Moshe Safdie

MOSHE SAFDIE chats with so­nia kolesnikov­jes­sop about mega-scale projects and ar­chi­tects’ so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

when moshe safdie first en­vi­sioned his now iconic de­sign for Habi­tat 67 at the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967, he wanted to ad­dress the need for af­ford­able hous­ing that kept liv­ing stan­dards high even in an en­vi­ron­ment with in­creas­ing den­sity.

His was a re­ac­tion against the mod­ernist vi­sion of res­i­den­tial hous­ing pro­posed by the likes of Le Cor­bus­ier, as ex­em­pli­fied by Cité Radieuse in Mar­seilles, an 18-storey block that re­de­fined high-den­sity liv­ing af­ter World War II. Safdie reimag­ined the build­ing as a pile of pre­fab­ri­cated con­crete boxes, piled like chil­dren’s blocks to give it a dra­matic stacked pro­file.

“I ar­rived in Canada as a very young per­son, im­mersed in the op­ti­mism of the early years of Is­rael, and with the ex­pe­ri­ence of com­mu­nal life, the kib­butz (and) the co­op­er­a­tives. As a young ar­chi­tect, I was try­ing to come up with a kind of utopia and the di­rec­tion I took was very much cre­at­ing a com­plex around com­mu­nity life,” he says.

Though the project was scaled down to 158 units, the idea was still revo­lu­tion­ary as it broke the mould of the ex­truded aes­thetic of high-rise hous­ing. It earned him a Newsweek cover.

More than 50 years later, this Is­raeli- Cana­dian- Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect is still fac­ing the same is­sues, al­beit on a scale and den­sity he never imag­ined when draw­ing up the plans for Habi­tat 67.

In the last decade, Safdie and his

team have re­vis­ited some prin­ci­ples of Habi­tat 67 with large-scale projects through­out Asia. By break­ing down the scale of typ­i­cal sin­gle-tower res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ments, they thought they could of­fer a more hu­mane liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Up­dat­ing his ini­tial con­cepts and mov­ing away from pre-fab­ri­cated blocks and the utopian ideal of equal­ity al­lowed re­cent works to make full use of the lat­est ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques to also bet­ter re­flect con­tem­po­rary re­al­i­ties.

“In Habi­tat 67 the qual­ity of all apart­ments was even; ev­ery­body had a gar­den and ter­race, they had their own ex­po­sures to lights and views. There was a great ef­fort on our part to be eq­ui­table,” he says.

“In the new projects, it varies. Maybe a third have a large roof gar­den, oth­ers have bal­conies — some are big­ger or smaller — and there is a great mix maybe in an­tic­i­pa­tion of dif­fer­ent types of fam­ily units. Some have kids, some are empty nesters and some are sin­gles. There is more vari­a­tion in qual­ity and choices.”

In Sin­ga­pore, for ex­am­ple, Sky Habi­tat of­fers 509 apart­ments, each with its own ter­race or bal­cony, and which over­looks three bridg­ing sky gar­dens that link two stepped tow­ers. Mean­while, in China, Golden Dream Bay, a 2,500-unit apart­ment build­ing, en­sures ev­ery unit re­ceives at least three hours of sun­light daily (even dur­ing the winter sol­stice), with the com­plex punc­tu­ated by pri­vate green spaces, ter­races and roof decks.

Big com­plexes can cre­ate big prob­lems but Safdie points out that break­ing them up into smaller in­cre­ments is part of the so­lu­tion. “If we see a build­ing that is 500-m long, we feel small and over­whelmed. If we can break it down into smaller parts, it starts feel­ing more com­fort­able. If you see a build­ing that cre­ates an as­phalt jun­gle, we feel de­prived of light and na­ture; if we can bring plant life in, we al­ways feel a lit­tle bet­ter be­cause with plants we feel na­ture is there. If plants can sur­vive, so can we. It is a se­ries of el­e­ments of well­be­ing we’re try­ing to re­store in the mega-scale.”

But to live more har­mo­niously in a mega-city re­quires clear think­ing by ur­ban plan­ners and Safdie be­lieves the plan­ning of cities and dis­tricts re­mains a “ne­glected field that re­ally has to be res­ur­rected”.

“Back in the 1920s, most avant­garde ar­chi­tects thought of ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban de­sign as in­ter-re­lated ques­tions. The de­sign

of the cities and build­ings were clearly closely in­ter­twined in their minds. I think when the mod­ernist move­ment was dis­cred­ited for hav­ing cre­ated many fail­ures, there was a counter-re­ac­tion that you shouldn’t plan at all, you shouldn’t plan big, you should just build in­cre­men­tally,” he notes.

“The trou­ble is, it’s not the re­al­ity. For ex­am­ple, in China, they build a city for 2 mil­lion peo­ple in 5 years. There­fore you must plan, and these plans must have in­her­ent con­sid­er­a­tion of scale and cir­cu­la­tion. They should not im­pose ev­ery de­tail but be a frame­work to guide in­di­vid­ual build­ings. Sin­ga­pore is one of the few places where a lot of ur­ban de­sign is done ahead of in­di­vid­ual build­ings, mostly by the Ur­ban Re­de­vel­op­ment Author­ity and its con­sul­tants.”

“Dubai has done very lit­tle of that. It’s more of ‘let the mar­ket take its own course’. We have been suf­fer­ing for decades hence. Prop­erty de­vel­op­ers are driven by spec­u­la­tion on land val­ues and zon­ing. If there aren’t con­trols, it es­ca­lates be­cause ev­ery­body is greedy and wants to build as much as they can on their land.”

One cen­tral tenet of Safdie’s de­sign phi­los­o­phy through­out his ca­reer has been con­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion and lo­cal­i­sa­tion. “I’m fas­ci­nated by how we, as ar­chi­tects, can try bring­ing his­tory, her­itage, lo­cal cul­ture and lo­cal life­style into a par­tic­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture we are de­sign­ing. In the olden days, if you hap­pen to build in Scan­di­navia, you’d build with wood, you’d build within your cul­ture, and con­sider the sea­sons. But as the world glob­alises and we travel and work all over the place, there is a same­ness that’s taken over, and you have no sense of where you are. Lo­cal char­ac­ter is now only found in the older, his­tor­i­cal parts of cities, oth­er­wise you can’t tell if you are in Shang­hai, Jo­han­nes­burg or Sao Paulo.”

The Bos­ton-based ar­chi­tect be­lieves an ar­chi­tect’s cre­ation “needs to adapt to its set­ting”. He says, “As ar­chi­tects we are build­ing an en­vi­ron­ment for so­ci­ety. We cre­ate a frame­work in which we spend our lives, there­fore we don’t have the lux­ury to call our­selves artists in the same sense as in Western cul­tures where the artist is a free-wheel­ing, in­de­pen­dent spirit who can do what­ever he sees fit. We have a very tight pro­gramme of needs, re­quire­ments and eco­nomics, and we must func­tion within that frame­work. If we don’t, we’re not act­ing as re­spon­si­ble ar­chi­tects. Ar­chi­tec­ture must ad­dress the is­sues of the day. The un­der­ly­ing so­cial role of the ar­chi­tect is that they are not func­tion­ing in a vac­uum. They are prob­lem-solvers for the so­ci­ety in which they live.”

Re­flect­ing this is the Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in Ben­tonville, Arkansas. Nes­tled in a steep ravine above a stream and two creek-fed ponds, it in­cor­po­rates lam­i­nated Arkansas pine and al­lows the an­nual high wa­ters to move through un­in­ter­rupted. Like­wise, the Khalsa Her­itage Cen­tre in In­dia was built from lo­cal sand­stone, as if ris­ing out from the cliffs.

Safdie re­fuses to be pi­geon­holed into a style or move­ment, but ad­mits there are re­cur­ring el­e­ments and

pre­oc­cu­pa­tions in his de­signs, such as his “in­ter­est and ob­ses­sion with gar­dens and out­door spaces, bring­ing na­ture into ar­chi­tec­ture, whether in­doors or out­doors. And there is a fas­ci­na­tion with cer­tain ge­ome­tries.”

“When I do struc­tures that are very big, like an air­port or mu­seum, there is al­ways a hi­er­ar­chy of cir­cu­la­tion and move­ment such as a cen­tral spine that makes it leg­i­ble. These re­cur in all projects re­gard­less of the adap­tion to ma­te­ri­als,” he shares.

His de­signs have evolved and re­flect par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. “You could say I’ve had dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods: The first 10 years with Habi­tat 67, the other Habi­tat de­signs [which were not built], and my de­sign for the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou [for which he was not re­tained] were all about mod­ules, repet­i­tive build­ing blocks, pre­fab­ri­ca­tion,” says Safdie.

“The years I started build­ing in Jerusalem, I be­came very in­ter­ested in his­tor­i­cal con­text and lo­cal ma­te­ri­als — in this case, stone — to­pog­ra­phy and gen­er­ally the Mid­dle East her­itage. Then, be­tween 1980s and 1990s, I worked mostly on ma­jor pub­lic build­ings like li­braries, na­tional mu­se­ums and court­houses, which bear many sym­bolic over­tones and is­sues.”

“In the last 20 years, the dom­i­nant as­pect of my prac­tice has been Asia and the mega-scale, though I con­tinue to work on other projects in­clud­ing a pub­lic li­brary in Boise, the Na­tional Medal of Honor Mu­seum in Charleston, and a hos­pi­tal in Carta­gena.”

Habi­tat 67 re­mains close to Safdie’s heart — he lived in one of its apart­ments on-and-off and raised his chil­dren there, be­fore mov­ing to Bos­ton. The build­ing has been des­ig­nated a her­itage site by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, and his apart­ment a her­itage in­te­rior. Hav­ing re­stored it to the ex­act state when it was first built 50 years ago, Safdie now plans to gift the apart­ment to a Montreal in­sti­tu­tion and it will be avail­able for pub­lic view­ing.

FROM LEFT: DE­SIGNED BY SAFDIE AR­CHI­TECTS, THE KHALSA HER­ITAGE CEN­TRE IN IN­DIA CEL­E­BRATES THE SIKH PEO­PLE; MOSHE SAFDIE

THE SAFDIE- DE­SIGNED YAD VASHEM WORLD HOLO­CAUST RE­MEM­BRANCE CEN­TER IN IS­RAEL IS A PRISM- LIKE STRUC­TURE THAT CANTILEVERS OUT INTO THE MOUN­TAIN; (BELOW) THE RAF­FLES CITY CHONGQING WILL OPEN IN 2019

FROM TOP: SKY HABI­TAT IN SIN­GA­PORE FEATURESTHREE SKY GAR­DENS; THE ICONIC HABI­TAT 67 IN MONTREAL, WHOSE INI­TIAL CON­CEPTS HAVE BEEN UP­DATED TO BIRTH NEW LARGE-SCALE PROJECTS ACROSS ASIA

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