“Writing the memoir has allowed me to relive a lot — relive, reassess, and reassess different moments in my development,” says Moshe Safdie. Reflection is a priority for the 84-year-old Israeli-Canadian-American architect who wrote his book, published today, during the COVID-19 lockdown. If Walls Could Talk: My Architectural LifeReads like a memoir cum travel diary cum manifesto, responsible, thoughtful design.
For five years, the architect has been designing innovative, sustainability-focused, socially cutting-edge projects and exploring the future of factory-built housing, beginning with his McGill University School of Engineering dissertation Habitat ’67 – present architect Unbelievably quiet – the Canada Pavilion for Expo 67 was built in Montreal. Since then, Louis Kahn’s former apprentice, former director of the Urban Design Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and tenured professor has continued to work on design at the National Gallery of Canada, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel, the Museum of Holocaust History, Crystal Bridges, Arkansas, and American Art. Buildings such as museums and Singapore Jewel Changi Airport. However, it is not a particular style, the use of glass or geometry, or the desire for materials that ties them together: every Safdie Architects project is designed to benefit its users and their environment.
Safdie is a star architect in all definitions of the word, but not in all connotations. He eschews contemporary practitioners’ preference for the “sculptural self-expression” afforded by new digital design techniques – which he, like almost all global design studios, use in his office – and insists that ” The design that produces this never-before-seen icon, where everything is newly invented, is very anti-Darwinian.” He believes that architecture should “evolve and improve incrementally” in each project, rather than focusing on statements. With the newly active mainstream industry conversation around environmental design, Safdie wants “we’re moving away” to state his desire in the structure.
Humbleness sets Safdie apart in his demeanor and approach to construction. He attributes this to lessons learned from his years of working in Jerusalem, as well as Canada, Singapore and Boston where he currently resides, is based in his studio, and teaches at GSD.
“It taught me that one has to be very concerned about the culture — the traditions of a place. It’s actually a special kind of humility. There’s value in you accepting it,” he explained of Israel’s capital, one of three A holy city for followers of the Abrahamic faith, it is also a place with a truly ancient history. “I think some of my peers came to this historic city and just did their own thing. Total inconsistency is arrogance. Jerusalem healed me.” Born in Haifa, a British-mandated Palestinian territory, Safdie lived exist Kibbutz Before moving to Montreal in 1953 at the age of 15. To “soften the blow of leaving the only home he knew”, his mother took him and his siblings to Rome, London and Paris before planting them firmly in the Canada his father once owned. have begun to rebuild their lives. These tours are a grand tour for the little boy and an introduction to the world of design and culture, of which diversity is a big part of the appeal. His geographic curiosity has guided his work ever since.
“It’s always more satisfying that you can build contemporary buildings that still feel like they belong and are rooted in place,” the architect explained how he designs in any situation. He appeared in architecture at the same time as postmodernist greats such as Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry, and he sees his work as being the “opposite” of these doctrine Still, Gehry was a close friend, the designers insist. (As the new book reveals, Johnson stopped sending out invitations after Safdie lashed out at his 1984 AT&T building in New York.)
Personally, Safdie was warm and intentional in his conversation. He is excited by discussions that question the status quo in the design world. After all, he believes that striving to continually innovate the processes and systems of work is a core tenet of his profession. “Louis Kahn used to ask, ‘What does a building want to be?’ and my interpretation of that is that a building wants to be what it was built for,” he said. Habitat ’67 was an idealistic practice in the form of a middle-class housing complex, built with prefab modules and allowing a “garden for everyone” to take. Ultimately, the construction technology didn’t match his design—and still doesn’t—the modular system could be contextually replicated on the scale Safdie wanted. This is a lesson every architect learns at some point in their career. However, its principles of efficiency and livability are the foundation of the current “green” design movement, and new technologies are helping to create sustainable and environmentally friendly systems. Safdie has also invested in this future, particularly the idea of adding project-driven gardens to the project to create environments that people just want to be in, inspired by his work in Singapore. Mixed-use projects are also at the forefront of his thinking because of the utility they can bring to downsizing large cities. Currently, Epic Games is digitizing Habitat ’67 so that gamers can interact with it virtually anywhere in the world. Safdie hopes that one day he will have the opportunity to build a mixed-use version of the project in real life.
As long as his health allows, the architect insists he has no plans to slow down, although he is grateful for the time to review his work and write the story he has always wanted to tell. “The best way to evaluate an architectural work is to visit it 25 years from now,” he said. In Safdie’s philosophy, a project is technically successful when it fulfills its programmatic needs; when it is accompanied by a design that is both attractive and built for longevity, while creating a sense of well-being for its occupants , present and future, architecture happens. However, designing for the latter often still baffles him. “It’s a mystery,” he said with a smile. “I mean, I know when that’s going to happen, but of course I can’t prescribe it.”
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