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Habitat's time has come

Speaking at the RIBA, Moshe Safdie championed his 47-year-old modular housing system, while lamenting the institute's proposition to exclude Israeli architects from the UIA

Boston-based, Israeli-Canadian Moshe Safdie arrived in London earlier this summer to speak at the RIBA, hot on the heels of the institution’s controversial motion to suspend Israel from the International Architects Union (UIA). Unsurprisingly he had some decided views on this. But the first thing he wanted to do was discuss where his early dreaming of humane, low-cost housing had got to.

Safdie is still best known by students the world over for his first project, Habitat (1967), which he won in his twenties and went on to build with, as he admits, a mixture of naivety and hope. ‘Looking back it seems like a fairy tale,’ he says. ‘I know now what it is to build a building and innovate against established building codes… I don’t have an explanation of how I got away with it.’

The stacked units for the Montreal’s World Fair endeavoured to give each home its own outdoor space and sense of arrival like a more traditional home. Safdie brought up a young family here, his children playing on the park on the 16th floor, and also attempted to spin off this idea into other Habitats around the world.

Moshe-Safdie.
Moshe-Safdie. · Credit: Stephen Kelly

For various reasons they never took off. In fact Safdie did not build again for a decade – ‘tough years,’ he says. But now, age 75, he believes their time is coming. His work at a huge scale in China is giving him the opportunity to test out different modes of living. At Qinhuangdao he is creating a high-density garden environment up the 30th floor that has a more than formal relationship to Habitat.China amazes and frustrates him: the chaos of planning and knowing who is at the helm; the complex and conservative building codes that in some places require a huge amount from the building. On one project, codes require every apartment to have a minimum of three hours’ sunlight at the winter solstice. It is this requirement that has driven the various structures and towers of the development and some serious manipulation of the form. ‘Sometimes it feels like densities are excessive,’ he says. ‘That is where it is interesting as an architect, to intervene to get in light and air.’ 

Safdie also admits to an anxiety while working in a totalitarian regime. ‘I am in a constant state of worry when I am in China,’ he says, explaining that he experiences a fear of being locked up. He is also concerned by the distressing loss of courtyard fabric in cities, and the mistakes of the Western world being replicated here.

Safdie is also distressed by the work of compatriots: ‘I am sad to say most Western architects in China are doing object buildings, with lots of wow effects.’ His own Marina Bay Sands in Singapore might be accused of being iconic, it certainly dominates the skyline. But Safdie sees the functionality working with the monumentality. ‘We all have big egos,’ he admits, ‘but it is what you put your energy into. What should never be compromised is specificity of programme or culture… otherwise you get caricatures. We emphasise formal expression in culture, in schools, with our tools. We are divorced from the materials as if we are not affected by gravity, and I think gravity is here to stay.’

  • Section through Habitat.
    Section through Habitat. · Credit: Courtesy of Safdie Architects
  • Putting Habitat together, one unit at a time.
    Putting Habitat together, one unit at a time. · Credit: Jerry Spearman
  • View from the courtyard at Habitat, Montreal.
    View from the courtyard at Habitat, Montreal. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art seen nestled into the landscape.
    Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art seen nestled into the landscape. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • The ponds are the focus at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
    The ponds are the focus at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • Marina Bay Sands, Singapore dominating the skyline in the view from the water.
    Marina Bay Sands, Singapore dominating the skyline in the view from the water. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • The SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.
    The SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • Yad Vashem Museum from above.
    Yad Vashem Museum from above. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • The long prism at the heart of Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem.
    The long prism at the heart of Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem. · Credit: Timothy Hursley
  • Emerging from the prism at Yad Vashem Museum.
    Emerging from the prism at Yad Vashem Museum. · Credit: Timothy Hursley

At Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (2011), Safdie chose to site the gallery embedded in the valley, bridging the water there, so the ponds become the focal point. ‘If you can, pencil in hand, become those who will inhabit or use your buildings you are halfway there,’ he says.

In the same way, Safdie likes to keep his designs real, starting with a sketch, followed by the team in his office in Somerville, Massachusetts, making rough foam models before the computer design goes too far. ‘I walk around the office giving out pens – inexpensive ones, not Mont Blanc,’ he says. His sense of feeling the design is critical. Asked by an audience member how his own geometry intersects with that of his one-time mentor Louis Kahn, he describes how he looks for the generating geometries to order a complex programme. ‘Then I discovered there was an order to geometry,’ he says. ‘Once you deploy geometry it starts to generate structural rationality, for example, toroids on the Crystal Bridges roof. It’s a tool.’

He looks for the site’s secrets. At Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, he didn’t want to do a big building on top of a mountain, nor to cut down even one tree. So he imagined it as a quarry or a cave, taking visitors on a journey through the hill, then out into the light at the other side, which members of the audience attested to being very moving. 

We all have big egos, but it is what you put your energy into. What should never be compromised is specificity of programme or culture… otherwise you get caricatures

Israeli-born and with a great loyalty to his mother country, Safdie says he felt ‘saddened’ by the RIBA proposition to exclude Israeli architects from the UIA. ‘It doesn’t further the cause for peace,’ he says.  He has a carefully navigated code of his own about where he will build. ‘I will not accept commissions in the West Bank, I am against that,’ he asserts. However, in Jerusalem he has been happy to build to the city limits, which he acknowledges is beyond the United Nations’ Green Line. ‘But I wouldn’t think it against Palestinian people,’ he says. He is part of a group that works to help farmers fight the wall that cuts through the land, though he doesn’t dispute the need for the barrier itself.

He handles questions and aggression about it with charm and assurance, but his focus is still on the great project of his life. ‘I still believe in Habitat. I can’t help it,’ he says. He is trying to gift his own Habitat flat to a university or a museum so the public can see it, but so far nobody wants it without an endowment. He sees its influence through schools of architecture and in the work of a new generation such as Bjarke Ingels who use it as a springing point. ‘It’s on a new cycle.’

The recording of the public interview between Razia Iqbal and Moshe Safdie will be broadcast on the World Service in August.