Success won too quickly, or too easily, before the age of 30 will bring the burden of impossible expectations—think of Orson Welles, or Vietnam War Memorial designer Maya Lin. The architect Moshe Safdie might have been one such sad creature, but his brief stint as an overnight sensation did not turn his head. Instead, he became one of architecture’s most respected elder statesmen. This suggests uncommon depth of character, which is also a quality that emanates from his refreshingly unpretentious memoir, If Walls Could Speak.
It takes an act of imagination to appreciate just how radical the building that made his reputation was. It caught the zeitgeist, striking its sweet spot so precisely as to loft it into orbit, along with its architect, who became an international celebrity at the age of 29. The building was called Habitat ’67, and it was located in Montreal, the site of the last great world’s fair. There was hardly a current of modern revolutionary thought—aesthetic, technological, and social—that Habitat ’67 did not touch. Simply to see a photograph of the realized building—I recall my first sight of one at the age of 10—was to change one’s conception of what architecture could be.
Safdie took 354 prefab concrete modules and drew them together in a rambling 12-story composition—if something as irregular as a coral reef could be called a composition. It defied the notion that a building was an object with a distinct shape; here there was no formal shape whatsoever, only agglomeration. With its stacked interlocking units providing its own paths of circulation, Habitat ’67 effectively abolished the traditional street and perhaps, if taken to its logical conclusion, the city itself. It anticipated a future in which human habitation itself might be transformed, where one would no longer think in terms of buildings and rooms but cells and capsules. After all, it came to be at a moment when moon bases seemed just around the corner.
Few of us would survive such a staggering debut. But far from trying to repeat his early success, Safdie instead became an architect of uncommon range and versatility, with major buildings of culture (the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas) to extravagant resorts (the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore) to poignant memorials (the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, Israel). It is not the career anyone would have anticipated for the son of a textile merchant in Haifa, where Safdie was born in 1938 and where he would spend the first 15 years of his life.
Safdie speaks affectionately about his childhood, although it had its share of drama. Haifa was bombed during World War II, though not by the Luftwaffe. (“Luckily for us…it was [Italy’s] Regia Aeronautica.”) When Erwin Rommel led the Afrika Korps through the Libyan desert, the family fled for a time to Lebanon. His family was unusually cosmopolitan: His mother had been born in Manchester, the daughter of another textile merchant, while his father came from Aleppo, Syria, which meant that he spoke Arabic and French but very poor Hebrew. The family always had Arab friends, and Safdie grew up speaking Arabic. He spent his summers working on kibbutzim, waking at five A.M. to pick potatoes and fruit, and he took for granted that he would study agriculture.
Business setbacks led the family to emigrate. Safdie’s mother insisted that their new home had to be “an English-speaking democracy,” and in 1953 they found themselves in Montreal. For the first time, Safdie met Jews who were not Israelis, and he found them perplexing. Acutely conscious of their minority status, they had to work at their Jewish identity, while for him “Jewish identity was a fact, not a question.” He quickly became a good student, which he had not been in Israel, and upon graduation announced to his parents that he would be enrolling in McGill University’s school of architecture. They were startled, since the only previous indication of any interest in architecture was his habit of doodling designs for cars.
Safdie’s six years at McGill were transformative. The school treated architecture as building, not art, and the professors who left the deepest impression on Safdie were those who stressed the practical issues of site and materials. For example, he had a Chinese-Canadian professor who taught soil mechanics, which must be understood if one is to design a foundation that will stand up. One presumes that most students regarded the course as tedious drudgery, but for Safdie it was high drama, since he found that the behavior of clay, sand, or gravel had immense consequences for a design. It was here, Safdie claims, that he “learned to think of architecture and structure as a single thing.”
In retrospect, he writes, it was the exact right moment to study architecture. He came to his profession at a time when there was still an implicit belief that an architect needed a sense of social responsibility. The calling was to make buildings that would benefit all of society, not merely the wealthy, and that would address the fundamental need for humane housing, infrastructure, and transportation. All this, he writes, “resonated with values I had absorbed as a youth in Israel.”
After graduation, he spent a year in the office of Louis I. Kahn, the late-blooming Philadelphia architect who was just then hitting his stride. Kahn’s buildings did not try to conceal their humble air ducts and stair towers behind elegant façades that were essentially stage scenery; instead, they embraced the blunt reality of their existence. All this offered an alternative to an international-style modernism that had become formulaic and predictable, and Safdie found it exhilarating. He befriended Anne Tyng, Kahn’s assistant and the mother of his daughter Alex, and was struck by her obsessive experiments in making buildings out of interlocking geometric modules. He returned to Montreal in mid-1963 to work on Expo ’67. His Habitat was the star construct of the fair, eclipsing even Buckminster Fuller’s massive and astonishing geodesic dome that served as the American pavilion.
Offers began pouring in. Mayor John Lindsay visited Habitat, was impressed, and a site for a 30- or 40-story high-rise Habitat was found on the East River in Lower Manhattan. George Romney, who would soon serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Nixon, was also impressed; planning began for two new Habitats, one in Washington, D.C., and another in Puerto Rico. There was even to be a Habitat Jerusalem. None of these came to pass—it was all “false starts and dead ends,” he notes with chagrin—but it was in Jerusalem that he came to find his footing.
Safdie returned to Israel for an architectural conference in Tel Aviv at the end of 1967 and was dismayed by the changes in the country. It had become more provincial, less glamorous, and decidedly uglier, despoiled as the landscape was by shikunim, drab five-story concrete apartment houses built in the late 1950s to accommodate the waves of new immigrants. Most of them came from Arab countries, another surprise for Safdie, who as a schoolboy had been “the only Sephardi in a class of Ashkenazim.” Not until he left Tel Aviv for Israel’s countryside did he encounter the beauty he remembered.
At that conference Safdie met and befriended Teddy Kollek, who two years earlier had been elected mayor of Jerusalem, then a relatively small city. But Israel had just wrested the Old City from Jordan in the Six-Day War, which doubled Kollek’s jurisdiction and gave him a population that was one-third Arab. This had architectural ramifications, and Safdie was offered commissions. One was to create a whole new neighborhood, Mamilla, a 25-acre site on the former no-man’s-land between the Israeli and Jordanian quarters. Another was to redesign the quarter around the Western Wall, which would have involved excavating down to the original Herodian pavement, in effect making the wall 30 feet higher. The first succeeded while the second came to grief. Even so, by 1971 he had enough work to open a second office in Israel.
Readers without a special interest in architecture but who are interested in the political and cultural life of Israel will find Safdie’s memoir rich in lively anecdote. One is struck again and again by how small its social world is, and how everyone seems to know everyone else. Thus is it possible for Safdie to visit a novelist friend and meet Israel Tal, the general commanding the Israeli tank force, and find himself involved in the design of the new Merkava tank. His contribution was to make it more streamlined and to pull back its projections into a continuous envelope (in effect, he notes with obvious pleasure, making it resemble his beloved Citroën).
During these same years, his North American career was burgeoning. At first glance, it seems odd that a man who burst onto the architectural scene in such radical fashion was being pelted with commissions for civic and cultural buildings. Yet the architectural landscape was changing in the 1970s, the decade of postmodernism—to Safdie’s disgust. “Where modernists were inspired by social ideals,” he writes, “the approach of postmodernists was essentially pictorial.” By this he meant that the postmodernists treated architecture as a visual game, without thought of its social consequences, encouraging architects to be glib and self-indulgent.
Safdie summed up his views in a 1981 article in the Atlantic with the memorable title “Private Jokes in Public Places.” That piece in turn enraged many in the profession (whom he called out by name) and damaged his relationship with such former friends as Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson. But as it happened, there were still cultural institutions that did not care to build private jokes. Safdie was commissioned to design the new Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery in Ottawa, as well as important libraries in Vancouver and Salt Lake City.
Eventually he came to Bentonville, Arkansas, for the Crystal Bridges Museum, created by Alice Walton and supported by the family’s fortune from its empire Walmart stores. (On the way to his job interview, Safdie reveals, he dipped into a Walmart store, something he had never done before.) For the product of one of the staggering art-buying forays in history, Crystal Bridges is not a swaggering building. In fact, it is hardly a building at all but rather an ensemble of pavilions to the other side of a water-filled ravine, connected by a pair of handsome bridges hung from cables. When I reviewed it for COMMENTARY in 2011, I could find nothing to fault except the gloominess of the galleries, which I said desperately needed skylights.1 I learned from this memoir that Safdie had indeed designed the building with generous skylights (“nothing compares with seeing works of art in natural light”) but that they had been removed during the course of construction by a new and unsympathetic museum director.
Postmodernism may have faded as an architectural movement, but what has not faded is the “permissive” architectural culture, to use Safdie’s word, that it engendered. The best-known architects of the present are those who have succeeded in creating instantly recognizable signature styles, which they impart to their designs. Safdie does not do that. He does not conceive his buildings in terms of their image but allows them to emerge out of the specifics of their programs and sites, just as he had been taught some 60 years ago. Those who judge architecture by visual sizzle alone are likely to be underwhelmed.
This is not to say that Safdie does not think in visual terms. He gives a moving account of designing the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, Israel, a competition he won in 1995. At that time, the release of Soviet archives yielded an immense amount of new documentation for which there was no adequate display space. Given the tragic nature of the program, he decided that he would not build “a massive structure squatting atop a pastoral landscape.” Instead, he conceived the building as a skylit tunnel, bored through the mountain, that would lead the visitor on a journey from light to darkness and to light again. A gentle five-degree downward grade would instill a feeling of quiet mournful procession, until at last the path began to incline slightly upward as it led out the north side of the mountain. The return to light summarized what for Safdie was the essential meaning of the museum: “We prevailed. We are here. Life continues.”
Just as moving is the story of designing Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, a building type that by nature is a dispiriting and bewildering labyrinth. Determined to make it as humane as possible, he studied the usual scheme, whereby arriving passengers are shunted through the sunless lower level while departing passengers pass through bright and airy passages overhead. Recognizing that the arrival in Israel is for many “an emotional event,” particularly for new immigrants and first-time pilgrims, he decided that they should be welcomed with architectural generosity. He inverted the customary scheme, seeing to it that arrivals were lifted up to a “light-filled mezzanine” as soon as possible; at the same time, they would see departing passengers moving on a ramp in another direction, making clear that the airport was “the nation’s gateway.” All this in a building of local Jerusalem stone, carrying a roof that is an inverted dome, its oculus opening into a circular waterfall (a favorite device of Safdie’s).
Safdie is publishing his memoirs at the apogee of his career. In recent years, he has built the Sikh Khalsa Heritage Center in Punjab, India; the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort in Singapore; a somewhat belated Habitat at Qinhuangdao, China; and some major buildings in South America. It is sobering to read Safdie describe in his final chapter his buildings in the United States, a nation that, he writes,
stands alone among the developed and thriving economies: Japan, Canada, all of Europe. Our major airports—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston—are a disgrace: inefficient, ugly, unclean. The airports in Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Munich, and Madrid lift the spirit; American airports do the opposite. … Even worse, we can’t keep what we have, no matter how old or new, in a reasonable state of maintenance. Bridges are in disrepair. Highways are being sold off into private hands. Rest areas are strewn with garbage. The sense of civic pride has vanished. So has the capacity to dream big.
Safdie certainly has the perspective to deliver such a verdict. How many architects have moved so freely and gregariously around the world, and through so many and such different societies?
To read If Walls Could Speak is to realize that he has made the most of his life’s journey. Safdie’s curious biography took him from Haifa to Montreal at perhaps the most impressionable age possible. This left him with two different national and cultural identities, and the necessary elasticity to fit in anywhere. Habitat ’67 fooled everyone, because it turned out it was not the defiant performance of a swagger architect, eager to abolish the city, the street, and all of traditional architecture; rather, it was the principled attempt to make a modern architecture of community as organic and natural as the one he had known in his childhood Haifa.
Foreign clients who want modern American architecture but not necessarily the arrogant American architect who usually comes with it could hardly do better than Safdie, whose unaffected humility stands out in a profession not well-known for that quality.
1 “A Monument to American Ambition,” December 2011.
Photos: Safdie Architects
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