‘My beliefs haven’t changed’: From social housing to skyscrapers, architect Moshe Safdie is still an idealist


There are few buildings that have more drastically shaped a city’s image than Marina Bay Sands. Just as the Eiffel Tower and Burj Khalifa define the skylines of Paris and Dubai, the soaring three-tower resort, joined across the top by a horizontal “skypark” and the world’s most famous infinity pool, is an icon both in and of Singapore.

In fact, the hotel-casino project is so successful that the man who designed it doesn’t even stay there.

“It’s too noisy,” said Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. “I’m a swimmer and I can never get in the pool because there are so many people taking pictures.”

Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands and the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, also designed by Safdie. Credit: Unkel/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Now resuming his once-frequent trips to Singapore amid easing travel restrictions, Safdie prefers the nearby Ritz-Carlton, where we meet for afternoon tea. (“I had a British mother,” he explained, “so I’m a sucker for scones and tea.”) At a top-floor table overlooking his best-known creation, he reflected on the sometimes-fraught task of designing contemporary landmarks.

“It wasn’t on my mind as much as it was on their minds,” he clarified, recounting the call for design proposals issued by the city-state’s government in the mid-2000s. “They didn’t quite say the building should become the icon of Singapore, but they talked about it being iconic.

“When we made the submission, I said, ‘Some buildings have the magic to become memorable and associated with a place.’ And I mentioned Sydney Opera House as the classic contemporary example. But, I said, ‘It’s a mystery what makes that happen.'”

The trick, it transpired, was designing something striking yet simple. Constructing a 0.2-mile-long cantilevered roof terrace atop three skyscrapers required a feat of complex engineering but, at its most abstract, Marina Bay Sands can be sketched in four basic strokes. In Singapore Sign Language, the landmark is referenced by simply raising three fingers of one hand and resting another digit across the top. Visible for miles around, it appears on postcards and newscast backdrops. The structure also stars in the official Singapore Lego set, which the architect proudly displays at his office back in Somerville, Massachusetts.

“That kind of stuff, you can’t quite plan for or design — it just happens,” he said of the building’s success. “But I’m very happy about it. It changed our lives in terms of the work we get.”

The eye-catching indoor waterfall at Safdie Architects' Jewel Changi Airport complex.

The eye-catching indoor waterfall at Safdie Architects’ Jewel Changi Airport complex. Credit: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Safdie’s eponymous firm is in high demand. In the years since Marina Bay Sands opened in 2010, he has realized almost 20 major projects. Among them are the serene Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and a dual-tower residential complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka, that sees one high-rise lean dramatically against the other. The architect also bequeathed Singapore with another landmark in 2019: Jewel, a nature-themed entertainment and retail complex that attracts throngs of Instagrammers to Changi Airport each day thanks to its verdant indoor waterfall.

Safdie has said he considers seeing finished projects in use to be among an architect’s greatest pleasures. He makes a point of visiting Jewel whenever he’s in Singapore. “I was concerned about how the plants were doing,” he said. “But I was relieved to see they’re thriving.”

The architect is not in Singapore to indulge in past glories, however. In the days after our interview, he will inspect two new developments: a gardenesque office complex in the island’s west and a pair of residential towers on the upmarket Orchard Road. The latter features multiple skybridges — a recurring theme in Safdie’s work that was recently taken to new extremes in Chongqing, China, where he lay a gargantuan “horizontal skyscraper” (containing an infinity pool, restaurants and an indoor garden) atop four 820-foot-tall towers.
Raffles City in Chongqing, China, features a daring "horizontal skyscraper."

Raffles City in Chongqing, China, features a daring “horizontal skyscraper.” Credit: CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Then there is the small matter of Marina Bay Sands’ second phase. The expansion plans feature, among other things, a fourth tower — though Safdie dismissed early suggestions that his iconic skypark might be extended to rest across its top. In any case, Singapore officials have expressed that he shouldn’t, in his words, “screw around” with an icon.

Instead, the new tower will stand apart from the other three, forming “sort of an exclamation mark,” he explained, motioning punctuative strokes: “Boooom… boom.”

Radical vision

At 84, Safdie shows little sign of slowing down. Other recent trips have taken him to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where his glass-roofed Albert Einstein Education and Research Center recently opened its doors, and to the Ecuadorian capital Quito, where his tree-covered Qorner Tower will do so later this year. Covid-19 eased the architect’s unrelenting travel schedule, but he used the downtime to pen a memoir, “If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture.” He said he felt it was “time to document things.”

Published this week, “If Walls Could Speak” serves as a reminder that much of Safdie’s six-decade career has been dedicated to humbler pursuits — museums, memorials and social housing that reimagined how people might live in densely populated cities.

Before Marina Bay Sands, his best-known project was his very first: Habitat 67, a radical 1960s housing development that saw hundreds of identical prefabricated concrete units stacked into clusters along Montreal’s Saint Lawrence River. Safdie’s dream that it would spark a wave of large-scale “Habitats” around the world proved overly optimistic. His attempts to repeat the feat in other cities, including New York, Toronto and Iran’s capital Tehran, have often been thwarted. Projects of such size require land, funding and political will, and Safdie’s book openly recounts times when all three were lacking.

Habitat 67, made from clusters of prefabricated concrete units, was designed for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, Canada.

Habitat 67, made from clusters of prefabricated concrete units, was designed for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, Canada. Credit: Hal Beral/VWPics/AP Images

But the principles underpinning the experiment — that apartment dwellers should enjoy access to outdoor space, views in multiple directions and the opportunity to interact with nature and neighbors — defined his work thereafter.

Born in 1938 in Haifa, then part of British-controlled Palestine, Safdie has credited much of this architectural ethos to his childhood. As a boy, he always lived in apartment buildings, first in a Bauhaus-style block on Haifa’s Mount Carmel and then at his family’s new home further up the hill. At the latter, he would enter via a bridge, while the famous Baha’i Gardens “almost functioned as my backyard,” he writes in “If Walls Could Speak.” One need not look far for the inspiration behind the skybridges and elevated urban gardens that have since characterized his oeuvre.

“It’s strange that something so radical done by a young person gets so much crap thrown at it. But that’s been true of my career.”

Moshe Safdie

Safdie moved to Canada with his parents aged 15. (In a neat turn of events, he departed Israel via Lod Airport, since renamed Ben Gurion Airport, where decades later he would design a terminal building.) It was in Montreal that Safdie decided to pursue architecture — and where he first grew his signature mustache. He attended the city’s McGill University and wrote a college thesis, “A Case for City Living,” outlining his vision for a flexible housing “system” that could be adapted to different contexts and climates.

Those early ideas have long shaped Safdie’s outlook. They would shape his fortunes, too. After showing his college drawings to the influential modernist Louis Kahn, he secured an apprenticeship at the architect’s Philadelphia office. Soon after, he was offered the chance to put his ideas into practice at a scale unimaginable to most young graduates.

Montreal was due to host the 1967 World Fair, or Expo 67. Despite having never completed a building, the then 24-year-old Safdie was asked by the event’s mastermind (and his thesis adviser), architect Sandy van Ginkel, to develop a master plan for the site. He was also tasked with building on his ideas, eventually proposing a village-sized development of some 1,200 prefabricated dwellings stacked 20 to 30 stories high. His meticulous placement of each factory-built module was calculated to maximize garden space, allow in sunlight and improve residents’ views. Interconnected pedestrian walkways and bridges lifted the urban realm above ground.

Safdie with his daughter, Taal, at the Habitat 67 site the year before it opened.

Safdie with his daughter, Taal, at the Habitat 67 site the year before it opened. Credit: Courtesy Safdie Architects

Political and financial realities scaled back his design; the final Habitat 67 comprised just 154 apartments — made from 354 modules and stacked 12 stories high across three “clusters.” It was, nonetheless, a major statement. In a postwar world rethinking how to accommodate rapidly urbanizing populations, Safdie’s system of repeated modular forms offered a bold new model for housing. Three of the 20th century’s most important architects, I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph and Philip Johnson, toured the project together prior to its opening. Only when Johnson told Safdie that he had “outdone” the classical Italian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi did he realize the project “was a game changer,” he recounted.

Habitat 67 was not universally adored. A New Yorker cartoon, which Safdie also displays at his Boston office, poked “gentle fun” at the project by depicting a spade-wielding child stacking sand into similar formations. Various journalists and fellow architects were more barbed in their criticisms.

“It’s strange that something so radical done by a young person gets so much crap thrown at it,” Safdie mused. “But that’s been true of my career.”

‘For everyone a garden’

To define Safdie’s career by either his breakout success or the “megascale” projects of recent years would be to ignore much else in between.

The reflective Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.

The reflective Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Credit: Timothy Hursley

In the early 1970s, he opened an office in Jerusalem, a city whose urban fabric he has profoundly transformed. As well as designing major institutions like the Hebrew Union College and the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, he oversaw a full-scale rebuild of the destroyed Jewish Quarter and planned an entirely new city, Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut, about 15 miles to its northwest. At one point, he even considered running for mayor of Jerusalem.

He has also built widely in North America, where his output spans from the meditative (a nondenominational chapel at the Harvard Business School) to the mammoth (Terminal 1 of Toronto’s Pearson Airport). A citizen of Israel, the US and Canada, Safdie may be best known in the latter for the National Gallery in Ottawa, a grand glass palace housing some of the country’s most treasured art.

“There’s a cynicism about so many architects presenting buildings that are fairly conventional and then, in the renderings, everything is green and every balcony is oozing with trees. When you look closer, you see there’s no preparation for the earth, there’s no depth — it’s a fantasy.”

Moshe Safdie

Despite earlier setbacks Safdie has, more recently, found fertile ground for his “Habitats” in Asia. In 2017, he completed the first phase of the sprawling Habitat Qinhuangdao — in the titular city, about 200 miles from Beijing — a series of 16-story “mini blocks” connected by garden bridges. Back in Singapore, Safdie’s pixelated Sky Habitat tower saw him stretch his familiar stacked forms high above the ground to maximize floor space on a comparatively small plot.

In both cases — and throughout Safdie’s career — ideals articulated in the 1960s have been adapted to meet the realities of new sites and clients. Yet, the architect maintains that his approach to housing remains, fundamentally, the same.

The first phase of Habitat Qinhuangdao, which opened in 2017.

The first phase of Habitat Qinhuangdao, which opened in 2017. Credit: Courtesy Safdie Architects/Tim Franco

“The belief in apartments being rethought as houses, in having gardens for every apartment, in quality of life, in streets and communities and making buildings that belong to their culture — from the outset these were fundamental to my beliefs,” he said. “And they haven’t changed. If anything, they have reinforced themselves as years go by.”

“I think, without bragging, there’s been consistency,” he added. “In fact, you could say I’ve not been dynamic enough, but I’ve been pretty consistent.”

Idealism and compromise

There were other high-profile proposals that never came to fruition. Among the most divisive was the Columbus Center, a pair of heavy-set towers once set to loom over Manhattan’s Central Park at Columbus Circle before plans were scrapped following 1987’s Wall Street crash (and amid vociferous criticism from the likes of Henry Kissinger and Jacqueline Onassis).

But Safdie’s legacy will not be measured only by what was, or wasn’t, built. Many of the once-radical ideas he championed are now mainstream — something he can take an amount of credit for. For one, his fixation on plant life, a principle he dubbed “for everyone a garden” in a 1974 book of the same name, is now widely shared by younger architects. Urban gardens and “living walls” are now almost de rigueur for new large-scale developments.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Credit: Courtesy Safdie Architects

Plants do not always thrive, though. In his memoir, Safdie distinguishes between “significant plant life” and “sorry shrubs.” So-called biophilic architecture may now be all the rage, but it can be undone by insufficient planning or maintenance, leaving occupants with dying trees and even bug infestations. As such, Safdie welcomes the trend while cautioning again token gestures.

“The idea of green buildings is a battle cry — everyone is for it,” he said. Making them work, however, is another matter altogether. “There’s a cynicism about so many architects presenting buildings that are fairly conventional and then, in the renderings, everything is green and every balcony is oozing with trees. When you look (closer), you see there’s no preparation for the earth, there’s no depth — it’s a fantasy.”

“My daughter accused me of not being as idealistic as I was. I disagree with her.”

Moshe Safdie

Prefabrication, championed by the architect since his college thesis, is also enjoying a renaissance. Just two miles away from Marina Bay Sands, for instance, a Singaporean design firm is overseeing two 630-foot-tall residential skyscrapers built from units constructed in a factory over the border in Malaysia.

“For a long time, people totally gave up on (prefabrication),” Safdie said. “But now there is a real shortage of labor and skilled labor — not in China, because they’ve got an extraordinary workforce, and not in India, but everywhere else in Southeast Asia, in Singapore, in the West. So, anything that is labor-saving is now up for grabs.”

Safdie, third from right, working on Habitat 67 at Montreal's Place Ville-Marie in 1964.

Safdie, third from right, working on Habitat 67 at Montreal’s Place Ville-Marie in 1964. Credit: Courtesy Safdie Architects

Much else has changed since Safdie formed his architectural ideals. For one, he “never would have imagined” how densely populated cities would become in the past 50 years. “Programs change, lifestyles change, priorities change and technologies change,” the architect added.

But what about him? Has his outlook changed, too? “My daughter accused me of not being as idealistic as I was,” the architect said. “I disagree with her.”

Safdie is nonetheless aware that the lofty principles of his youth may not be shared by the casinos or corporate clients he often works for. Being an architect sometimes means serving “regimes you’re not in love with and business entities whose values are different to yours,” he noted.

“Take the dilemma I had with Marina Bay Sands,” he said, motioning once more toward the window and our view of the complex from the Ritz-Carlton’s lounge. “On the one hand, the idea of doing a building that could promote ‘gaming’ — that’s a nice word for it, but ‘gambling’ is the reality — is almost immoral if you go there and see poor people with limited means wasting their money.

“But, to me, that was 2% or 3% of the area of a project that… could show what the public realm could be in a city. And that took over from the issue that nagged me.

“That’s compromise,” he concluded. “But the basic value, the idealism of the end product, has not diminished. Without it, I don’t know how you can be an architect.”

If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture,” published by Grove Atlantic, is available now.

Top image: Moshe Safdie pictured on the highest skybridge of his Sky Habitat project in Singapore.



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