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