he utilized indigenous native materials such as Jerusalem stone, and purposefully designed the airport’s central rotunda “as a gateway to the country where passengers arriving and departing pass each other in a celebratory way.” He incorporated collected rainwater elements throughout the airport, “to show the significance of water in our culture and ecology.”
In terms of time spent, the mammoth Mamilla project straddling Jerusalem’s Old and New cities was the most monumental, and often frustrating, accomplishment of Safdie’s 40-year career. Encompassing the David’s Village luxury residence, Mamilla residential and shopping complex, David Citadel and Mamilla hotels, an underground parking facility, the Hebrew Union College campus and commercial and recreation spaces, the project “took 35 years of my life, against extraordinary obstacles.”
In his 1984 book Jerusalem: The Future of the Past, he wrote of the HUC campus design that he “did not want a group of buildings, but a singular fabric of many parts.” The $32 million compound, utilizing stone, concrete, glass and aluminum, was under construction from 1976 to 1988. Three years before it was completed, ground was broken for the Safdie-designed $20 million Skirball Cultural Center for American Jewish Life at HUC’s California site, dedicated to exploring the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and American democratic ideals.
A ‘Jewish architect’ with global renown
Probably due to his association with major Jewish projects such as Yad Vashem and Skirball, many people label Safdie as an Israeli and Jewish architect more than they do other well-known Jewish architects such as Frank Gehry, Robert Stern, Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman, observes Safdie. “I don’t think anybody would introduce them as ‘Jewish’ architects, but I have been, to my surprise, introduced as ‘a leading Jewish-Canadian architect.’ For better or worse, it’s part of my identity. But in practice and person, I have generally transcended the political constraints of being an Israeli architect.”
In fact, throughout his career, this Israeli citizen has gotten commissions for major work in Muslim countries including Senegal and Iran. Two years ago, he designed a mosque in Dubai. “I just came back from designing the Asian University of Women in Bangladesh.” Safdie was feted at its completion by the prime minister and foreign minister of this Muslim country.
Not that his universal approach is universally understood. He mentions an article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian claiming that his recent planning work at Jerusalem’s City of David/Silwan area would deprive Palestinian residents of their rights, “which is the opposite of the truth. My plan made it possible to regularize and legalize their rights.” He maintains close relationships with Palestinians and often receives professional inquiries from students and faculty in Middle Eastern countries, “so I know my work is appreciated in places like Saudi Arabia. On the whole, I have been very much accepted in Muslim and Arab countries.”
‘Trilogy of loyalties’
Safdie is a citizen of Israel, Canada and the United States, and considers himself fully engaged in all three countries. “I vote in practically all the elections – I don’t think I’ve ever missed an Israeli election,” he says. While many Jews maintain a dual loyalty to their Diaspora home and their ancestral homeland, Safdie has what he calls “a trilogy of loyalties.”
The four Safdie children, and four grandchildren, live in California and New York. That’s half a world away from Aleppo (Haleb), Syria, where Safdie traces his ancestry; his father arrived in Haifa in 1935. The family’s surname, originally pronounced with an accent on the final “e,” indicates its origins in the mystical city of Safed in the Galilee, from where they migrated to what was then Aleppo in the 16th century.
Safdie speaks Arabic and retains a great interest in Mideast culture. He has an abiding curiosity about other regions as well, having traveled for pleasure to Egypt, Cambodia, Bhutan and even, in 1973, China. “I spent a month there during the cultural revolution,” he says.
All of this informs his architectural style, as does his keen interest in physics and biology.
To absorb himself in the milieu of each project, Safdie spends significant time at the site and its environs before taking out his sketchbook – later turning over his sketches to seven staffers who make “umpteen” models in the office. Once he’s deep into the design phase, he listens to appropriate musical selections to sustain the mood.
“When I was working on Yeshiva Ben Porat Yosef [in Jerusalem, 1970], I listened to Sephardic liturgical music, and I listened to Sikh and Indian music when I was working on the project in Punjab,” he relates. “At home, I appreciate with equal measure [Egyptian singing legend] Umm Kulthum and Bach.”
The architecture of Moshe Safdie
Moshe Safdie’s distinguished career has encompassed urban to rural, small-scale to mega-scale, highly specialized to multipurpose edifices in cities across the world.
A few examples of his major projects are the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1991), the Harvard Business School master plan (1992), the Ford Center for the Performing Arts and Vancouver Library Square in British Columbia (1995); Exploration Place Science Center in Wichita, Kansas (2000); the Salt Lake City (Utah) Main Public Library (2003); the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (2003); the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia (2006); and the Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto (2007).
In Israel alone, his hand is behind some of the most high-profile modern architecture, mostly in Jerusalem: Yeshiva Ben Porat Yosef (1970), Yad Vashem Children’s Holocaust Memorial (1987) and Transport Memorial (1995) and Holocaust History Museum (2005), Hebrew Union College (1988), the planned city of Modi’in (1989), David’s Village (1993), David Citadel Hotel (1998), Mercaz Shimshon Cultural Center (2001), Ben Gurion International Airport (2004), Mamilla Hotel and mall (2009) and the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv (2010).
Now 73, Safdie is still creating – and traveling the world – at breakneck speed. This year he has five new projects opening: Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore (February 17); the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri (September 16); the United States Institute of Peace Headquarters, Washington, DC (September 21); and in November, the Khalsa Heritage Center in Punjab, India, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Also under construction are projects including an addition to Safdie’s Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles; the National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, in Jerusalem; and a high-density residential development in Qinhuangdao, China.
(c) Your Israel Experience.com 2011
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