Moshe Safdie: A Retrospective

We begin with Habitat, Moshe Safdie’s revolutionary prefab housing constructed for the 1967 Montreal World Expo. His first completed design of 85 projects and counting, it is an exhilarating opening for a retrospective, and a lucky one – how many young architects get their thesis project built, and featured at a global expo? Habitat’s fractal stacks and rooftop gardens introduced a new kind of high-density urban living to supplant the stern boxes of previous decades.

The exhibit at the Skirball Center, curated by Donald Albrecht, provides a fascinating in-depth look at Habitat, including two life-sized modules that display its groundbreaking moulded fibreglass interiors. Drawings and models illustrate Safdie’s attempts
to replicate Habitat around the world — with vernacular design adjustments — but the cost was always prohibitive (stern boxes are cheap). Indeed, only a small fraction of Habitat was built in Montreal.

And while the existing units are still in use as condominiums, they too fell short of Safdie’s kibbutz-influenced communitarian vision of shared cooking, dining and work spaces. More of this heady idealism is presented in the next room, in particular with a student union centre for San Francisco State University, conceived in 196768 with invited student input.

Made of movable honeycombed triangular panels, and rising out of the ground like a cluster of crystals, the plans for the centre were rejected by the administration, which deemed it “hippie architecture”. The students rioted in protest, but the project was cancelled. These two projects start things off with a bang: Safdie as radical visionary. And then, abruptly, he seemed to shift into a more diplomatic phase during a highly productive decade in Jerusalem.

Born in Haifa in 1938, Safdie moved to Canada in 1953. After studying architecture he apprenticed with Louis Kahn, spent the 1970s in Israel, and began working internationally in the 1980s. One of his aims has been to bend a modernist vocabulary towards local contexts.

Jerusalem, which posed the challenge of designing for a city shaped by such complex, contested histories, was gracefully honoured with suitable materials, forms and masterplans, including a commitment to vibrant public spaces, or “urban rooms”.

Safdie is also firmly committed to making architecture accessible and responsive, as seen in his successful library in Salt Lake City. At times, however, he has received criticism for using overly accessible, in fact facile, allegoric gestures.

Yet such gestures worked to produce an effective and deeply moving, if theatrical, experience when I visited his contributions to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial. In later projects in this exhibit, though, the search for vernacular styles and narrative symbols can become cartoonish or just misfire, as seen in plans for an unbuilt mosque in Dubai, which, with a golden dome emerging from a scooped-out white crescent, unintentionally (I presume) resembles a hard-boiled egg.

These issues become more apparent in the third section of the exhibit that focuses on his global career. In an era of building larger and faster, the globetrotting architect’s process can seem a hasty sampling of local flavours for culturally hybrid designs. A case in point is Safdie’s 38-acre Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel-shopping-casino-museum complex in Singapore (200610), a behemoth of excess humanised by his deft landscaping – one of his most elegant strengths.

But it is ultimately thrust into the realm of Disney by its pandering symbolic elements, such as a hand-shaped museum acting as the “welcoming hands” of Singapore, and a huge boat-like platform spanning three 55-storey towers designed to resemble a deck of shuffling cards.

By the time I came to the models of Marina Bay Sands, the idealism of Habitat seemed the work of an entirely different architect. The final room was thus a surprise, containing speculative models for new Habitat –like mass housing updated for Asia’s booming urbanisation. This full-circle retrospective would have benefited from more analysis of Safdie’s design influences and milieu (which are explored in the catalogue) and the political struggles inherent in building major civic projects, but it confirms an impressive career, the arc of which mirrors many of the triumphs and trials of architecture over the past four decades.

Published in Icon magazine. 

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