Moshe Safdie: Humane Design


By Linda Marx

After designing Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas for Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, architect Moshe Safdie hosted her in Israel during her first visit.

One of the most important new museums in the U.S., Crystal Bridges, which opened late last year, houses a permanent collection of more than 400 masterworks of American art ranging from the colonial era to the 21st century.


But what intrigued Safdie, also an urban planner and theorist born in Haifa, Israel, raised in Montreal, and now based in Boston, was his challenge to work with the geographic, cultural and social elements that define this remote location, and at the same time, respond to human wants and needs.

Yet for an award-winning modernist whose firm of 80 architects designs many projects around the world, including residential and public buildings in China, a Sikh museum in India, a music school in Australia, a hospital in Colombia, and urban centers in Israel, why on earth would he be interested in Arkansas? 

“Designing Crystal Bridges was a process unique to the region. It was important to both Alice and me that the design reflect the power of the natural surroundings and marry it with the experience of art,” says Safdie, 74. “The final structure is an extension of the landscape, where art and nature are totally integrated.”

Set within a 100-acre public park in a natural ravine, Safdie designed the museum’s series of wood, concrete and glass pavilions nestled around shallow man-made ponds to complement the natural beauty of what many people used to know as a rural and remote setting. But now the area has scholarship and significance.

The museum’s mission is to bind American art with the breathtaking experience of nature in an intriguing and accessible way. Nothing sums up better what Safdie—who favors dramatic curves, many windows and open green spaces—is all about.

“I learn as much as I can about a project before starting the design process. Architecture has an extraordinary impact on our lives, and it’s important that I have a keen understanding of a project’s function; how people are going to use and experience it; and the historical and cultural fabric into which it will be incorporated,” says the architect, who has branch offices in Toronto, Jerusalem, Shanghai and Singapore. “I am interested in diverse projects that challenge my thinking about how design can have a positive impact.”

For example, before he designed the Virasat-e-Khalsa (formerly known as the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex) on a 100-acre site which is the national museum of the Sikh people in the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in the state of Punjab, India, he did research at many levels. 

“I talked to scholars and immersed myself in Sikh culture and history,” he says of his two years of study. “I wanted the building to possess the essence of the culture’s rich history.”

Yad-Vashem-Holocaust-Museum_View-at-end-of-prismSafdie’s career as an architect and urban planner is noted by his vast assemblage of work, ranging from the urban to the rural, small to mega-scale, highly specialized to multi-purpose, and cutting across geographic, religious and cultural boundaries. He believes that a building cannot be experienced as independent of the land on which it stands.

Projects by Safdie and his team currently under construction or recently completed include Mamilla Alrov Center near the Old City, and the National Campus for the Archeology of Israel, both in Jerusalem; Marina Bay Sands, a $5.5 billion, 10 million-square-foot mixed-use integrated resort in Singapore that Safdie calls “a microcosm of a city rooted in its culture, climate and contemporary life”; the $186 million U.S. Institute of Peace Headquarters on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; Golden Dream Bay, a high density residential project in Qinhuangdao, China; and two halls (1600-seats and 1800-seats) for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.

Newer buildings being planned now include a residential complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka and three more assignments in Singapore. Even though he grows weary of the constant international travel, he knows it is a must at his level of expertise.

“I live in Boston, but I am constantly on the move. It can be a burden at times, but I love to experience new cultures,” he says. “It helps sharpen my thinking about architecture and design.”

Safdie is indeed an internationalist, and he has lived an around-the-world life since he was a young boy.

He left Israel with his family in 1953, to settle in Montreal, Canada. He graduated from McGill University in 1961 with a degree in architecture. After apprenticing with the legendary Louis I. Kahn in Philadelphia, he returned to Montreal to oversee the master plan for the 1967 World Expo after opening his own firm in the cosmopolitan Canadian city three years earlier.

Habitat 67, a groundbreaking model community and housing complex which offered a radical solution for quality affordable housing in Montreal, really ignited his architectural career. It was originally conceived as his master’s thesis in architecture at McGill, and then built as a pavilion for Expo 67, the World’s Fair held in Montreal from April to October, 1967.

Habitat 67’s 354 identical prefabricated concrete forms are arranged in varying combinations, stretching 12 stories high. Its interlocking forms, connected walkways and landscaped terraces were part of Safdie’s interest in creating a natural and private environment within a dense urban space.

Habitat 67 was hyped as a new lifestyle for people who lived in crowded cities so they would have some pause and breathing room. Controversial at first, it became the shining star of Safdie’s belief in improving social interaction through architecture. Since then, many other architects have copied him.

In 1970, Safdie opened his Jerusalem office because he was deeply involved with rebuilding the city, including major segments of the restoration of the Old City and the reconstruction of the new center, linking the Old and New Cities. It was at this time that he further expanded his work to Senegal, Singapore, Iran, and the northern Canadian arctic.

His dedication to rebuilding Israel, led him to later become involved with the new city of Modi’in, Ben Gurion Airport, the new Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Rabin Memorial Center.

In 1978, after stints teaching at Yale, McGill and Ben Gurion universities, Safdie relocated his main office to Boston where he was named Director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He held this post until 1984 when he became an Ian Woodner Professor of Architecture and Urban Design until 1989.

“Harvard brought me to Boston to teach, and although I am no longer with the university, I love Cambridge and its small town living as well as the people and the architecture in the area,” he says. “So I stayed.”

During the 1990s, he worked on six of Canada’s main public institutions, including the Quebec Museum of Civilization, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Vancouver Library Square.

He has written many articles and books on architecture—both theory and practice—and has been featured in several films, including 2004’s Moshe Safdie, The Power of Architecture, a portrait film directed by Donald Winkler.

In fall, 2010, The National Gallery of Canada presented Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, an exhibition that explores his buildings and philosophy. Two additional U.S. venues are planned in 2013 and 2014.

“Through his buildings, Safdie has been especially adept at realizing the aspirations of a surprisingly diverse group of clients,” revealed expert Donald Albrecht, who curated the show. “He has created buildings where communities are forged of strangers, memory is enshrined and identity is created in full form. Few architects have been able to so fully realize their philosophies in practice.”

Such an impressive portfolio keeps the architect busy.

Yet, in the rare times Safdie is not working, he and his Jerusalem-born photographer wife Michal Ronnen Safdie still like to travel to places such as South Africa, Cambodia and the western end of China. “My wife will travel with me for work every second or third trip, but when we vacation, we try and go places we have never been, to see and learn new things,” he says.

While home in Boston, he relaxes by helping Michal cook. They split responsibilities, like many modern couples do, and have a wonderful life. He has four children—two from his first marriage—and four grandchildren.

Safdie knows he is blessed. Yet the architect has no intention of slowing down.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” he says, which truly means…many more cultures to devour.