Safdie’s Secrets of the Sites

Known for his wide array of museums worldwide, Moshe Safdie, FAIA, delivered this year’s ninth annual Rosenblatt Memorial Lecture, a series focusing on museum design. Introducing the series, AIANY and Center for Architecture Interim Executive Director David Burney, FAIA, identified Arthur M. Rosenblatt as a true scholar and a gentleman, and the founding chairman of the AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee, which inaugurated the lecture series in his honor. Though architects are said to peak in their 60s, Safdie, now in his 70s, hit his stride early in his career, and has continued a tradition of design excellence evident in the museums he presented.

The title of the lecture, “Made to Measure,” foreshadowed Safdie’s attention to the “secrets of the site,” including the cultural heritage and the contextual surroundings, or genius loci, as they mix with program, materials, and tectonics in a design that interprets the specifics of place and project. According to Safdie, traditional or modern styles are indistinguishable when this process is successful, recalling a conversation he had with clients in Jerusalem who feared getting a glass box.

The first two projects Safdie presented, the National Gallery of Canada and the Peabody Essex Museum, feature large expanses of glass. The former brings the operation and circulation of the museum to the public in an interpretation of the surrounding Gothic architecture. In the latter, glass clarifies circulation through a series of pavilions that establish scale. Both projects are recognizably modern while simultaneously adhering to their contextual traditions.

For the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Safdie designed the Holocaust Museum (which he recalled had “the greatest number of meetings per square foot of any museum”) to replace the earlier museum. Challenging the original museum program, his Children’s Holocaust Memorial became an antidote to the main space’s information overload. The project started in 1976, but only began in earnest in the late 1980s, after receiving a large donation. Conversely, the Indian fortress-inspired Khalsa Heritage Centre in Anandpur Sihib, Punjab, benefited from a client who secured Safdie’s alternative site within weeks, and had finished portions of the project before construction documents were completed.

Safdie concluded with two recent projects, the Art Science Museum in Singapore and the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. The former built its own context with black-box and wildly shaped galleries with natural light. The latter follows a creek basin with a series of pavilions, dams, and bridge-buildings. Explaining their differences, Safdie summarized, “What I’ve learned is that the richness you obtain when you focus on the unique…is the root of invention.”

James Way, Assoc. AIA is Co-chair of the AIANY Marketing and Communications Committee, and a frequent contributor to e-Oculus.

Event: 2015 Rosenblatt Lecture: Moshe Safdie, FAIA
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.14.15
Speaker: Moshe Safdie, FAIA
Organized by
: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsored by: Kramer Levin