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CONVERSATION: Citizen of the world

Born in Israel, raised in Canada, Moshe Safdie is a frequent flyer: A wide-ranging designer with imprints from Singapore to India to Washington, DC. This fall, ArchitectureBoston editor Renée Loth met with Safdie in his Somerville office to discuss architecture’s role and reach within an increasingly global marketplace.

Renée Loth: As you know, the theme of this issue is “global,” examining the challenges and opportunities of architects practicing overseas. You’ve worked all over the world, so how do the vast cultural differences of these places influence your design decisions?

Moshe Safdie: The notion of “global” presents a paradox. On one hand, everything I’m learning about architecture is that we must search for the particular, and through the particular we are able to make an architecture that belongs to a place. By belonging, I mean a wide array of issues: that it fits climatically, that it fits the land, that it fits into the traditions of building technology and construction, that it fits into the history and heritage of a place in terms of how it resonates in people’s minds.

But a lot of architects’ practices are becoming global; the two contradict each other. In the traditional sense, the particular was understood best by the local and vernacular architecture. People were not even trained yet created wonderful buildings, the language of which evolved over time, with local materials.

Today, most of us are not trained or inclined to get into the particular. What you’re getting worldwide is the problem of architects who don’t have enough knowledge of the local building at a very large scale. Then there are rare examples where there is an attempt to understand and evolve a design out of that understanding of the local. I guess I consider myself in the last category. My background prepared me for it because I grew up in one culture, then got transplanted, so I spend a lot of time trying to understand it, and the architecture grows out of that search. It will take some time before architects practicing in places strange to them really focus on this business of belonging.

Renée Loth: Architects need to have a concern and sensitivity for the local, but clients sometimes present a difficulty, by having an idea of what suggests “success.” How do you negotiate that delicate question with a client who may not have the same respect for the local that you do?

Moshe Safdie: It’s true in large-scale commercial development but also in institutional building, in let’s say culturally emerging countries, where they might be highly advanced technologically. But if they are going through a transition of urbanization, there is a tendency amongst clients to look at architecture beyond its immediate mission, as something that establishes the image of a country and that the projected image has to be one of progress. Progress is then associated with contemporary, modernistic, and sought after — not the local and the particular.

I’ve had both experiences. With the Khalsa Heritage Centre in Punjab, India, there were those who wanted every production of the house architecture of the temple — just give us what we know. I’m now involved in a project in the Middle East with several architects; some are producing mimics of medieval Muslim architecture, others are proposing buildings that have nothing to do with the climatic and cultural context. These are immediate, live issues. They engage both clients and architects, and there’s a wide variety of sensibilities in both camps.

Renée Loth: At a recent discussion on global practice [“Grounded Visionaries” at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design] you drew a contrast between China and Singapore as places to practice, about their different approaches to planning. How do these manifest themselves in the outcomes?

Moshe Safdie: In Singapore, planning, urban design, and landscape design have had extraordinary credibility and have become tools of government in guiding growth. Much of the land that’s made available for development is landfill created by the government; as a condition of the sale of the land, it attaches guidelines it sees fit. But there is a learning curve. The housing developments the government built in the ’60s and ’70s repeat the stereotypes: Modernist lining up of identical towers and anonymous space. They basically wiped out the vernacular. It was extreme, much was learned, so there is now a greater sensitivity to conservation. There’s an understanding of the public realm and an attempt to create meaningful spaces that transcend individual approaches. That’s the main agenda of dense urbanism: to recapture a meaningful public realm.

The Chinese have not begun with the idea of intervention at that scale. Their starting point was development as fast as possible. Certain cultural traditions, such as urban landscaping, are a big deal and happened well before the urbanistic explosion. When I was there in ’73, even with Mao and the Communist regime, boulevards and railroad lines were planted. But the idea of intervening with private development was strange. At this point, we’re getting big planning interventions in the new ecocities. But if you look at Shanghai and Beijing, it’s still the private sector doing their thing, and the public realm is suffering. In our approaches in China, we’ve got to go out of our way to insist on trying to connect the public realm to its surroundings, and we, not the municipal authorities, are the ones fighting for it. It’s completely different from Singapore in that sense.

Renée Loth: That’s fine for a place like Singapore, with its strong authoritarian government. But how does this translate to a messy democracy? I’m thinking of India’s, for example.

Moshe Safdie: I think “messy” and “democracy” in India should be used separately. India is messy, and it’s sort of a democracy, although a corrupt one. For Singapore, infrastructure and the public realm are cultural and economic priorities in terms of the government and now the people. Singaporeans do not throw a piece of paper on the ground. You could say there’s a big fine if they do it, but it’s already become part of the culture. In India, infrastructure hardly exists. When they do build it, within five years it looks like it’s 100 years old. There’s no culture of maintenance, except for the temples and fancy five-star hotels. There’s no culture of landscaping. You go into a village, and the fact that the water is running on the sidewalk and there’s no drainage has nothing to do with resources; we’re talking about differences between administrations and countries. India has deep problems with the urban environment.

Renée Loth: In Japan, nobody throws a piece of paper on the ground, either, but it’s not because there’s a fine waiting for you if you do.

Moshe Safdie: That is because Japan was a much more cohesive society that developed these norms hundreds of years ago. There must have been a day when it was a matter of policing. Singapore is a more mixed, pluralistic country that just came to being. Luckily enough, they had the leadership that figured that’s important, so they made it part of the agenda. I come from Israel, and when I go there, I’m sick about the filth. Jerusalem is filthy. Tel Aviv is filthy. It shames me, annoys me. The public realm fares terribly because of neglect. People might have the most meticulously clean apartment, then you go into the common stair and it’s disgusting. Some cultures value the public realm from the edge of private ownership outwards; others don’t.

Renée Loth: Does architecture have anything to say about this?

Moshe Safdie: Architecture and urbanism are intertwined, and you can’t separate them because our environment is made up of the collective of many individual buildings. The design I make in countries that I know have maintenance is fundamentally different from the design I would make in countries that have no maintenance culture.

Renée Loth: Can you give me an example of that?

Moshe Safdie: I wouldn’t in my right mind do a building in India that demanded painting every five years. In Singapore, I wouldn’t think twice; I know they’re going to paint it every five years. In India, stone, hardy landscape, light fixtures, anything that’s indestructible becomes part of your thinking, because you want to be able to come and visit five years later.

Renée Loth: Can architecture and urban planning and design nudge a culture to be more respectful of the public realm?

Moshe Safdie: I would ask: Can an architect have an impact in the world, as a force of education? Absolutely. It’s as much educating when you do a building in the United States as when you do one in India; it’s just that the issues are different. You work on a museum, and you’ve got to enlighten clients about the value of daylight because the mindset is that light is bad for the art. That sense of enlightening those you work with, from the client to the broader community to the city, is part of any practice in which there’s conviction. As an architect, if you’re opinionated and you have conviction, then there’s an intense dialogue which involves learning on one side. Why are they objecting to something I’m proposing? Why do they feel so strongly that that’s not going to work? You’ve got to ask yourself that. But at the same time, you have to push.

The biggest fights I’ve had have been the most rewarding. Mamilla, the project I did in the urban center of Jerusalem, took four years to build. The developer wanted to aircondition it. I said no, you can’t; it’s got to be open streets. If you aircondition it, you privatize it. If you privatize it, the Arabs won’t come, the religious won’t come. But keep it open, it will be part of the street. And sure enough, it works. The Arabs come, and the religious come. The payoff for the city is so universally acknowledged that it gives you a lot of satisfaction. When there is conviction, you’ve got to fight for it.

Renée Loth: Conviction. Is that what you mean when you say that architecture should make a social, economic, or political statement?

Moshe Safdie: I don’t think the statement is the emphasis; it should be driven by social convictions. Your design process must be informed. It’s not the statement as much as the basic result. You need to be socially alert and therefore responding to issues as you understand them. That also means economically; if you’re building for a certain group and you make something that’s beyond their means, what’s the point? If you’re building in a country that doesn’t have a maintenance tradition and you create a building that’s beyond their ability to maintain, what’s the point?

At that GSD session, somebody asked: “Where does self-expression come in relationship to the program of a building?” I would rephrase the question: If there’s a conflict between what the building wants to be, in the way Lou Kahn used the term, and what you want the building to be, because of your baggage and obsessions, how do you resolve that conflict? [If we] assert our taste and formal sensibility and are not open to what the thing “wants to be,” that’s when you get caricature architecture or distortions.

Renée Loth: Habitat ’67 is now almost 50 years old. It was so prescient in its recognition of the need for urban density in housing a growing population. The world population is almost seven billion now, twice what it was in 1967, and two-thirds of us live in cities. What are the lessons of Habitat for the megacity? How do we make places like Lagos or Mexico City habitable?

Moshe Safdie: Through our office’s research fellowship, where we work on a set of nonpractice issues, we revisited Habitat five years ago: What would we do today, 50 years later? The first thing we established was that Habitat would have to have 10 times the density. The other thing we concluded is that mixed use is the order of the day. One doesn’t build just housing in the city; now it’s mostly retail and office and housing together. How do you satisfy the quality of life that we implied in Habitat in that context? We did a series of schemes, and the results immediately had application to our actual projects: Singapore’s Bishan Sky Habitat and China’s Golden Dream Bay development Qinhuangdao [reflect] some of that thinking in real-life situations.

Habitat showed that there are ways of rethinking the apartment building. Everybody who visited exclaimed, “I’d love to live there.” In the next 20 years we couldn’t get another one built because of economics, codes, resistance. Then there was a period in which the thrust of architectural thinking turned away. There was Postmodernism, deconstructivism, but it has come full circle. Students in schools today are really into Habitat and the thinking behind it. We weren’t looking at housing and urbanism and high density for many years, but now it’s becoming the center of attention. As I see it, Habitat is an idea whose time is yet to come.

Renée Loth: It’s hard to have a discussion about international practice without talking about the International Style

Moshe Safdie: I have a lot to say about that. I grew up in Haifa and Tel Aviv, the white cities of the International Style. It was a new chapter in looking at architecture, but it was never conceived as an “International Style.” The open plan, the surface as it was applied — it was completely regional in its application to other Mediterranean cities. The one who called it International Style was Philip Johnson, the corrupter of architecture, who, instead of looking at its essence in terms of the kind of space and urbanism that it suggested, looked at it stylistically as a fashion. Later on this would be picked up by, for example, Richard Meier, who translated it to sort of contemporary: Instead of plaster, it was metal panels. But “International Style” was a corrupting term; at its best, it was regionally sensitive evolutional Modernism.

Renée Loth: Is there a tension between the idea that there is a universal approach to building and that there also should be a respect for regional aesthetic or style?

Moshe Safdie: The tension is there. There is today, for example, an international style: the all-glass envelope curtain wall office building. All the variations — twisted, stepped, ziggurat — don’t matter. It’s a formula. It’s associated with certain ideas of progress. It’s relatively cheap to build. It’s economical in the sense of cost/benefit of construction today. It is ecologically blind. The best examples we see are when whatever that represents is seriously adapted to local conditions. And the worst we see — I put a bit of blame on Mies van der Rohe and [Gordon] Bunshaft — is perfecting the glass office building and sending the message that that is a universal solution. The Seagram Building is a great building, but it’s not a great model.

Renée Loth: What is your favorite country to work in?

Moshe Safdie: In Canada, I found extraordinary opportunities to apply my thinking. Beginning with Habitat — what other country would have built it with a 25-year-old kid who’d never built anything? — on through the National Gallery and the library in Vancouver, I was able to push limits. When I came to the United States, I was able to do wonderful things for good clients, both institutions and public bodies. I’m proud of my courthouse in Springfield [Massachusetts], which was done with the government as client. At the big urban scale, the best experience was definitely Singapore. [Marina Bay Sands] got built because [the client’s] objectives and my objectives as an architect resonated. So I’d say Singapore, Canada, the United States.

Israel is a complex place. I had a hard time there, yet some of my most important achievements are in Israel, [including the Holocaust memorial] Yad Vashem, which is probably the most important cultural building I’ve done. ■