Closeup/Architecture

Exception to the rules

Moshe Safdie has more changes to make

Murray McGregor July 24 1978
Closeup/Architecture

Exception to the rules

Moshe Safdie has more changes to make

Murray McGregor July 24 1978

Exception to the rules

Closeup/Architecture

Moshe Safdie has more changes to make

Murray McGregor

Moshe Safdie leans back in his chair, his

snowy hair, white before its time, curling about his shirt collar. He gazes at the rain-streaked, windowless slab of concrete with balconies hanging off each end, a half-block away. “That embodies everything that is wrong in the way we build cities. I wish I had a bazooka.”

The Montreal architect has no hesitation about his goal in life. Very simply, it is to change the face of the city, to restore some peace and sanity to a social structure that he feels has lost its way in the last 50 years, through too rapid growth and a lack of planning. His method is the application of solid design and planning principles rooted in the needs of people and confined by the laws of environment, coupled with the modernization of building technology.

Safdie is not merely a theorist, and his efforts to get his designs built—to attain that goal of his—have made him, to say the

very least, a controversial architect.

With controversy has come fame; the twin markers of Safdie’s career from its start. “Just about every housing and building rule, precedent, practice, custom, and convention is broken by Habitat,” wrote the architectural critic of The New York Times at the opening of Expo 67.

Habitat, the spectacular, attentiongrabbing building-block apartment complex erected alongside the Montreal waterfront as a permanent housing exhibit of the world's fair, was Safdie’s first building. He designed it at the age of 26, when most architects are little more than glorified draftsmen, and it became the housing experiment of the 1960s. Every major architectural magazine wrote about the uniqueness of the apartments, the privacy, the rooftop gardens, the views, and of course the construction methods—the concrete boxes, precast and finished in assemblyline fashion and hoisted into position.

Moshe Safdie is 40 years old this month. From his downtown Montreal headquarters he guides a staff of some 50 architects, planners and draftsmen located in the same office, in Baltimore, Maryland, and in Jerusalem. He is on the move constantly to major projects in Iran, Israel, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and the United States. He has published two books (Beyond Habitat, a modest best-seller that is part biography, part philosophy, and For Everyone a Garden, on designs and industrialized building) and is planning a third. He has lectured to countless professional and student audiences, been a visiting professor at Y ale and his alma mater McGill, and was recently appointed director of the school of the urban design program at Harvard University.

In the 11 years since Expo, Safdie could have moved his practice almost anywhere in the world. He chose to stay in Montreal where he still lives in Habitat.(“I enjoy

being there. There’s still a sense of surprise.”) And despite all those years, despite the fame generated by Habitat, despite his ever-growing reputation worldwide, it is only now that he is getting his second major commission in that city—or anywhere in Canada, for that matter. This autumn Safdie will return to the site of his original success, the Montreal waterfront, to collaborate on the preliminary design of a big, federally sponsored new park and cultural facilities. “I’m very excited,” he admits. “It’s going all the way around a circle back to my roots.”

While Safdie allows that he would like to have done more in Canada in the intervening years, he hasn’t been sitting around waiting for commissions. The circle he has travelled has taken him far afield. Mention Jerusalem to Safdie and his soft brown eyes glow with excitement. “It’s been one of my toughest challenges. Unlike North America, where I’m making an environment, there I’m designing within the context of a particular historical environment and a particular architectural character, yet you have the problems of contemporary environment, good housing, schools.” As the story goes, it was Buckminster Fuller who suggested to an international advisory board that Safdie was the person to draw up a new master plan for Jerusalem. But not only is he drawing up a master plan, Safdie is building a major urban renewal project; the Western Wall Precinct.

In the next year, finishing touches will be made on the Yeshiva Porat Joseph rabbinical college. It stands on the square opposite-' the Western or Wailing Wall, Judaism’s most holy shrine. Started in

1970, the Yeshiva is a monumental building of thick stone walls rising 10 storeys up the hillside into the ancient Jewish quarter.

Work on the Western Wall Precinct, scheduled to start this summer, will entail excavating some 30 feet and removing 2,000 years of accumulated rubble. Then, from the street level of Herod’s day, the project will rise in a highlyordered geometric progression of terraces and staircases to the rabbinical college and other public buildings along the top.

“Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the responsibility,” says Safdie. “When I started in Jerusalem, I read Flavius Josephus, History of the Jewish War. Josephus has very detailed descriptions of the temple and streets. He would mention a stair or ramp and I would look out my window and see it. The area he talks about is the area I’m designing.”

Israel, the land of his birth, is Safdie’s second home. He opened a branch office in Jerusalem in 1971 and since then has completed the Paley Youth Wing (an addition to the Rockefeller Museum) and over 100 building restorations in the Jewish quarter. He has designed housing for the Israeli government, the Desert Research Institute and Ben Gurion archives at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, and in modern Jerusalem, Mamilah, a new central business district of hotels, shops, offices and apartments that will link the old city and the new across 23 acres of former no man’s land of the Arab-Israeli wars.

For Safdie, Jerusalem has been a con-

firmation of his ideas and his practices. “1 think that by relating old to new, I’ve learned some of the fundamental val ues of the older architecture which are absolutely valid to our environmental issues today.” He finds those values especially obvious in the small hillside villages surrounding Jerusalem. “Each house is clearly identified in the over-all fabric of the village, grouped one on top of the other very closely, relating to the topography.” Strip away the centuries of dust and the Israeli countryside, and what he describes is Habitat.

High-density urban living with a garden, light, space and privacy have always been Safdie’s design goals. They can be referred to as “vernacular architecture,” a term coined by architect-historian Bernard Rudofsky, referring to the anonymous artisan-designers of the old world. “My real architectural heroes are the unknown builders of hillside towns in Italy and Greece,” says Safdie. “The classical par excellence designed building of the Renaissance means very little to me.”

This vernacular architecture is the architecture of Safdie’s childhood. He was born in Haifa, Israel (Palestine) in 1938 and grew up in that city with summers on a kibbutz, until his family emigrated to Montreal in 1954.

In 1955 he entered McGill University’s faculty of architecture and soon started to develop his own concept—modular highrise versions of the Mediterranean villages of his childhood. His thesis was a complex model that illustrated the original Habitat idea, accompanied by notes to describe the manufacture of the modules in a factory. “God forbid it ever gets built,” was the initial reaction of Sandy van Ginkel, Safdie’s thesis adviser. “It was absolutely wild, but I came to the conclusion that he took his thesis more seriously than any other stu-

dent I had seen.” Safdie graduated in 1961 with the Gold Medal in architecture.

To work within a vernacular context such as Jerusalem and to design from the ground up are two different experiences. In the past few months, families in Baltimore have been moving into Phase 1 of Coldspring, a new inner-city area planned and designed by Safdie. Built on an old quarry site. Coldspring is an attempt to attract people back from the suburbs by providing subsidized mortgages (IVi per cent on units costing between $33,000 and $58,000) and an interesting environment. “We hired Safdie,” said Robert Embry, former housing commissioner, “because he was on the cutting edge of architecture and we wanted someone who was willing to think new thoughts.”

What Safdie designed is a contemporary vernacular town. The 300-acre site has hills, ravines, even a hillside quarry which will be turned into a lake. Much of the residential area will be covered with high-density clusterhouses, each clusterhouse consisting of a number of apartment units, every one having a private garden, terrace and entrance.

Part of Safdie’s thesis model still sits on the bookshelf in his office, but the Gold Medal from McGill is not on the wall, nor is the Massey Medal, the top Canadian award for architecture that Safdie won in

1969 for Habitat, or the Synergy award as Architect of the Year, awarded to him in

1970 by the American Institute of Registered Architects, or any of the other awards Safdie has won. “I’m skeptical about awards,” he explains. “They are not a measure of performance.”

Instead, Safdie has chosen to surround himself with more personal mementoes and objects. Beside his thesis model is a pair of antique brass draftsmen’s dividers. On the wall is a beautiful Arabian inscription in traditional caligraphy given to him by a friend, a color map of Senegal (where he has a major project under way), a

couple of pieces of West African art, and two Father’s Day cards and a drawing of Habitat signed and dated 1966, done by his daughter Taal, then aged five.

Safdie. married with two teen-age children. keeps his private life separate from work. “The inside of my home has never been photographed,” he affirms. When he has the chance, he prefers to spend his time w ith family and close friends, reading (Scientific American and New York Review of Books are favorites) or listening to music, especially Bach and the baroque period. Mostly he works. “He’s not a man of holidays,” comments architect and collaborator Maurice Desnoyers. “He’ll come back from Africa, literally travelling 24 hours, and go to work immediately. He has very strong resistance.”

But hard work does not always pay off. After Expo, a number of Habitat designs were done for clients in New York. Washington. D.C.. and Puerto Rico. Only Puerto Rico was built. At the same time other projects, such as a student union building at San Francisco State College, fell through. “I had a very strong frustration in the early ’70s. I w'orked on at least a dozen major projects that w'ere never built.”

Only now, 11 years after Expo, is a second Habitat to start. Tenders are being called for Habitat Tehran, a 163-unit apartment complex to be built on a sloping hillside in the capital of Iran. It will have the same concepts as the original, although the building methods will be more traditional. Privately financed and expected to recover all costs, it carries Safdie’s hopes for the future of Habitat-style apartments.

But in post-Expo Canada there have been no more Habitats and almost no work for Moshe Safdie. “Sometimes it bothered me because I was not involved in my ow n community.” Full recovery of the $22.5 million spent on Habitat was not expected. Yet after Expo, newspapers ran headlines such as: “Want to rent a $140,000 apartment?" Safdie still defends Habitat costs as money well spent on “research, a factory, new techniques and new technologies,” then asks where the $1-billion Olympics have taken us.

Montreal architect Adrian Sheppard feels that Canadian conservatism, especially in the business community, probably works against him. “In the eyes of many people. Habitat w'as an eccentricity.” Safdie’s former thesis adviser, Sandy van Ginkel, is more blunt. “Canadian society is frightful of innovation. We don’t have an imaginative society with imaginative developers to allow' Moshe Safdie to work.”

One area of Canada where Safdie has worked is the North. In 1974, at the request of the Northwest Territories Council, he designed a house for the Eastern Arctic. “It was a revolutionary and beautiful house," comments Brian Pearson, a 22-year resident of Frobisher Bay and chairman of the village council. “It provided easy access, sunlight, economy of heat and a view of the

countryside.” It was octagonal, like a STOP sign, could be built on hillsides, and contained moveable partitions that allowed the occupant to change interior spaces.

The project stopped at the concrete footings for the first prototype in Frobisher Bay. “We came in with a price of $88,000,” says Safdie. “The council said no, and dropped the whole thing, then [a year

later] built 30 houses which they designed in-house and cost $120,000 each. The way it was handled left me quite bitter. Ironically, two years later the community came to us directly and said, ‘We want you to do a plan for us.’ We are doing so.”

Planning for 2,400 or 200,000, Safdie does both. On the drawing board are the plans for a new industrial city of 200,000 in

¡Senegal. A joint venture of Senegal and Iran, with World Bank support, the city will mine phosphate for fertilizer for Iran and refine Iranian oil for West Africa. Construction should start soon on the first phase, four neighborhoods for 25,000 people.

Safdie remains optimistic about the future “if only by nature.” He will continue his attempts to get “more resources to build a better environment,” but admits it will probably get worse before it gets better. “We have less to spend on cities but the cities need more, for housing, for public transit.”

Safdie feels that solutions must come from fields outside design and technology—in finance, cheaper house mortgages; from government, a subsidy system to replace public housing, which doesn’t really work; and from society, a recognition of our finite resources. “I’m sorry the energy crisis in ’73 didn’t last three or four months longer, it might have changed living patterns. There’s more consciousness but it’s not radical.”

Raising that consciousness is important to Safdie, to make people aware of the factors that make up the environment, to educate them to the benefits and to recognize the hazards. Safdie’s architecture is not just for viewing. It’s to be experienced.«^