A Life Less Ordinary
Forty years at the top has done little to dim Moshe Safdie's passion for adventurous and controversial design. Phin Foster meets the whizz-kid of Expo 67, who shows no signs of slowing down.
Whoever said we mellow with age obviously hadn't met Moshe Safdie. The Israeli-Canadian architect continues to work on grand projects at a prodigious rate, while remaining an outspoken critic of the shortcomings and blind spots of current architectural practice.
It is now 40 years since Safdie found fame as a 24-year-old, following the selection of his Master's thesis for the Expo 67 event in Montreal. Now 68, and with Habitat 67 still going strong, time has proved Safdie to be anything but your typical prodigy.
Erudite and charming, he displays a complete lack of pretension. Marching through a labyrinth of identikit hotel corridors in a futile hunt for our interview room, he is patience personified. However, once he is settled on a hallway sofa, and the conversation turns to the current state of his profession, a definite steel enters his demeanour. "Architecture is increasingly becoming equated with high art and fashion," he sighs. "The agendas that should be structuring our work are being ignored."
A former Harvard professor, Safdie continues to keep a close eye on his potential successors and looks to the schools for an indication of where things are headed: "The kids are looking at wild sculptures and how to manipulate a computer to give you a synthetic form of richness.
"If the fundamentals are not addressed – the expressiveness of the construction methodology, the responsibility to use resources wisely, the importance of location and context – then it is only superficially architecture. It is buildings conceived with a deep understanding of building methods and structures that tend to be timeless."
Short-sightedness is not limited to the young bucks emerging from college. Safdie cites the international homogenisation of architecture and design as an increasingly worrying trend: "I do feel that buildings need to belong to a place. When you travel the world and everywhere looks the same, it cannot be a good thing. We ought to work harder at understanding the differences between places."
Safdie also believes opportunities to humanise mega-scale and rethink urban development are being missed. He remembers his visit to Shanghai with the Canadian Prime Minister in 1973 and contrasts that trip with his return last year: "In a quarter of a century, every mistake made in the West has been amplified tenfold. There is no sort of cohesive urban fabric; it is no bigger than the sum of its parts. Extraordinary growth should offer the opportunity to correct planning mistakes, but the places growing fastest aren't doing things any better."
Singapore, where Safdie is currently working on an integrated resort, would appear to be an exception to the rule. "The city planners are interested in expressing modernity and progress, but not at the expense of some key underlying themes," he enthuses. "They articulate guidelines for specific climatic and urban objectives and emphasise pedestrian life within a tropical climate."
Similarly, he is unable to hide his delight when we discuss the success of his Salt Lake City Library. "Who would have thought a place where people traditionally disappeared from at five o'clock could sustain a site that is now attracting 9,000 visitors a day?" he says. "It has changed the pattern of people coming into town in the evenings and at weekends."
Safdie's desire to influence lifestyle through planning is heartfelt. "People claim today's social arrangements, the polarisation of rich and poor, and the development of electronic communications all work against this notion of community, but you can't tell me that such polarisation did not exist in 19th century Paris. It, like many other cities, always had spaces where people would naturally congregate."
REFINING AND RETHINKING
While Safdie's style has evolved considerably, it is remarkable how many of the themes explored in the Habitat project he has revisited over the years. In particular, the attempt to rethink high-density living and encourage social integration through design – so integral to the Habitat project – has become synonymous with much of his work since. "It's puzzling how someone with so little experience could produce such a complex building," he says with bemusement, "but it's not a one-liner."
Safdie looks back on a career spanning five decades with great fondness: "I wouldn't swap it for anything. It has given me the most wonderful experiences and I have also had the good fortune of being in business for myself throughout."
Ask him about his future ambitions, however, and his eyes sparkle with excitement. "The richness of my practice is that we'll take anything we haven't done before. It's so exciting to discover new building types and really get into them through extensive research. You work a lot more thoroughly when it's something new."
Those heady early days may be a distant memory, but, with a combination of boldness and enthusiasm, it would seem Moshe Safdie has hit on the right formula for staying forever young.