Moshe Safdie is an Israeli-Canadian architect credited with modernist architectural designs that transcend the boundaries between building and nature, social and urban environment, and private and public space. Born in Haifa, Israel in 1938, Safdie after finishing his Architecture degree from McGill University, Montreal, went to Philadelphia for an apprenticeship with American visionary architect, Louis I. Khan.
Safdie made his mark with ‘Habitat 67’ at the site of Expo 67, a year-long international exhibition at Montreal. Presenting an alternative living environment to the increasingly popular, impersonal apartment high-rises, ‘Habitat 67’ pioneered the design and implementation of a three-dimensional conglomeration of 354 prefabricated concrete units for living.
This architect and urban planner’s project spectrum include museums, libraries, universities, residential and governmental buildings and airports that have become regional and national landmarks.
Known for his head turning designs, Safdie embraces a comprehensive and humane design philosophy: committed to architecture which supports and enhances a project's purpose; influenced by the geographic, social & cultural elements that define the place; and which responds to human needs and aspirations. These design concepts can be witnessed in his projects worldwide.
Completed in 2011, what epitomises the ‘Marina Bay Sands Resort,’ Singapore is Safdie’s futuristic vision for an urban environment that transcends artificiality to blend with the natural landscape, adapting the design to the project’s purpose.
One of Safdie Architects' most recent projects, ‘Jewel Changi Airport,’ is designed like a greenhouse and filled with thousands of plants across stepped interiors.
Safdie’s recently completed and ongoing projects are multi-faceted such as: ‘Kauffman Center’ in Missouri; ‘Orchard Boulevard’ in Singapore; ‘National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel’ in Jerusalem’; ‘Raffles City Chongqing’ in China; ‘Boise Library Campus’ in USA; ‘Habitat Qinhuangdao’ in China; ‘Altair Tower’ in Sri Lanka; and a headquarters for the ‘United States Institute for Peace’ in Washington, DC.
In his chequered career, Safdie has designed many international museums-- some of the iconic ones are located in Canada and the United States.
The ‘National Gallery of Canada’ in Ottawa is a glass and granite building with a higher glass tower structure in its left wing.
The architecture of the Jean-Noel Desmarais Pavilion of the ‘Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ echoes the neighbouring buildings, fitting in with the preservation of heritage architecture, while presenting a modern, light and airy structure, with a massive entrance portico and a glass-roofed lobby.
Likewise, Safdie designed a glass and brick extension for the ‘Peabody Essex Museum’ in Massachusetts, USA. It comprises a picturesque atrium with a soaring glass roof that allows natural light in, while five diverse roof silhouettes or ‘buildings’ that comprise the outer brick wall echo the shapes and forms of local architecture.
The ‘Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’ in Arkansas, USA consists of a glass and wood series of pavilions nestled around two creek-fed ponds.
An assignment given by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, the ‘Children’s Holocaust Memorial,’ completed in 1987, is situated in an underground cave, lit by a single candle in the centre, with reflective glasses refracting the light into infinite directions. Years later when they wanted a more technologically advanced version, Safdie designed the new ‘Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum’ in 2005. It is a triangular concrete ‘prism’ that cuts through the landscape, illuminated by a 200-meter long skylight and with underground galleries branching off the main hall.
A museum built to commemorate the 500 years of Sikh history and the 300th anniversary of Khalsa is the only project that Safdie has done in India. The ‘Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex’ (‘Virasat-e-Khalsa’) completed in 2011, is located in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. After studying the Sikh culture and religion for two years, Safdie designed a complex with two buildings at each side of a ravine and connected by a ceremonial bridge, surrounded by a large body of water, blending the architecture with the landscape.
Safdie strongly believes that a successful building must embody a sense of its purpose, place and tectonics. Most importantly, a work of architecture must give expression to the life for which it is intended: it must not only meet the requirements of the project adequately, but its form should also resonate with the diverse spaces and activities it performs.
In a recent interview published in Stir (Feb 7, 2020) Safdie, now 81 years old, was asked: ‘What do you think about today’s moment in architecture?’ And his reply was: ‘We are at a critical fork. In just one generation architecture will be a different profession. We are facing new and different problems. Architects will have to address such issues as higher density, urban mega scale, new kinds of transportation and new materials and construction techniques. Improving the quality of the public realm is central…’
In tandem with projects, Safdie served as Director of the Urban Design Program, and Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Safdie has written several books, most notably, Beyond Habitat, For Everyone a Garden, Form and Purpose, and Jerusalem: The Future of the Past. The City after the Automobile details Safdie's ideas about urbanism and city planning.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards, honorary degrees, and civil honours, including the Companion Order of Canada and the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Safdie was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in recognition of his oeuvre. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) has awarded Moshe Safdie the Lynn S. Beedle Lifetime Achievement Award for his significant contributions to international architecture and design.
Moshe Safdie’s architectural footprint is today visible across continents, each work customised to do justice to the needs, location, ecology and user. As he aptly says: ‘I think you need to, as an architect, understand the essence of a place and create a building that feels like it resonates with the culture of a place. So my buildings in India or in Kansas City or in Arkansas or in Singapore, they come out different because the places are so different.’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect practising and teaching architecture; and co-founder of SIDART Photography and two centers of Globalart.