Closing a Circle- Interview with Architect Moshe Safdie



Moshe Safdie is in my opinion, the Vitruviun definition of an architect. A skillful man of manners, with a wide knowledge of geometry and history, Safdie has "followed the philosophers with attention...and well acquainted with the theory of the heavens."  More importantly, he is a pleasant and modest man unafraid of criticism. In his career, Safdie has reached heights that few can dream of: Habitat in 1967, the National Gallery in Ottawa in 1988, and many highly respectable museums all over the world. Over the years he has abandoned the established, elementary Lego-like assemblages of similar units in favor of an intricate architecture based on the synthesis of multi-shaped  components. This change, which may be perceived as ‘surrendering to the forces of the postmodern market,’ subjects his creations to his own ‘postmodern criticism,’ as described so well in his article "Private Jokes in Public Places", published in 1982 in The Atlantic Monthly


The following interview was conducted in Safdie’s "non-public" offices in Jerusalem, June 2003.

            Many contemporary buildings fill me with nostalgia for your article. Judging by some of your most recent works - the Metropolitan Performing Arts in Kansas, the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. the Science Center in Wichita or the Khalsa Sikh Heritage Complex in Punjab - perhaps you too should long for it…



            "I haven’t seen that article for twenty years, but I still believe today in everything I wrote then, and I also identify with most of the things you write on the same subject in this issue. Yet, if you are implying that my recent projects express a tendency towards the postmodern approach, the opposite is true. The principles I discussed in the article relate to Revisionist Modernism. I emphasized there a few central topics: First, that architectural language stems from the physical solutions expressed in the building’s structure. Second, that it should relate to ‘the place’ as a source of inspiration, that is, the cultural climate, the building tradition, and style of life. Third, that there must be a creative program for the building which relates to the needs of its users. Fourth, that there must be a responsible approach to the economical and ecological resources - from the project budget, to long-term maintenance costs. If I were to critically examine my work according to such definitions, I am not at all a postmodernist.


            "Over the years I have undergone many changes but at least consciously, I have remained a critical modernist in the spirit of the ‘Team Ten’ formed in the 1960s by the Dutch Aldo van Eyck, the Italian Giancarlo de Carlo, and the English Smithsons, as an alternative to the orthodox modernism. Their starting point was to see where modernism failed, not to totally reject it. This group focused mainly on the investigation of urban principles about which modernism vacillated, such as the quality of open spaces in vernacular architecture, spatial interaction, and the social significance of the building’s entrance. These elements still preoccupy me today, and I don’t think you can include me in the so very unacceptable-to-me category of those who decided to wrap their buildings with meaningless, insignificant decorations."


            Let’s discuss the new Sikh museum in Punjab. At first glance it looks like a "postmodern dictionary" of Indian architecture concepts. You were always a Formalist, but you used the form as a means to achieve the spatial purpose. It seems to me that in this case you have been subjected to the form, or rather to the idea it represents. Is it not a postmodern building? 



            "Not at all! Indian architecture is rich in forms and images, and it is no coincidence that India is filled with postmodern buildings that quote and imitate the originals. The Parliament Library imitates the architecture of the Moghuls, and the Indira Gandhi Center in New Delhi quotes Edwin Lutyens. I was also pressured to create a "Sikh building" by copying the traditional architecture of the temples - such as those that are currently being built all over the Punjab. The complex I designed has Sikh motifs such as the garden, the citadel, and the roof that protrudes upwards towards the sky, the use of water and the access to the defendable parts of the building. All these are traditional motifs, which give the building a sense of belonging to its place. It is true that there are "Sikh symbols" in the building, but this is not a result of quotation, or over-formalization. Had you been familiar with the negotiations during the planning process, you would know that I was quite reserved with the forms used. They wanted me to place their symbol on the building like a monument. Instead I suggested we design one of the galleries to look like a sword protruding upwards out of the roof; and they agreed. The water, which is a typical feature in Sikh temples, I brought there by diverting the river."


            The new museum in Yad Veshem is no doubt one of the most important projects you ever executed, both because it brings the idea of the "cattle-car monument" full circle, and because it brings you back to one clear and straightforward statement. I want you to compare the strong message conveyed by the single cattle-car and the much more complex message of the museum.


            "The structure, which is perched on the edge and juts out from the slopes, speaks for itself. Not in a direct manner like in a monument, but once it is completed, the message will be sharp and clear. There is a certain amount of symbolism, but it does not overpower the entire building. Like in every museum, there is a clear program with galleries, memorial spaces, and movement through the museum is a guided experience.


            Would you defend your design of the Science Center in Wichita with the same enthusiasm? Or the Rabin Center, in which you wisely raised the idea of active shading, and in the end what is left is only a symbolic gesture of the climate issue? What caused the changes? Was it the client’s objection to building something simple? Perhaps you do make sacrifices to the ‘gods of fashion’? 


            "I have never blamed anyone for the results of my projects! By the way, in some of my more significant projects, the entrepreneur played an important role. The proposed plan for the Rabin Center included a dynamic roof that would react to the angles of the sun. Since the construction of the building was postponed, I had the opportunity to go back and rethink it. I myself reached the conclusion that a white static ‘flying roof’ that creates a dynamic dialogue with the Tel Aviv skyline would better suit the memory of Yitzhak Rabin.


            "The Science Museum in Wichita, which you hinted was ‘a victim of the current fashion’, was the product of a long  design process (over two years) in which I strove to conceive a building, which in terms of its geometry, construction and its position on the site, would be the realization of science through architecture! I felt it had to be a non-arbitrary building, free of personal caprice. It is an efficient building, relatively inexpensive, and rich in good exhibition spaces. It enabled me to start a new chapter in my professional development. By the way, do you think there is a connection between the wealth of forms you are talking about and the fact that I win a lot of competitions today?"


            Of course. You win competitions because you learned that if you produce enough gimmicks it will satisfy the judges... In my opinion, that is exactly the reason why many of your current projects are a lot more complex. In some, there is a self-quotation process, which blurs the importance of the context you talked so much about.


            "Are you hinting that I am less interested today in the context? If we compare projects such as the Sikh Museum in Punjab, the residential towers in Singapore, the new terminal in Ben Gurion airport... each and every one of them refers to and submits to its context. That is what is denoted today as "critical contextualism."


            "The main difference is that today I am a lot less  intimidated by the context than I was in the 1970s in Jerusalem. It is natural that I carry a personal vocabulary of sorts from project to project. Otherwise the architect would not be identifiable... I know that when I work in India I choose materials and technology that suit the place. When I plan in Salt Lake City, other things happen and the buildings look different as a result. Perhaps it is a sign of some sort of development process. I am not sure that if I were to return to Ottawa today and build within the context of a "neo-gothic-nordic" capital city that I would reach the same solutions. 


            Nevertheless, what ties all these projects together besides "Safdie"?


            "That’s an interesting question, I don’t have an unequivocal answer. Actually, you are asking what is it that causes all the different projects, built in different environments, with different building technologies, different climates, different programs, to have the same common denominator? I think it is a result of my authenticity, which if you like, is the best witness to the fact that I am not a postmodernist...I do not know if it is strength or weakness, but I do what seems right at that particular time, in that particular place, and I cannot explain exactly how that happens.


            To what extent are you involved in the projects designed in your office? In comparison to Foster, for instance?


            "I haven’t spent much time in Foster’s office...but he has over 600 employees, and statistically his scope of building is vast. I have a very concentrated network. Some of the people have been working with me for years. There are some that developed with me, and there are a lot of bright young ones that greatly contribute to our innovation. Basically I work very hard. Today I build on a very large scale, and it’s not simple. As you say, the plus of the postmodern world is in communication. I travel a lot, I receive about 30-40 faxes a day, from the different sites and other offices, but stay with every detail of the building - I even choose the furniture and the door handles. There is no "favorite" building. I work on all of them - test, change, improve. Sometimes I arrive at the site and the result surprises me. I wish I could change some detail or other, and the client does not always comply. By the way, that is something I am finding more and more of - it doesn’t matter how many models you make, there are things you cannot predict until the building process is at an advanced stage. And in my opinion, every client should secure three percent of the budget for changes. I do not know a better way to build well.


            Who knows better than you, then, that sometimes the time in between the preliminary idea and its actual fulfillment creates a situation where you are dying to change something, but cannot, because it is too late. What would you change today in your most controversial project - Mamilla?



            "Certain parts of Mamilla were planned over thirty years ago. In Mamilla, I would change the residential quarters. They are too detailed to my taste. I would take off a few of the decorations, make them more minimalist. The domes, for instance. I originally tried to create a dome that opens up like in my private home in the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem. But because of the budget and technical limitations, they were constructed as static elements, and I regret that. I think the residential architecture in Jerusalem should be more modest.


            How would you like to end this interview and leave us eager for the next one?


            "The avant garde in architecture holds the view that there is no limit to the design possibilities, but on the other hand suggests, in a cynical manner, that architects have to accept the "bitter truth" of reality, such as mega-scale and globalization. I suggest that young architects try to understand that there is a limit to their possibilities - after all, that is the inspiration for architecture, but along with that they should strive for improving reality, rather than accept that we must follow the "current."



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