Safdie Delivers Treatise on the Future of Architecture & Urbanization

Event: First Annual Oculus Lecture on Design — Moshe Safdie: Megascale, Order an Complexity
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.04.10
Speaker: Moshe Safdie, FAIA — Principal, Moshe Safdie and Associates
Moderator: Fred Schwartz, FAIA — Principal, Frederic Schwartz Architects
Organizer: AIANY Oculus Committee


Mamilla Center (left); Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum.

Ardon Bar Hama (left); Tim Hursley

“No architectural philosophy can exist without a reciprocal urban philosophy,” began Moshe Safdie, FAIA. “The problem with the [architectural] profession today is that the two fields are separate,” he continued. In the face of this polarization, he questioned if there is still an ethical framework in architecture.

Modernism produced bold concepts and notions that promised a new world order. However, Safdie believes modern architects do not have the right to claim success in the face overbuilt high-rise neighborhoods and suburban sprawl. He called for the profession to take responsibility for the built environment, to humanize development, and communicate to the public in simple, understandable terms. He referenced Vitruvius when he beckoned the profession to take a more ethical stance in the public realm.

The profession is thriving, Safdie stated. Architecture has caught on with the market economy, and clients hire architects to help market their companies. The profession is now considered an expressive art. New terminologies have even been developed — such as “star architect.” With both urbanization and population growth exploding, now is the time for architects to make an impact on the future.

Time is not only creating great crises in the world, it is providing enormous opportunities for architects. Safdie discussed cities like São Paolo and countries like China, where urban growth is booming so quickly that new, tall buildings are eroding old communities without consideration for an urban framework. Infrastructure and transportation need to be reconsidered. In this on-demand society with limited environmental resources, bike share programs like Paris’s Vélib need to be expanded, as well as car share programs like Zipcar. Architects also need to rethink building types, he proclaimed. Typical apartment buildings need to be reorganized so streets and gardens are integrated with the urban context. There needs to be an economy of prefabrication, a respect for the environment, and an appreciation for the quality of life.

The themes of habitat, community, memory, and symbol prevail in Safdie’s work. Since the iconic Habitat in Montreal, designed in 1967, established his career as an architect and redefined affordable housing, he has attempted to revise the concept behind the structure to make it more affordable, more efficient, and achieve a maximum density. Even though he has yet to put any of his revisions into practice, he admits the process is evolutional and the work will never be finished.

His impact on the community in Jerusalem is more concrete. The recently opened promenade at Mamilla Center is sited in an area that links the Palestinian and Israeli communities directly. Since it opened, Safdie claimed, it is one of the only places in the region where the communities mix in a peaceful manner. He feels it has transformed the city’s perception of itself.

The transcendental effect architecture can have on people is spiritually experienced in the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, also in Jerusalem. After bringing visitors through a meandering landscape of historic images of the Holocaust, the final destination is a cantilevered space overlooking the city beyond. To Safdie, the moment inspires the feeling that life prevails. The view of the landscape is both renewing and affirming.

Ultimately, Safdie thinks that architects should take a cue from nature. A “fitness” of structure and beauty connote humanity. It is up to the profession to define the way space is used in a humane way. Referencing his mentor Louis Kahn, Safdie stated that it is up to architects to ask: “What does the building want to be?”

Note: To listen to the Q&A between Safdie and Schwartz, click here.