COVER

TRIUMPH OF AN ‘OUTCAST’

GEOFFREY JAMES May 23 1988
COVER

TRIUMPH OF AN ‘OUTCAST’

GEOFFREY JAMES May 23 1988

TRIUMPH OF AN ‘OUTCAST’

COVER

The site, on Ottawa’s Nepean Point, commands a spectacular view. To the west, there are glimpses of white water where the Ottawa River flows under Portage Bridge. Across the locks of the Rideau Canal looms the great Gothic bulk of the Parliament Buildings. It is, as Governor General Lord Grey pointed out to future prime minister Robert Borden and his wife when they visited the Point in 1908, a natural place to build. What Grey had in mind was “a Gothic structure in harmony with the Parliament Buildings.” This week Lord Grey’s prophecy is being fulfilled, although not quite in the way he imagined. Grey envisioned a hotel on the site. Instead, 80 years later, Nepean Point is the home of a grand showcase for Canada’s national collection of art. With its glass-covered colonnade and its geometrical, neo-Gothic tower, the new National Gallery of Canada has become, even before its official opening on May 21, a landmark.

Landmark: For its Canadian creator, Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, the gallery is a landmark of another kind—a triumphant return to the country where he first made design history with Habitat. After conceiving that radical experiment in high-density housing for Montreal’s Expo 67,

Safdie remained an outsider to the Canadian architecture establishment. Invited to work abroad, he became a leading figure in the reconstruction of Jerusalem (page 37). But suddenly, the 49-year-old architect is again a major force in the country where he first developed his craft.

In addition to the National Gallery, Safdie has designed Quebec City’s Musée de la civilisation, expected to open in the fall, and a major addition to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As well, Safdie recently won a commission to design Toronto’s new, $236-million Ballet-Opera complex. The man who has spent the past two decades jetting between his offices —and homes—in Boston and Jerusalem has emerged as

Canada’s master builder of cultural institutions.

To Safdie, the National Gallery represents his most mature and complex work, the one by which he would like to be judged (page 36). With more than 42,000 square feet of exhibition space and with public areas designed on an imperial scale, the new $117-million building is the most dramatic expression of a complex creator. Safdie’s work inspires intense feelings. While Pierre Théberge, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, praises his “very considerable intellect and clear vision,” others dismiss him as someone who talks better than he designs. Because of his legendary charm, he has been called “the Omar Sharif of Canadian architecture.” In his designs since Habitat, Safdie has been hard to pin down. As the range of developments in his native Israel shows—from colleges to sensitive renovation of Jerusalem’s old quarters—it can be visionary, exuberant or modestly self-effacing, with no instantly recognizable imprint.

Intellect: The creator of those projects is a cultural hybrid—and a man of contradictions. Said Teddy Koliek, the mayor of Jerusalem: “He is everywhere a little bit the outsider—and everywhere the insider.” Safdie

prefers to read Hebrew but to write in English and is formidably articulate in both. Indeed, he has published four books about architecture, all but one aimed at the general reader. A fifth, Jerusalem: The Future of the Past, a vivid account of his experiences in Israel, will appear next month. In architecture circles, he is regarded as a man of rapid intellect who distrusts the overly intellectual, a romantic with a sound business sense. And California-based architect Frank Gehry, a Canadian who calls Safdie a “loyal friend,” said that he has a reputation in the business for being a “jabber and a hitter below the belt.”

Much of that reputation ? for contentiousness stems from a now-infamous artiQ cle that Safdie wrote in 1981 for Atlantic

Monthly. Entitled “Private Jokes in Public Places,” it spelled out Safdie’s credo of contemporary architecture, which stresses the social value of design and the importance of creating humane environments. He lamented the collapse of Modernism—the idealistic movement that began with the century and called for an architecture that was functional, unadorned and socially committed. What has replaced it—so-called Postmodernism, with its historical references and stick-on decoration — seemed to Safdie much worse. To him, it represented a turning away from social purpose to a style that is inward, eclectic and ultimately pessimistic about architecture’s possibilities. In the article, Safdie named culprits—in fact, nearly every eminent architect in North America and one or two in Europe—managing to alienate a large part of the professional community. “I yelled at him when I first met him,” said Gehry, who was attacked in the piece. “Then I realized he is a nice guy. This is just his way of exchanging information.”

Success: What irritated many of Safdie’s peers was the way he adopted a high moral position. American architect Lawrence Halprin says that both he and Safdie are “flawed kibbutzniks,” people who are inspired by, but cannot always live up to, the high socialist ideals of Israel’s collectivefarm movement. Certainly, the key to understanding Safdie is his Middle Eastern background. Born in the Mediterranean port of Haifa, the oldest of four children, Safdie was affected by his harddriving father, a successful textile importer. Said Safdie’s younger sister, Montreal artist Sylvia Safdie: “Our father always told us to think big.” And she remembers her brother as “uncontrollable; he wanted to be emperor of the world.” When Moshe was 15, the family emigrated to Canada, forced out of business when Israel nationalized textile importing. Safdie’s father moved the family to Montreal where he established himself in the textile business. After the sun and stucco of Haifa, Safdie said, Montreal seemed “dirty, dismal and used up.”

Yet, in its own way, Canada seems to have inspired Safdie. He had been a poor student in Haifa but in Montreal’s Westmount High he started to flourish. Although Safdie’s decision to study architecture was a sudden one based, he recalled, on not much more than a propensity for doodling houses and cars, he won a string of prizes and scholarships at the McGill University School of Architecture. Douglas Shadbolt, one of his architectural professors, said that Safdie “had none of the adolescent hang-ups you often get with students. He was totally concentrated.” In 1959, at age 21, he married Nina Nusynowicz, a Polish Holocaust survivor who supported Safdie while he was in school.

At McGill, Shadbolt said, Safdie was seized with an obsession that has stayed with him—what Shadbolt calls his “kit of parts,” the notion that a single geometric element can generate an entire building in the way that honeycombs develop a beehive. Safdie’s graduating thesis was called “A Three-Dimensional Modular Building System.” The accompanying wooden model, with matchbox-shaped houses plugged into a spindly frame, adorns his Boston office. Safdie’s thesis became the basis for Habitat, which he proposed as an experimental housing exhibit while working with a design team on the plan for Expo 67.

It is a tribute to Safdie’s determination and savvy that Habitat happened at all. The project faced many threats: a committee of engineers claimed it was structurally unsound, and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau opposed it, preferring a $42-million, 1,000-foot tower instead. But, once built, Habitat became an enormous success — and it continues to be a desirable address. “Habitat,” said Safdie, with his knack for bestowing judicious praise on his own work, “was the only utopian housing project to become genuinely popular.” Maverick: Safdie had to wait 15 years before getting another commission in Canada. He says that he was unofficially “blacklisted” by the Canadian architectural establishment for his maverick ideas. Particularly galling, he says, was to be excluded from the 1976 competition for Ottawa’s National Gallery, which failed to yield a new building. (The final choice of Safdie in 1983 was made by Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet.)

Meanwhile, the world began to court Safdie. He set up an office in Jerusalem in 1970 and in 1978 he became head of the urban design program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he still teaches. Still, his recent professional life has had a roller-coaster pattern. “He has not had an easy career,” said his friend, the Israeli architect Ada Karmi-Melamede, who last year beat him in a competition to design Israel’s new Supreme Court Building.

Opponents: Losing competitions is part of the highstakes game that design architects play. But far more damaging was Safdie’s involvement with the Columbus Circle development in New York City, a project from which he had to withdraw in the face of almost universal opprobrium. Safdie’s design for the four acres at the southwest corner of Central Park—which the city had sold to Safdie’s associate, developer Mortimer Zuckerman—called for two granite-clad towers, 68 and 58 stories high, atop a handsome curving galleria, with a vast glass-covered garden court at the base. The angled tops of the towers bristled with balconies and suspended gardens. But because of the building’s size and position, in

midwinter, sunset would come a half-hour early on a mile-long stretch of the park. Columbus Circle attracted many celebrity opponents, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Henry Kissinger and Walter Cronkite. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, whom Safdie had once likened to “a Vogue fashion writer,” called the design “slice-and-dice architecture.” Last December the project became seriously jeopardized with a successful citizens’ lawsuit claiming that the approval process for the $560-million development was flawed. Safdie and Zuckerman parted ways, and Safdie’s design now appears to be dead. Safdie’s sister said that her brother was “wiped out” by the debacle but added,

“He has this mechanism for bouncing back.”

In fact, his family life appears to be a regenerative force. At home in Cambridge, Mass., a city across the Charles River from the towers of downtown Boston,

Safdie leads a private existence with his second wife,

Michal Rönnen, an Israeliborn sociologist whom he married in 1981, and their two young daughters (he has two grown children from his first marriage, one a student of architecture and the other working in the field).

Home: Home is a handsome grey clapboard house on Cambridge Common, built in 1753 for the university’s first professor of medicine. Since moving in three years ago Safdie has filled the place with light by adding a large living room in the rear with a sloping skylit roof. For a man who is building three museums— two with holdings of contemporary works—the architect has surprisingly little appetite for the art of his times. “I have to confess,” he wrote in his 1982 book Form and Purpose, “that practically nothing that has been done in visual art during my lifetime has had any significance for my under-

standing of the universe.” Accordingly, Safdie gives wall space to things made by craftsmen—traditional quilts, Indian wall hangings and embroideries.

Speed: Safdie maintains a gruelling pace. He once estimated that he spent the equivalent of three working months a year in the air. “It’s when I get my designing done,” he said. Graphic illustration of that came recently when Safdie flew across the United States with Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) director Théberge. The ostensible purpose of their trip was to visit American museums, but Théberge said that what he really wanted to do was to tell Safdie that, after four months of work, he was unhappy with the architect’s design for a major addition to the museum and wanted a new plan.

“I was apprehensive that we would have one hell of a battle,” recalled Théberge. On one flight, Théberge explained his concerns and Safdie listened. And then, while the director watched mesmerized, Safdie, working from memory, redrew every room of the new project. On another flight, the architect redid the drawings on bigger sheets and later transmitted them to his Boston office. Final drawings were ready four days later.

The MMFA addition, the National Gallery and Safdie’s other high-profile Canadian assignments are linking him inextricably to the country’s cultural life. This fall marks the opening of his Musée de la civilisation in

Quebec City—a grey stone building that blends easily into the 17th-century architecture of the old city. Last month he unveiled his latest set of plans for the addition to the MMFA, due to be completed in the spring of 1991. And two months ago he scooped the plum of the Toronto Ballet-Opera competition. Winning has convinced Safdie to open a Toronto office.

Contest: It is Safdie’s professionalism, as much as his legendary persuasiveness, that has won him so much recent success. In the closely fought Toronto Ballet-Opera contest, Safdie was successful—according to three members of the panel—because he was the best listener and the quickest to understand the site and the needs of professional staff. In addition, said architect Roger Dutoit, who organized the competition, Safdie had created a design that “had a certain magic and aloofness but was totally accessible.” Safdie’s return to Cana>,|da’s architectural landescape clearly pleases him. zHe seems especially happy work in a country where he feels at home, something he has not felt in the United States. But although he is mellower and more analytical than when he left Cana-

da, he still wants to grapple with what he sees as the central problem of architecture—“the way we work and live in the city.” Safdie added: “I feel clearly that the cycle started with Habitat should come full circle.” He has thought of setting up a small workshop within his office to make theoretical studies of significant sites. “But,” he continued, “without the real pressures of politics and developers, it is futile. It’s something you have to do in real life.” In spite of having won so many glamorous Canadian projects, Moshe Safdie still dreams of creating new ways of dealing with urban problems. Obviously, the creator of Habitat is still thinking big.

GEOFFREY JAMES in Boston