From Jeddah to Jerusalem, Israel-born Moshe Safdie cements his architectural legacy

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Midway through a late-April interview, renowned Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie tells The Times of Israel he’s just gotten back from Saudi Arabia, the site of one of his ongoing projects.

“I feel the place is changing dramatically,” he says. “The last few years, I’ve been working on another project, in Jeddah. The place is changing. It shows you how rapidly the whole mindset of a country can be transformed.”

It’s not every day that a sabra gets to visit the Saudis. Yet it’s another day in the life of Safdie, whose landmark works have graced locations around the world over the decades.

Last year, Safdie published a memoir, “If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture,” in which he expounded upon his career and experiences. This included memories connected to his birthplace, such as growing up in Haifa before his family moved to Canada. He has returned to Israel numerous times to work on major projects — most notably the redesign of the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem in the 1990s, but also the Children’s Memorial there earlier in his career; an international terminal initiative at Ben-Gurion Airport; and the Mamilla pedestrian mall project that took decades to complete due to disputes with various constituencies, including the Orthodox.

Other memories have a more personal tinge. In 1973, Safdie cut short a visit to China with then-Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, father of current premier Justin Trudeau. The Yom Kippur War had erupted, and Safdie felt compelled to help his embattled homeland. He joined the IDF in an educational capacity. Situated among the troops in the Sinai Desert, he showed slides of his abridged tour of China. Safdie also writes about the grief he experienced upon learning of the assassination of then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. The book includes an image of the moving black-and-white tombstone the architect designed for Rabin and his wife, Leah — both of whom, Safdie writes, were longtime friends.

“I think for many people who admired, respected and loved [Rabin], it was a traumatic moment,” Safdie says of the assassination, which he compares to that of John F. Kennedy. “In any culture, in any setting, these traumatic, life-changing events sort of get etched in your psyche.”

Moshe Safdie onsite at Exploration Place in Wichita, Kansas 1999. (Courtesy Safdie Architects)

He voices frustration with the current Netanyahu administration, lamenting what he sees as a missed opportunity in the Abraham Accords.

“Why he let himself be aligned with the extreme right is beyond my understanding,” Safdie says. “I don’t understand what has happened to his thinking as a statesman.”

He notes in the book that none of his architectural projects in Israel are in West Bank settlements.

Safdie first made a name for himself in the 1960s. His family had relocated to Canada in the previous decade after Israel’s economic policy made business difficult for his father. In Canada, the young architect made headlines with Habitat — described in the book as “a dynamic mixed-use urban precinct,” arising out of his efforts for the 1967 World Expo in Montreal.

Moshe in front of the Habitat 67 housing project in Montreal during construction. (Courtesy of Safdie Architects)

By the late 1970s, Safdie relocated again, this time to the United States. His firm changed addresses to Boston; it is located in nearby Somerville today. For about 10 years, he held a tenured professorship at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and he remains a presence in the Boston area. The Boston Architectural College (BAC), where he has given lectures and was awarded an honorary doctorate, recently curated an exhibit of his unfinished projects, which closed in January. BAC president Mahesh Daas interviewed Safdie for the college YouTube site, “The BAC Channel.”

“He is a very global architect,” says Daas, who first learned about Safdie while going to architectural school in his homeland of India. “His work spans the world. It does offer a way of knitting together the fabric of the world. I have not seen any other architect do it so well — or also be able to reflect it through words and stories.”

Daas recalls the excitement of seeing Habitat during his many trips to Montreal.

“It strikes you as a very different kind of housing project,” he says. “It assures that even in a very large housing complex, individual identity and dignity can be upheld while weaving that into collective identity.

‘If Walls Could Speak,’ by Moshe Safdie. (Courtesy Safdie Architects)

“There’s a very special problem in housing, particularly mass housing. It’s very easy to make a single unit, an individual unit, [that gets] lost in the collective. You cannot tell a single unit from the others in a conventional housing project. What struck me [in Habitat] is the great deal of variety and access to space, gardens, views, the interrelationship between the inherent angles it creates. It’s a very special housing project.”

The book contains some of the architectural principles that Safdie holds dear. One is the importance of nature, reflected in features such as terraces and plant life. Another is the concept of public space in a city, which he likens to a living room, citing historical examples from agoras to souks. There’s also the idea of a silent client — in addition to the people who hire him to design a building, there are the many other constituents who will use it, such as the medical staff in a hospital.

He’s unafraid to break with tradition, such as when he designed the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. In the book, Safdie recounts a conversation he had with a fellow legendary architect, Frank Gehry, on the challenges of designing a concert hall. Gehry recommended hiring acoustician Yasuhisu Toyota.

“I listened to Frank,” Safdie says. “I joined with Toyota. It opened up a whole new range of options … Toyota [since then] designed a number of music halls in Europe that were much less rigid.”

Moshe Safdie, right, and Yasuhisa Toyota in the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. (Courtesy of Safdie Architects)

Wherever Safdie worked, the impact of Israel frequently influenced him. He writes of his interest in dancing with the past — an idea he gleaned from Israel and returned to when designing works in Quebec and Ottawa.

“This all began in Jerusalem,” Safdie says. “Everybody was saying you can’t do contemporary buildings harmonizing with the heritage of the Old City. Some of my peers were saying, ‘Oh, you ought to be doing brand-new modern buildings.’ I came to a very opposite conclusion. There’s enough flexibility and latitude in making an otherwise contemporary building in dialogue, in conversation, with what’s around it.”

Although he has designed a diverse array of projects, working on memorial spaces presented unique challenges.

“When you design apartments or workspaces or schools, the expectations are quite definable,” he says. “You come to places of symbolic memory that have deep cultural symbolism, it’s much more complicated.”

“Yad Vashem was particularly complicated,” he says. “It’s a sacred place, it’s a memorial that also has to be informative.”

He explained his thought process on the new space.

“Nothing should compete with the narrative,” he says. “The exhibits tell you the story. You come out to light at the end in a dramatic way, with the outline of the Jerusalem forest. As horrific as [the story] is, we prevailed; we are here; we’re alive.

View of the Jerusalem Forests from Yad Vashem. (David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia)

“This was quite controversial, by the way, when I proposed it… particularly among survivors on the building committee. But I think most people who have been to Yad Vashem speak about this moment, coming out to the view of Jerusalem at the end. It’s a moment to reflect, contemplate, sort of reorient.”

At the museum dedication in 2005, he unexpectedly met the late casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, who hired Safdie for a new project: Adelson’s Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore.

“It’s a complex subject because you had two individuals who couldn’t be more different in their political convictions,” Safdie says, “polar opposites in many respects. Yet he came to me, based on Yad Vashem’s design, and trusted me with a major assignment that I hadn’t done before. With all the difficulties we were having, somehow we managed to do a project that was extremely significant architecturally and had a profound impact on Singapore.”

Moshe Safdie with the Safdie Architects team at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore during construction. (Courtesy of Safdie Architects)

After the completion of Marina Bay Sands, Safdie went on to build another project for a separate client in Chongqing, China: a development covering 12 million square feet. According to the book, Adelson considered the Chongqing project too similar to Marina Bay Sands, and filed a lawsuit against Safdie in 2012. The matter was resolved through arbitration, and Safdie and Adelson eventually teamed up again.

No matter where he works, Safdie sees his projects as having a lasting impact far into the future.

“It’s the only thing you think about,” he said. “You think people are going to use your buildings. You hope they’ll use them well, enjoy the works you provide for them. The key thing is to think of the people you’re designing for. It’s not a universal emphasis in my profession. But that’s another story.”

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