In November, LA’s Skirball Cultural Center opened the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. The show presents a sprawling survey of the architect’s work, from his early experiments in housing, most famously Habitat 67 in Montreal, to his recent mega-scale projects in Asia. Safdie has been designing the Skirball, meandering its way west of the 405 Freeway in the Cahuenga Pass, over the past 20 years, and its construction was finally completed this fall. Safdie sat down with AN West editor Sam Lubell in one of the center’s sun-filled courtyards to discuss the show, the museum, and the long arc of his career.
Sam Lubell: What I’ve seen through this exhibit, and through seeing your work in general, is a kind of astonishing diversity. How do you keep managing to change things so much and to reinvent your architecture?
Moshe Safdie: I think it happens because I change the kind of project I’m working on, sometimes by circumstance and often by choice. And I change geography. So the context, the program, the type of project, and the place all keep changing. I suppose if I was building all of this in one place, in one country, and I was focusing on a particular building type, like a lot of practices, it wouldn’t happen… I think that it’s the diversity of assignments and places that leads to the diversity that you see in the exhibit. I think it informs me, and it enriches the work.
Timothy Hursley; Courtesy MBS Visual Media
It seems like geometry is something that has very important value in your work. Do you do a lot of formal studies when you’re developing new geometries?
Yes, more and more so for the more complex buildings that we do, like the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. I find that geometry helps you generate schemes, but also to order them, to give them a logic; a structural logic and a construction logic. So often these geometries, like the roof of the United States Institute of Peace, in which the glass roof sort of floats—could not have been built economically if it wasn’t for the fact that eventually we decided to generate it out of a sphere.
With a lot of your work, like here at the Skirball, with the forms and the way that you progress through the space and the landscape, there’s a sense of poetry, and there’s a sense of just letting the elements, and the shadows, really speak for themselves. It seems like that’s different from a lot of architecture now, which is very aggressive and very technology-formed, and less about being a sort of poetic, contemplative space. Can you speak to that?
Well, I think that there are others who are seeking poetics through simplicity. I would mention Zumthor for example. And some of Renzo Piano’s work seeks poetics through simplicity. But I would say that, certainly in the Skirball, and its predecessor in my own mind, the Hebrew Union College, there is an attempt to achieve richness through a great simplicity of form. There’s nothing screaming at you here, it’s just very much about fitting into the land, and light, and shadow, and plant life. And that is why it lends itself to such a rich community life, because people enjoy being in it but they’re not intimidated by it at all. It’s not the big forms that jar, bang bang bang, and then you’re conscious of their presence, and they’re overbearing, and they tell you all the time, “We’re here, take notice.” This building is not about overwhelming anybody.
The other thing I noticed is that you have an intuition about landscape and building, which is something that I think is lacking here in California in a lot of cases.
I’ve worked with a lot of gifted landscape architects. I’ve worked with Larry Halprin, Pete Walker. In Israel, Shlomo Aronson. In each case it was a true collaboration. In other words, it’s not that architecture stops and landscape takes over. There’s no such line. I conceive of building and landscape as one. And then the landscape architects and I work together in very much a tango or a dance, it’s like that, you know, because it’s a collaboration, because it’s part of the architecture.
In a lot of the projects in the show there is a focus on urban rooms. I’m wondering how that sort of idea progressed.
The urban room as a concept began when I worked on the Vancouver Library. They said, “We don’t want this to be just a library, but we want to create a place where you can come, have a cup of coffee, you can buy some flowers, you can read the newspaper, you can go into the library, you can get a book, you can bring it out, and it’s open all the time.” So we created an urban room. And then I realized, that’s what most public buildings miss. They have a control point, you pay admission, you go through security, and you’re inside. But what if you could have a kind of in-between zone, which anybody could go in to? And then, if you want to go and see a fancy exhibition, then you go through another control point.
Another thing that’s common in your work is the use of metaphor and symbolism.
I never talk about it. I never prescribe it. At Yad Vashem [Holocaust History Museum in Jersualem] I never said anything about symbolism. I did say that at the end of the exhibition I wanted to have a reaffirmation that life prevailed, that is true. The arrival building has a lattice, and the light coming in from the skylights is completely striped because of the lattice. So when you’re walking through it’s striped on you. The guides like to tell people that I designed it so that they will feel like they are the prisoners in the camp. And that’s their invention, not mine. I just wanted soft light that sort of dematerializes everything before you go into the museum with its horrible story in there.
It seems like it can be a challenge, like you said, to reinvent your style over the years. But it also seems like a challenge for a project that extends over twenty years—like the Skirball—to keep that fresh as you move along. To keep the same master plan, but somehow keep it feeling of the time. That must be a problem, a challenge.
There were moments, like in the last phase, where I was thinking, “Do I need to really break away in terms of the palette?” But I resisted it, because I thought the most important thing is to make the whole place feel like one whole. And had I done that, it would have been more of a personal obsession than a thing that responds to what the place wants to be. And so in some ways I resisted going to areas that might have interested me at this point in time, but I thought they would be a necessary, kind of, breaking away from the character of the place.
So what’s the next phase?
What’s next is we have a lot of work in Asia. Almost all of it. All of it very dense, very large-scale. We won a competition for the new center of the Singapore airport. It connects all the terminals, and it’s got a great garden, and shopping, and other services. It’s an idea that an airport is already almost like a mini city. So you create the kind of center for that. And in Chongqing, which is the biggest city in China, if not the world, we’re doing a 10 million-square-foot mixed-use project.
It’s the new scale of megacities. And we’re also having for the first time an opportunity to build large-scale residential; in Colombo, in China, in Singapore. And many of the ideas of Habitat, and even the studies for Habitat of the future, which are in the exhibition, have been spinning off into these projects.
So it sounds like, in that respect, something that you were working on, you were starting, forty years ago, is now finally happening?
It’s true. In some ways you walk into the office and it looks like we’ve gone back forty years.
That must be exciting, though—something that you may not have thought would ever really materialize.
I never thought it would happen, that’s true. I almost gave up.
How do you adapt that to current conditions?
Just go with it. You adapt the concepts. Of course the densities are greater, and mixed-use is part of the formula. And their ideas of industrialization are no longer synonymous with prefabrication. The emphasis is to achieve an optimization of mixed-uses, placing offices and commercial space at the lower levels, giving housing the advantage of air, light, and view above. It also, given the constraints of density, puts an emphasis on providing community open-garden spaces within different levels of the development in addition to the private gardens provided to some of the residential units.
These won’t be prefabricated?
I think they’ll be industrialized, but whether they’re prefabricated as panels or boxes is a moot question at this point. It’s more, how do you assemble manufactured components? And I’m not sure that means three-dimensional components. That’s what we’re exploring right now, trying to understand, because there are so many new production techniques.
After the success of Habitat the expectations on you must have been higher than any architect ever. Has that been difficult to manage over the years?
It’s been difficult to manage. I used to get irritated by the prefix “best known for Habitat 67” forty years after the fact. But there’s less of it now, I guess.
People talk about balancing popular appeal with critical appeal. Is that something that you think about when you’re designing?
I don’t think about it. I become aware of it after, that the public, what the public loves, usually the critics tend to hate. And I know I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why that is so. But it’s not something that I think about when I’m designing. I’m just doing my thing. I’m not thinking of the public or the critics when I’m designing.
Well, it seems the thing that really drives you the most is the ability to change how people live, change cities.
It’s what gives you satisfaction, that’s for sure... If you go through the exhibition, about half of what’s exhibited is unbuilt. But I definitely think I’ve had extraordinary opportunities. And they continue to come. And even though there are many disappointments of things you don’t build—I think that would be totally frustrating if that happened all the time. You can lose some things that you have a lot of affection for when you have an opportunity to realize others.