“As editor of this sumptuous monograph, Wendy Kohn brings Safdie’s contentious, contradictory career into sharp focus. The bulk of this very bulky volume tells a rich story.”
“A lush, full-color monograph, a word that belies the substance and authority of the book.” —The Jerusalem Report
by Wendy Kohn
Timelessness, in the view of Moshe Safdie, is the most meaningful quality one can ascribe to building. His design process, however, focuses unrelentingly on the daily life of the architecture: the way spaces will be used; the building’s performances in its climate; the real desires of the prospective inhabitants. In many ways this dichotomy characterizes the essence of his work: a struggle and mediation between the universal and the specific, the ideal and the real.
Open-eyed in his approach to site, scare, building materials and programme, Safdie’s deep inspirations, his precedents and passions, derive most often from broad mythological imagery – the Garden of Paradise, the Tower of Babel, the Light of Heaven. The resulting architectural form possesses both the immediacy of a specific tectonic solution and the timelessness of a familiar image.
Monumental, dramatic, ceremoniously public: these are qualities generated by bold ideas and accentuated in photographs of Safdie’s buildings from Canada to Los Angeles to Israel. But while this dominant strain – the large-scale order and resoluteness, the Big Ideas of geometry and emphatically intersected platonic form – sounds throughout the work, it is continuously accompanied by minor chords that rise and fall through intricately sculpted skylights, carefully studied apertures and rhythmically layered walls. The apparent singularity of Safdie’s work provides structure for the strong and sure pleasure of walking, climbing standing, sitting and contemplating in the complete environment of a real place.
It is Safdie’s insistence upon the experience of architecture – the wordless, phenomenological, universally perceptible qualities of space and form – that most impresses those who visit his buildings. Safdie is convinced that true invention occurs only at the moment when an architect recognizes all of the contradictions inherent in the design of buildings, and meets their challenges. No decision in the design process stands without his conviction that the space, volume, light and texture of the building is know and has been crafted. Safdie’s eye explores and inhabits models made at every stage and at every scale: he carries them in and out-of-doors, photographs and amends and transforms them with fluid intensity. In the evolution of a design, Safdie maintains a continuous dialogue between recurrent sketchbook explorations and these small moments in construction. His finished buildings embody the vitality of this exchange.
In one of his most recent projects, Safdie joins the muscular, ordered, elliptical shell of Library Square with a sculpted, sloping urban plane in the city of Vancouver. Smoothly connecting two major avenues, the built surface of the block is moulded with landing, gradual stairs and wells for light below. On the, the urban floor becomes not plinth, but organic foundation: it is of the building as the library is of the city, as an institution and as urban architecture. The building’s big ‘square-in-circle’ idea is maintained on the exterior only in partership with these urban inflections, and on the interior, only with the complete collusion of spatial interstices like odd-shaped shafts for air and enormous earthquake joints. The city block of Library Square subtly fuses an urban building with an urban grid, and gracefully intersects the space of the public library with the space of its city.
In Habitat ‘67, his early tour de force, Safdie first established this characteristic symbiosis of ideal order and constructed specificity. In image, Habitat is an orderly ziggurat of cantilevered boxes, but from beneath, a Piranesian tangle of many-storeyed columns propping up the elegant honeycomb. There is hardly a structural element of Habitat that is not habitable: elevator shafts and fire stairs are columns; sheltered outdoor corridors and beams; houses with beautifully detailed interiors and planted gardens are walls, floors and roofs. Habitat is both a playground jungle-gym and a plausible piece of city that might easily extend along any axis – up, out or across. Experienced as a real place to live in a big city, it is both soaring and humanly scaled. Standing on a roof garden at Habitat, surrounded by air and city, the complex effortlessly re-forms one’s expectations of an urban home.
This is architecture as an event. Designed to be experienced, Safdie’s building depend on the interaction of their three build dimensions with the both infinite and instantaneous quality of time. These places require the immediacy of movement through space, which gives rise to the “trajectories” (as described here by Peter Rowe) of outdoor trellised walkways, angular skylit promenades and grandly curving passages. These spaces require a particular time of day, a specific angle of the sun. They require many individuals moving in a stop/start rhythm. Safdie’s great and consistent achievement is an architecture that is simultaneously geometric and organic. His built work is strong enough to construct precious moments of the world ‘as desired’ (in Safdie’s words) and malleable enough to adapt to the world ‘as found’.
In his essay for this volume, Witold Rybczynski comments that Safdie is not a theorist, despite his almost constant output of articles and books. That Safdie believes it is possible to make judgements about what are the appropriate bases for design, what is the proper roles of an architect in society, what is moral in architecture, renders his message incongruous with recent decades of academic theory. It is also because he has realized such an abundance of major projects, especially in the last decade, that it would be hard to consider any of his statements as only theoretical; the ‘proof’ is before our eyes.
It is my hope that this volume will be apprehended not as a conclusion, but as a provocation; not as a summary, but as a selection; not as a lesion, but finally as an invitation – to take a book up to the reading arcade of Safdie’s Library Square, walk the trellised skywalks of Hebrew Union College or swing open the thick, double-height copper door of Harvard’s Class of 1959 Chapel on a sunny day and touch the cool, curved concrete walls splashed with prismatic light.