Through architectural models, photos, and renderings, the retrospective reveals how Safdie, who was born in Haifa in 1938 and moved to Canada with his family when he was young, has integrated culture, history, and modern design into his projects on three continents.
Safdie’s work encompasses more than 85 completed buildings, communities, and master plans, converting into structures the dreams and construction budgets of a surprisingly diverse clientele—including mid-westerners in Wichita, Indian Sikhs in Punjab, and the governments of Israel, Canada, and the United States.
His most significant commissions have been for the public sphere: cultural centers, libraries, memorials, schools, religious facilities, and museums, including the Skirball Cultural Center, where two new buildings that he designed—spaces for social gatherings, lectures, and meetings—have recently been added to his overall plan for the culture center’s campus.
A sense of place is built into his work, especially at a site like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., where low-slung pavilions are situated around reflecting pools, filled by a nearby stream.
“I can’t design without being on the site. I have to see the relationship,” Safdie, after taking a group on a tour of his recently completed Skirball structures, said in an interview with JNS.org.
Speaking of the Skirball, Safdie pointed out that “it’s not a building about religion.” It was the culture center’s “content” and “activities,” he believed, that would make a Jew identify with Judaism. “The architecture enhances the activity,” he explained.
The Skirball is “becoming increasingly social, not just Jewish,” said Safdie, who worked on the project from its inception with Skirball founding president and CEO Uri D. Herscher, who is also a rabbi.
People have written generally that museums are becoming a replacement for houses of worship,” said Safdie, whose additions to the Skirball are being pitched by the institution as places for “social celebrations,” including bar and bat mitzvahs.
The new spaces, which are light-filled and connected to outdoor patios and gardens, are clearly connected to his earlier work. Beginning with the groundbreaking “Habitat” he designed for Montreal’s Expo ’67—the residential community of stacked, prefabricated, concrete blocks that eventually put him on the cover of Newsweek when he was 33—to his cathedral like tower of glass and steel entry way in the National Gallery of Canada, and the wall of glass reading area of his Salt Lake City public library, architectural models on display demonstrate how light is the central theme of Safdie’s work.
According to Donald Albrecht, the Skirball show’s curator who wrote the accompanying book, “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie,” Safdie’s “language of transcendent light, powerful geometric form, and metaphoric imagery produces building that are ceremonial and uplifting.”
“I’m a light maniac,” admitted Safdie. “Light is central. Light is our wellbeing. Light is nourishing. Deprivation of light is a very bad thing for us,” he added.
But according to Albrecht, Safdie also has detractors. They see him as an architect whose “grand forms seem bombastic, his contextual references ersatz, his metaphors too facile,” wrote Albrecht.
For example, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum has been labeled by some as “too theatrical and too optimistic,” according to Albrecht. Nonetheless, the museum for which Safdie felt an “extraordinary responsibility” has become a must-see of Israel.
The design is a long triangular, mostly underground structure that cuts across Yad Vashem’s hillside. According to the show’s text, visitors walk through a “dimly lit narrow space tracing the development of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust,” that eventually opens onto a panoramic sunlit view of Israel.
Many of Safdie’s project drawings are also on display. “We use a computer all the time, but it doesn’t substitute for sketching,” said Safdie. “My sketches are essential to the process; I can’t think on a computer,” he said.
He also uses Legos. “I used them to make Habitat,” said Safdie, who noted that Lego had transformed his three-towered fantasy, Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, into an architecture set of the interlocking plastic blocks.
Considering that Safdie is an architect whose projects have been built under various governments, and in countries with miniscule Jewish populations like Bangladesh, or Beijing—or even a Muslim country like Dubai, where he completed plans for mosque (not built)—he has never experienced anti-Semitism. “I have never felt it my career,” said Safdie.
Speaking about the future of the profession, Safdie, who has also taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, felt that students of architecture “underestimate what they need to do.”
“They think it’s all one design party, but it’s not,” he said. Safdie estimated that design represents only 20 percent of the time he spends on projects, the rest being spent on translating a concept to reality and “dealing with the world.”
Despite Safdie’s success—both he and his work are even on Canadian postage stamps—he generally sees his profession as “underpaid and under-rewarded.” But he still encourages those who are passionate about architecture to go into the field.
“If it gives you satisfaction, it’s wonderful,” he said. “There are great rewards.”
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