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In November, LA’s Skirball Cultural Center opened the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. The show presents a sprawling survey of the architect’s work, from his early experiments in housing, most famously Habitat 67 in Montreal, to his recent mega-scale projects in Asia. Safdie has been designing the Skirball, meandering its way west of the 405 Freeway in the Cahuenga Pass, over the past 20 years, and its construction was finally completed this fall. Safdie sat down with AN West editor Sam Lubell in one of the center’s sun-filled courtyards to discuss the show, the museum, and the long arc of his career.
Sam Lubell: What I’ve seen through this exhibit, and through seeing your work in general, is a kind of astonishing diversity. How do you keep managing to change things so much and to reinvent your architecture?
Moshe Safdie: I think it happens because I change the kind of project I’m working on, sometimes by circumstance and often by choice. And I change geography. So the context, the program, the type of project, and the place all keep changing. I suppose if I was building all of this in one place, in one country, and I was focusing on a particular building type, like a lot of practices, it wouldn’t happen… I think that it’s the diversity of assignments and places that leads to the diversity that you see in the exhibit. I think it informs me, and it enriches the work.
Timothy Hursley; Courtesy MBS Visual Media
It seems like geometry is something that has very important value in your work. Do you do a lot of formal studies when you’re developing new geometries?
Yes, more and more so for the more complex buildings that we do, like the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. I find that geometry helps you generate schemes, but also to order them, to give them a logic; a structural logic and a construction logic. So often these geometries, like the roof of the United States Institute of Peace, in which the glass roof sort of floats—could not have been built economically if it wasn’t for the fact that eventually we decided to generate it out of a sphere.
With a lot of your work, like here at the Skirball, with the forms and the way that you progress through the space and the landscape, there’s a sense of poetry, and there’s a sense of just letting the elements, and the shadows, really speak for themselves. It seems like that’s different from a lot of architecture now, which is very aggressive and very technology-formed, and less about being a sort of poetic, contemplative space. Can you speak to that?
Well, I think that there are others who are seeking poetics through simplicity. I would mention Zumthor for example. And some of Renzo Piano’s work seeks poetics through simplicity. But I would say that, certainly in the Skirball, and its predecessor in my own mind, the Hebrew Union College, there is an attempt to achieve richness through a great simplicity of form. There’s nothing screaming at you here, it’s just very much about fitting into the land, and light, and shadow, and plant life. And that is why it lends itself to such a rich community life, because people enjoy being in it but they’re not intimidated by it at all. It’s not the big forms that jar, bang bang bang, and then you’re conscious of their presence, and they’re overbearing, and they tell you all the time, “We’re here, take notice.” This building is not about overwhelming anybody.
The other thing I noticed is that you have an intuition about landscape and building, which is something that I think is lacking here in California in a lot of cases.
I’ve worked with a lot of gifted landscape architects. I’ve worked with Larry Halprin, Pete Walker. In Israel, Shlomo Aronson. In each case it was a true collaboration. In other words, it’s not that architecture stops and landscape takes over. There’s no such line. I conceive of building and landscape as one. And then the landscape architects and I work together in very much a tango or a dance, it’s like that, you know, because it’s a collaboration, because it’s part of the architecture.
In a lot of the projects in the show there is a focus on urban rooms. I’m wondering how that sort of idea progressed.
The urban room as a concept began when I worked on the Vancouver Library. They said, “We don’t want this to be just a library, but we want to create a place where you can come, have a cup of coffee, you can buy some flowers, you can read the newspaper, you can go into the library, you can get a book, you can bring it out, and it’s open all the time.” So we created an urban room. And then I realized, that’s what most public buildings miss. They have a control point, you pay admission, you go through security, and you’re inside. But what if you could have a kind of in-between zone, which anybody could go in to? And then, if you want to go and see a fancy exhibition, then you go through another control point.
Another thing that’s common in your work is the use of metaphor and symbolism.
I never talk about it. I never prescribe it. At Yad Vashem [Holocaust History Museum in Jersualem] I never said anything about symbolism. I did say that at the end of the exhibition I wanted to have a reaffirmation that life prevailed, that is true. The arrival building has a lattice, and the light coming in from the skylights is completely striped because of the lattice. So when you’re walking through it’s striped on you. The guides like to tell people that I designed it so that they will feel like they are the prisoners in the camp. And that’s their invention, not mine. I just wanted soft light that sort of dematerializes everything before you go into the museum with its horrible story in there.
It seems like it can be a challenge, like you said, to reinvent your style over the years. But it also seems like a challenge for a project that extends over twenty years—like the Skirball—to keep that fresh as you move along. To keep the same master plan, but somehow keep it feeling of the time. That must be a problem, a challenge.
There were moments, like in the last phase, where I was thinking, “Do I need to really break away in terms of the palette?” But I resisted it, because I thought the most important thing is to make the whole place feel like one whole. And had I done that, it would have been more of a personal obsession than a thing that responds to what the place wants to be. And so in some ways I resisted going to areas that might have interested me at this point in time, but I thought they would be a necessary, kind of, breaking away from the character of the place.
So what’s the next phase?
What’s next is we have a lot of work in Asia. Almost all of it. All of it very dense, very large-scale. We won a competition for the new center of the Singapore airport. It connects all the terminals, and it’s got a great garden, and shopping, and other services. It’s an idea that an airport is already almost like a mini city. So you create the kind of center for that. And in Chongqing, which is the biggest city in China, if not the world, we’re doing a 10 million-square-foot mixed-use project.
It’s the new scale of megacities. And we’re also having for the first time an opportunity to build large-scale residential; in Colombo, in China, in Singapore. And many of the ideas of Habitat, and even the studies for Habitat of the future, which are in the exhibition, have been spinning off into these projects.
So it sounds like, in that respect, something that you were working on, you were starting, forty years ago, is now finally happening?
It’s true. In some ways you walk into the office and it looks like we’ve gone back forty years.
That must be exciting, though—something that you may not have thought would ever really materialize.
I never thought it would happen, that’s true. I almost gave up.
How do you adapt that to current conditions?
Just go with it. You adapt the concepts. Of course the densities are greater, and mixed-use is part of the formula. And their ideas of industrialization are no longer synonymous with prefabrication. The emphasis is to achieve an optimization of mixed-uses, placing offices and commercial space at the lower levels, giving housing the advantage of air, light, and view above. It also, given the constraints of density, puts an emphasis on providing community open-garden spaces within different levels of the development in addition to the private gardens provided to some of the residential units.
These won’t be prefabricated?
I think they’ll be industrialized, but whether they’re prefabricated as panels or boxes is a moot question at this point. It’s more, how do you assemble manufactured components? And I’m not sure that means three-dimensional components. That’s what we’re exploring right now, trying to understand, because there are so many new production techniques.
After the success of Habitat the expectations on you must have been higher than any architect ever. Has that been difficult to manage over the years?
It’s been difficult to manage. I used to get irritated by the prefix “best known for Habitat 67” forty years after the fact. But there’s less of it now, I guess.
People talk about balancing popular appeal with critical appeal. Is that something that you think about when you’re designing?
I don’t think about it. I become aware of it after, that the public, what the public loves, usually the critics tend to hate. And I know I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why that is so. But it’s not something that I think about when I’m designing. I’m just doing my thing. I’m not thinking of the public or the critics when I’m designing.
Well, it seems the thing that really drives you the most is the ability to change how people live, change cities.
It’s what gives you satisfaction, that’s for sure... If you go through the exhibition, about half of what’s exhibited is unbuilt. But I definitely think I’ve had extraordinary opportunities. And they continue to come. And even though there are many disappointments of things you don’t build—I think that would be totally frustrating if that happened all the time. You can lose some things that you have a lot of affection for when you have an opportunity to realize others.
In 1971, Moshe Safdie was one of the most famous architects in the world. He was only 33, but his face appeared on the cover of Newsweek as the designer of Habitat for the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. He had submitted the design—basically his master’s thesis for McGill University—while an apprentice in the office of Louis Kahn. Its selection made him an international design star overnight.
In 1978 Safdie moved to Massachusetts in order to teach at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Many projects followed, notably among them the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The firm now maintains satellite offices in Jerusalem and Singapore, but the Somerville, MA, studio remains the firm’s primary home base. Here the staff of seven works in a state-of-the-art model shop from the conceptual stage through full-scale mock-ups for every project. Throughout, Safdie has remained true to the core principles established at the Habitat housing complex: buildability, integration into the public realm, and humanizing the mega scale.
Finally, Safdie, not wanting to be a “fly in and fly out” academic, began a fellowship program in his office in 2004. The program endows two fulltime architectural researchers, $65,000 each, to spend a year with him exploring a single project to be presented to the staff and inspire future work. The next two years will see an important handful of completed buildings opening in the United States, India, and Singapore.
United States Institute of Peace Headquarters
The Khalsa Heritage Centre
Marina Bay Sands
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
This project seamlessly integrates art, architecture, and landscape within a series of wood and concrete pavilions nestled around shallow ponds fed by a nearby natural spring. The design is focused on protecting the natural beauty of its forested site and emphasizes a strong sense of place by utilizing regional materials. Walking trails and a sculpture, including a site-specific work by James Turrell, will link the 100-acre site to downtown Bentonville.
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.
In a dramatic turn of events, opposition to the construction of a new office tower in the Country Club Plaza district of Kansas City, Missouri faded for good in August, when law firm Polsinelli Shughart chose the site of the unfinished West Edge development designed by Moshe Safdie for its new headquarters. After months of battling over another site on the Plaza, Polsinelli announced that the office portion of the project, an unfinished structure that was originally designed to suit advertising agency Bernstein-Rein, will be demolished and replaced with a new office tower. Selective demolition of the structure began September 26. Safdie Architects declined to comment for this story.
In a statement, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said, “The West Edge location helps to replace an abandoned project, eliminates the controversy of the site on the Plaza, and retains a valuable corporation and its employees in Kansas City."
The Safdie structure currently being demolished is the skeleton of what was planned to be a nine-story, 203,000-square-foot building, part of an $80 million mixed-use project. The 134-room hotel and the 940-car six-level underground garage, which along with other infrastructure improvements around the 2.4-acre site was funded by $32 million in Tax Increment Financing, will remain. Local firm 360 Architecture will design the new structure for Caymus Real Estate, which took over the project last February. The cost to both dismantle the existing building to save the underground parking and to rebuild the new structure is $80 million. Dave Harrison, President of Caymus Real Estate, said, “Polisnelli approached us with 360 Architecture in tow and offered up our most probable scenario to advance the project.”
The saga surrounding the site goes back nearly a decade when current owner Cecil Van Tuyl proposed a redevelopment that was ultimately rejected due to public opposition. After the West Edge development under new owner Trilogy Development was approved five years ago following an extensive community planning process, Trilogy filed for bankruptcy in 2009 as construction was nearing completion. At an auction in 2010, Cecil Van Tuyl with partner B.B. Andersen bought the project for $9.5 million. Last February, Van Tuyl was sued by his now former partner Andersen under claims that he violated their original contract. It is unclear how this lawsuit will affect the overall project.
Courtesy 360 Architecture
The new building will be a nine-story, 250,000-square-foot steel structure with standard floor plates. The Class A office tower will fit into the site in much the same way as the previous building, with 22,000 square feet of retail along the north and east ground floors, but a second story patio above the retail on the east and a new plaza at the northwest corner will be added. Bill Johnson, principal at 360, said, “The geometry is based on the structure we were given, and by shifting the building to create public spaces at the corners and edges it produces a great addition to the feel of the Plaza.”
The new office tower is expected to open in the fourth quarter of 2013. At this point, Kansas City is hoping that this long battle comes to a close.
On September 16, the Safdie-designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA), a 285,000-square-foot, $326 million complex that will be the home of the Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera, and Kansas City Ballet had its grand opening performance by world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo in the 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre. On September 17, the opening festivities continued with violinist Itzhak Perlman in the 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall.
Top-flight performers signal the ambitions for the project and for the city as a whole. Originally conceived as three separate halls for each performance ensemble, the project reverted to two spaces due to budgetary constraints. Nonetheless, the two large shells mark the important debut of the Symphony in Helzberg Hall and the Opera and Ballet in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. A cable stayed grand foyer and lobby enclosed by etched glass connect the Hall and Theatre with a grand terrace facing south towards the emerging Crossroads Arts District. Moshe Safdie of Safdie Architects explained, “We wanted to reverse the assumption that the lobby should be facing north towards downtown. The site almost demanded it.”
Central Avenue dead-ends at the KCPA exactly where the space between the two performance halls creates the cavernous north entrance. This dramatic back end serves as the gateway for the Bartle Hall Convention Center and the rest of the downtown central business district.
In 2002, Julia Kauffman, daughter of Ewing Kauffman of the Kauffman Foundation and Marion Laboratories, began courting Safdie and eventually asked him to visit the site of the future cultural center. Said Safdie, “It was a relationship that cemented itself.”
Since construction began in 2006, the communities around the KCPA have been getting ready with new shops, restaurants, and infrastructure. To increase pedestrian access from downtown, the Missouri Department of Transportation allocated $4.9 million to completely reconstruct the Broadway Bridge across Interstate 670. Directly adjacent to the KCPA, a Kansas City-funded $47 million 1,000-car underground parking garage has also been built. Jan Marcason, 4th District Kansas City Councilwoman, explained, “The Center was a catalyst for the City to make many improvements and connections to surrounding neighborhoods.”
Set at the foreground of the downtown Kansas City skyline, the KCPA plays a supporting role with its taller neighbors. Its sloping curves emerging from a hilltop vantage-point both embrace and accentuate Downtown Kansas City. “Its location shifts the center of the upper and lower city,” Safdie said. Downtown Kansas City sits atop the bluffs at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers.
Marcason said, “This has brought worldwide attention to Kansas City as a center for arts, and we have used it as a focal point to showcase our many cultural institutions.”