Moshe Safdie seems to be reflecting on his long career these days as well as the more general evolutions in the discipline and practice of architecture over the last five decades. An exhibition of his work entitled Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie is currently at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Curated by Donald Albrecht, it is the third and final venue after touring two other Safdie-designed projects: the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. In conjunction with the exhibition, Safdie spent the day of June 25th at Crystal Bridges giving an informal talk in the morning in the museum’s glazed restaurant, a gallery tour in the afternoon that included the Global Citizen exhibition, and a more formal and comprehensive illustrated lecture in the evening in the museum’s Great Hall that is a sort of glazed peninsula projecting into the water.
The roughly two-dozen projects exhibited in Global Citizen are of varied sizes, types, and scales. While generally global in their geographical distribution, they are located primarily in North America, Jerusalem, and Asia. The work is divided into five sections that are dispersed throughout the building. Projects are organized by place and theme rather than chronologically, and visitors discover the exhibition little by little among the works of the permanent collection. Though somewhat unorthodox as an itinerary it is unlikely that any part of the exhibition will be missed since there is virtually a single, prescribed path through the galleries of Crystal Bridges.
While Safdie believes that architecture is a social art rather than a personal expression, Global Citizen is a personal story that goes back to the architect’s undergraduate thesis project completed at McGill University in 1961. The student design, represented by a model from the period, is a structural frame holding prefabricated living units. It is an obvious precursor for Habitat 67 in Montreal, which itself appears to be a precursor for much of the work Safdie is proposing and producing today for extremely dense urban conditions in Asia and elsewhere. For the most part, the early work exhibited has not been redrawn or repackaged. It is interesting to see other, slightly later versions of Habitat commissioned for New York, Puerto Rico, and Jerusalem but never realized. It is equally interesting to be reminded that Safdie placed second in the competition for the Centre Pompidou in Paris and to see how drastically the deliverables for an architectural competition have changed since 1971. Safdie was born in 1938 and was only in his mid-20s when he opened his own office to begin work on Habitat 67. He was not quite thirty when the iconic project was completed. These early projects grouped under a heading of “The Shape of Things to Come” suggest that many of Safdie’s convictions related to civic space, density, mixed use, aerial streets, sky parks, etc., were developed early on. Safdie insists on the importance of the client in the making of any good project. He pointed out that in his early career commissions often came from enlightened institutions and that Habitat 67, for example, was an ambitious joint venture of different levels of government. Later projects in Jerusalem, such as the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum completed in 2005, are presented as a second phase in Safdie’s career. They are extraordinary, symbolically charged commissions and exercises in design that should resonate with place and purpose. While Safdie continues to work for institutions, many of his clients are now private developers. He noted as a matter of fact that architects have little say in urban regulatory mechanisms today and that in many parts of the globe urban planning is synonymous with “the market knows best.” In this context, architects struggle with the often-conflicting objectives of the market and notions of public good. While accepting the challenge of these contradictions, Safdie seeks clients who, nevertheless, want to create something of significance, program types that he has not previously had a chance to explore, and projects that have a strong probability of actually being built.
Prior to opening his own practice, Moshe Safdie worked in the office of Louis Kahn. There he was influenced by the elder architect’s drawing style, using charcoal and colored pencils. Over fifty of Safdie’s compelling sketches and sketchbooks are exhibited throughout Global Citizen. Safdie was also influenced by Kahn’s hands-on design approach as well as his synthesis of form and structure. It was in Kahn’s office that Safdie met the engineer August Komendant who later developed the structural design for Habitat 67. (For Kahn, Komendant was the structural engineer for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth among other projects.) At Crystal Bridges, Buro Happold developed the rich structural solutions for the curved roofs of the pavilions that were inspired by suspension bridges. Safdie says that while little has changed in regard to materials such as concrete, wood, and steel over the last 50 years, significant advances have been made in glass technology, which makes it an appealing material choice for him. At the same time he noted that architectural projects have become more and more complex to realize, and architects often find themselves in a position similar to that of a composer or a conductor.
While it does not exemplify the mega density that Safdie sees as a major characteristic of our time, Crystal Bridges is an example of many of his architectural preoccupations. For Safdie, water, landscape, and transparency are a magical combination. The more rural design in Arkansas is driven by its immediate context, and the building sits comfortably in the landscape. Its gallery spaces, however, appear to be derived from the outside-in and are a less convincing solution. The structure works well again at the level of material choice and details. Safdie’s work in general seems to be somewhat out of step with current tendencies, and in one section of the exhibition he is portrayed as an “outcast.” Arriving in Bentonville via northeastern Oklahoma and Bartlesville, the project can be seen as a sort of “outsider architecture” more akin to that of Bruce Goff.
Global Citizen as presented at Crystal Bridges ends with the Marina Bay Sands (2011), a waterfront project in Singapore that is composed of mixed-use facilities at ground level and three 55-story towers that are connected and capped by a linear, three-acre sky-park at the very top of the ensemble. Even friendly audience members at the evening lecture gasped when an image appeared on the screen of the sky-park swimming pool spanning between two of the towers hundreds of feet above the ground. The response was the same for a similar but even larger project still on the boards for Chongqing, China. Such solutions could be considered willful architectural gestures. They are informed, however, by “Habitat of the Future” (2010), a rethinking of Habitat 67 that developed strategies to update the earlier project to make it more efficient, denser, and more affordable. While verging on the extreme, in Safdie’s view such solutions are ethical responses to questions of mega-scale and community. They integrate “urban windows,” for example, in the form of large openings between buildings to connect various parts of the city or to connect the city to natural amenities. Mixed use and multi-level cities are key concepts, and the garden becomes the symbol of wellbeing in very dense environments. After half a century of practice, Safdie believes that architecture must be fit for its purpose—where fitness should be understood in a more evolutionary and Darwinian sense. For Safdie it is not only the task of the architect to imagine new possibilities, but also a duty to consider what is appropriate.
The exhibition at Crystal Bridges presents the architect’s work for the general public through models, photographs, sketches, films, and some drawings. Architects would inevitably like to see more drawings and details, however, to better understand the breadth of the work and of Safdie’s career. Without them, it was informing and a definite advantage to walk through Global Citizen with Moshe Safdie.