From Habitat 67 to Marina Bay Sands, Moshe Safdie designed a
From a university design project that has become one of the most recognizable apartment complexes in the world, to major urban developments in Asia that span millions of square feet, architect Moshe Safdie has consistently pursued constant and sometimes perilous dreams of large-scale architectural design. His first project, the Habitat 67 fractal-like concrete module housing project, remains an influential example of residential design; and landmark projects by his firm Safdie Architects, such as Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and Raffles City in Chongqing, have pushed the boundaries of vertical urbanism. In a new memoir, If walls could talk Safdie traces the highs and lows of a career that spans seven decades.
Safdie is known for such extraordinary works as the National Gallery of Canada, the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, the Crystal Bridges American Art Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the lush garden and spectacle of fountains at Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. It has also experienced headwinds and repeated failures on projects attempting to combine architecture and city building into large-scale megastructures. In many ways, these projects are extensions of Safdie’s original plans for Habitat 67, which proposed an entire community encompassed in a mixed-use complex, with walkways connecting internal neighborhoods and each apartment with its own rooftop garden. What was built in Montreal was only a small part of a larger vision. Now, at 84, Safdie is finally seeing some of those early ideas take shape.
Born in 1938 in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel), Safdie and his family were present for the founding of Israel a decade later, and a young Safdie had idealistic visions of joining his friends after their military service. to start a communal farm. When Safdie was 15, his textile-importing father decided to leave what he saw as an oppressive business climate in Israel and move the family to Montreal, an uprooting Safdie calls “deeply traumatic.” A self-described wild child, Safdie became a more serious student in Montreal, taking an interest in literature and science. A high school aptitude test made a prophetic career suggestion: “It said ‘suitable for architecture,'” Safdie recalls. “That was enough.”
Safdie enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, in a six-year architecture program. Prior to his senior year, he received a traveling scholarship that took him on a Canada-US tour of major housing developments, including public housing projects like Cabrini-Green in Chicago and homes suburb in Levittown, New Jersey. It was a formative experience that led directly to his thesis project exploring a site-independent system for building community-oriented housing. This concept eventually became Habitat 67, the fractalized apartment complex built for the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair, and has since inspired Safdie’s projects, both built and unbuilt.
Quick business: Your travel scholarship seems to have had an indelible impact on how you think about housing construction and the potential of the megastructure in city building. Does this trip still influence the way you work today?
Moshe Safdie: The original Habitat, the one that wasn’t built because the government decided we were only going to do a small part of it, was actually an entire community. There were offices, there was a school, it was really a sector of the city. Added to this is the ambition to rethink building systems. They were two parallel challenges to each other, and one had nothing to do with the other. A difficult thing to do. And it’s unfortunate because people think of Habitat as an apartment building because it’s small — 150 apartments — but the idea was bigger. Some of the last habitats that weren’t built tried to cope with this scale. But it’s only now, over the past 15 years and mostly in Asia, that we’re really able, ourselves, to get back to projects of this scale and mixing and working on a city scale rather than at the scale of the individual building.
CF: These Unbuilt Habitats – a pyramid-shaped version for New York, a proposal in Washington, DC, and a partially built but never completed version in Puerto Rico – highlight the challenge of this type of planning to large scale and design. There is so much potential for things to fall apart. How did you have the perseverance to keep pursuing these kinds of projects even though, for various reasons, they often don’t come to fruition?
MRS: I think it’s a combination of conviction and a character that is persistent. I do not give up. Mamilla in Jerusalem took me over 35 years to complete. He wouldn’t be here if I didn’t insist. I was the only one there, alone at times, pushing for it. I think you have to be passionate and have a strong conviction, but you have to have a character that doesn’t get tired.
CF: The Mamilla project, a 28-acre mixed-use urban neighborhood, has repeatedly come close to failing. In the book, you call it “40 years of agony.” Have you ever thought it wasn’t worth it?
MRS: Yes. There were many such moments. In fact, one moment involved a friendship. My dear friend, an architect, is appointed chief planner of Jerusalem, with my help. And it backfires on me, in the sense of not supporting the project and trying to introduce major changes, some of which would compromise it. At some point, you say it’s too much. But in the end, the impact on the city was for me so important that I could not give up. I knew it would change the nature of the relationship between the old and the new town. Mamilla has created such a vital bridge that you can’t even think of them as separate.
FC: I was surprised to read in the book that you were even considering running for mayor of Jerusalem at one point.
MRS: I did it. Teddy Kollek [Jerusalem mayor from 1965 to 1993]who I was very, very close to, resigned, and the candidates for the elections were only politicians, [eventual Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and people who were not attached to the city, who had other agendas. And I, naively, or maybe not so naively, thought that if I could become mayor, I could bridge the Palestinian divide a bit, get Palestinians to vote because I could speak some Arabic and do appeal to this sector. And I also thought I could make a big difference in the layout of the city. But as my wife pointed out, it’s an important decision because it means giving up architecture. In the end, I felt that I had more to contribute as an architect moving forward than the political luck of succeeding, which has a high probability of failure anyway.
CF: You write about going to meet Robert Moses, the famous New York civil servant who embodied the tense nature of top-down urban transformation. Much can be said about Robert Moses and his impact on cities, but there is also an argument to be made that when someone has a broad view, they can try to approach issues in a big way. Do you still think this approach has the potential to work?
MRS: Absolutely. Let’s start with Moses. Just because he had bad judgment about some of what he did doesn’t mean he denies what he accomplished and the scale on which he operated. I think Moses has to be thought of in the same frame as the City Beautiful movement, the Olmsteds of the world, the people who created Central Park, and the Emerald Necklace in Boston. They were civic leaders who really believed in this scale of intervention. It is to this tradition that Moses belongs. He got his judgment wrong, and it’s hard to blame him because the whole modern movement got his judgment wrong. Le Corbusier spoke of tearing up the streets everywhere [and replacing them with mega “motor-roads”] and we complain to Moses that he wanted to cross a highway that would have affected the neighborhoods. But it is the avant-garde architects who preach the end of the street. The influence of Jane Jacobs [and giving voice to community members] is a positive contribution. But now the pendulum has swung too far. The infrastructure bill which has just been passed, there is no chance that we will see dramatic results unless we change our ways in terms of approval of plans, scale of consideration , scale of intervention, circumventing certain obstacles even if a particular interest group opposes it. You can’t give everyone a veto if you do things on that scale.
CF: You have managed to do work on this scale, in China for example, and in several large projects in Singapore.
MRS: They don’t ask. In Singapore, it’s easier because the voice of the community or any small voice of opposition can be drowned out.
CF: It seems like a dilemma, working with this kind of regime…not sure if that’s the right word, but maybe it is.
MRS: He is. You work in a political system where authority is much more concentrated. He is able to think big and do big. It’s true of China, and it’s true of Singapore without all the oppression – they have elections, they have courts. Nevertheless, the very fact that most of the land is state-owned in Singapore gives the government enormous control. It makes it possible to do things in Singapore that you wouldn’t even consider here. It also has results. Because unlike when you have a big urban project in a city like New York, it’s not just each developer who does his thing because they set objectives for each neighborhood that they impose on each developer so that it works in a consistent. We don’t have any of that. Planning has been truly discredited and nearly eliminated in most American cities.
FC: One of your most notable projects, Marina Bay Sands, became iconic for its skypark and pool spanning 3 towers horizontally, 57 stories above ground, which people probably know from the movie boobies rich asian. In the book, you write that you found that signature item by saying “Well, why not?” So it happened almost on a whim?
MRS: It made. We were there, and we had three laps and we had the podium. And the pressure was to try to put all the pools and all the parks on the podium, which they always do in Vegas. And that seemed so unlikely to me. They were huge spans, they would be in the shadow of the towers six hours a day. It just didn’t seem logical. And it was like a spontaneous thing. Why not? And everything followed. You don’t get many real eureka moments, but this is one.
FC: Habitat seems to dominate your work. You mention in the book this desire to do this type of concept at a much higher density and scale than you have done in Montreal, or even in Singapore and elsewhere. Do you see that on the horizon? Can this happen for you, for your business to move on?
MRS: I see it for my business, but beyond that. Habitat’s ideas were partially ignored, partially derided as a one-time thing, for at least 20 years. But now it’s completely changed. Because the next generation, if you think of the different offices, such as the offshoots of OMA, Bjarke Ingels Group, Herzog & de Meuron, they all embrace these ideas. There are Habitats popping up everywhere. They’re part of the avant-garde mainstream, and that’s what makes me both happy and optimistic. It passed me by.