Master Builder

Architect Moshe Safdie, designer of the city of Modi'in, the new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport, the Rabin Center, the Mamilla project and the West Jerusalem plan, doesn't understand why his genius isn't appreciated in Israel.

The death of Teddy Kollek this month reminded Moshe Safdie of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Then, too, he caught the first available plane in order to attend the funeral. Both Kollek and Rabin were personal friends of Safdie's. Both of them contributed, directly and indirectly, to the advancement of his career. In November 1995, when Rabin was gunned down, Safdie was at his Boston home. Kollek's death found him at his vacation home in Mexico. He showed up in the Jerusalem cold with a tropical tan, his face the color of chocolate milk, his smile relaxed. At least outwardly.

Beneath the calm exterior and the polished manners, Safdie is seething with anger and a sense of affront over what was done to the "Safdie plan" for Jerusalem's future development.

Eleven years ago, Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, asked Safdie - under the auspices of Israel's planning institutions and the Jerusalem Development Authority - to design the vision of Jerusalem for the year 2020. No public tender was issued. "They came to me and asked me to take it on myself, because there were all kinds of planning problems involved. Not only was there no tender," Safdie notes, "they even accepted all my conditions."

His conditions included exclusivity in deciding the number of residential units in the area of the project, a freeze on all the other programs that were already in various planning stages, and dialogue with the green organizations. In 2000 Safdie submitted a plan that was to cover 26,600 dunams (6,650 acres) and be built below the farming communities of Ora, Aminadav and Mount Heret, close to Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, extending west from Jerusalem. Some 19,000 terraced little dream homes would be built here in a primeval landscape of lush, green open territory . Not even the greens objected, and their representatives signed an agreement with the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) for the execution of the project.

Since then, the plan has been on a rollercoaster ride between planning authorities and has consumed all the city's economic and planning resources. Tens of millions of shekels have been invested in it. Hundreds of officials, advisers, architects, researchers and lawyers have pored over the plan and considered its implications and ramifications for the city. The agreement with the green groups was signed in March 2004, on the eve of the plan's authorization by the National Planning and Building Council, but three months later they retracted their consent and launched an aggressive campaign against the project.

"We broke the agreement," says Avraham Shaked, from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), "after representatives of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Lands Administration took steps to authorize other plans in these areas, contrary to what was agreed with us."

The greens were joined in their opposition by the communities on the fringes of the project - Ora and Aminadav, along with the upscale suburban communities of Motza and Mevasseret Yerushalayim - who were not happy about the idea of being annexed to Jerusalem, or about their potential new neighbors, or about the system of ring roads that was to be built around them. Mass petitions against the project were organized.

There are no saints in this story, Safdie says. Everyone has a vested interest. "Some of the opponents already live in a green area, so they don't want others to come there," he says. 'They went to malls to get passersby to sign the petition. Right-wingers in green skirts also showed up. Omri Sharon [one of the sons of former prime minister Sharon] is suddenly also green, and announced that he is against the plan. But I know what they are thinking. If Jerusalem doesn't develop westward, we will go eastward. I hope that doesn't happen. Irrespective of my political opinions, the Americans will not let us go east."

You yourself have a vested interest.

"I believe that I presented an appropriate professional solution, and I am in favor of an open public debate, but the debate here became demagogic. I know people who signed petitions in malls and had no idea what they were signing. They were told that 'Jerusalem must be saved from the real estate sharks,' and they signed. I am the one who stopped all the real estate sharks, who were on the rampage here before my plan came into being. [The writer] Meir Shalev attacked me in an article in [the mass-circulation daily] Yedioth Ahronoth in an ugly, superficial manner. He wrote about what ugly things I build and what a bad architect I am. Who does he think he is to judge me as an architect? How dare he! Would I dare write something about the books he published? I felt absolutely ashamed for him. Does he have something to say? Let him pick up the phone and ask me. Let him get some information."

Sixteen thousand objections filed with the municipality buried the plan. The final nail in the coffin was the announcement by the mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, two months ago that he was putting a freeze on the project. Officially, Lupolianski said that he prefers to focus on housing solutions in the city center. But sources in the municipality say that entrepreneurs with vested interests are behind him.

"I don't know what is behind his decision to recommend a freeze on the project," says the architect Uri Sheetrit, the former city engineer of Jerusalem and Safdie's former partner in his Jerusalem office. "Of all the objections, that was the most surprising one, because as chairman of the Planning and Building Commission, Lupolianski had supported the plan with all his might."

The green organizations take credit for the mayor's decision. They hired the services of town planner Uri Barshishat, who drew up a report on the land reserves in Jerusalem. He found a potential for building 100,000 new residential units in the city, thus rendering the Safdie plan superfluous - "at least for the time span of the current generation," Barshishat says.

He adds, "I have no complaints about Safdie's plan. The question is whether we have to build there in the first place. Jerusalem has just expanded the whole time. Most of the construction was concentrated in the periphery; the majority of the strong population left the city center and the weak population entered."

To make matters worse, a few months ago Safdie discovered that little remained of his original plan. The planning authorities had amended it, without consulting him, and increased the population density by 35 percent. "You take a topography-compatible plan and turn it into something else. That means high-rise building, with parking problems and so on. I cannot live with that," he says. "I asked them to retract it, but they paid no attention." ("That was done in coordination with the greens and with their concurrence," says the spokesperson of the JDA.)

Safdie is not used to being disregarded. Two weeks ago he sent letters to the prime minister and the mayor requesting that his name and support be removed from the plan. "I had no choice," he says, "because of the peculiar attitudes being taken by some cabinet ministers and by the mayor. The interior minister said he would not come to the discussion in the [Planning and Building] Council, because he lives in the area, and the mayor said he was putting a freeze on the plan without consulting anyone. And worse, they introduced changes into my plan, which is actually not mine but the government's, so please, stop it. But the prime minister is in favor."

How do you know?

"He told me so at Teddy's [Kollek's] funeral, unequivocally, that he considers it essential and important for the plan to go ahead."

A meeting of the National Planning and Building Council that had been scheduled for the first week of January to decide on the future of the project did not take place. The director general of the Interior Ministry stated that the discussion would be held in a few months.

A dose of skepticism

Moshe Safdie was born in Haifa 68 years ago, the eldest of four children. His father, Leon, was born in Aleppo, Syria, and his mother, Rachel, in Manchester, England, to a family with roots in Aleppo. They arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s. His father was a textiles importer who felt uncomfortable in "Red Haifa."

"He was a businessman, but they made it impossible for him to do business here. Tariffs were placed on imports and he despaired of the economy and the socialism," Safdie relates. "He had a feeling of paranoia, and finally in 1953, he decided to immigrate to Montreal, where he had a brother."

When Safdie first learned that the family was leaving Israel, he was pleased. It was his chance to tell his teachers in the prestigious Reali High School that they would no longer have to call his parents, as he would no longer be attending the school. "I was a rowdy, and in those days rowdies were kicked out of the good schools."

In the event, the move was traumatic and life in Montreal was cold and hard. "I was 15 and very sad," he recalls. "I felt like an exile. I knew little English. I missed my friends in Israel, the activities in the Scouts. But there was a positive side to it, too. Because I had no social life, I devoted most of my time to my studies. Suddenly I was getting good grades, and when vocational tests found that I was very strong in mathematics and art, the recommendation was that I study architecture. I received a scholarship and was accepted to McGill University. The moment I started my studies, I realized that this is what I was cut out for."

At the age of 21, he married his girlfriend, Nina, a Polish-born Israeli whom he met in Montreal. Two years later the couple had a daughter, Tal, now an architect who lives in San Diego, and afterward came a son, Oren, now 41, a playwright, who moves about between London, New York and Los Angeles.

When Safdie was 24, he experienced a miracle - a rare combination of opportunity and Israeli chutzpah. He graduated cum laude and got a job in the firm of the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn in Philadelphia. His professional path looked clear, but what actually happened was stranger than fiction. His professor from McGill was appointed by the Canadian government to design the overall plan for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal.

"He came to me in Philadelphia and persuaded me to leave Louis Kahn and work with him on the exhibition. The sad thing is that half a year later he and the whole administration were dumped after some sort of political upheaval, and all the young people, with me at their head, stayed on to take over."

The organizers sought a symbol for the fair. They didn't want a tower - the conventional landmark of world's fairs. They wanted an element with a humanistic dimension. Safdie suggested Habitat. During his university studies, he had been awarded a scholarship to study public building in the United States and Canada. When he returned, he considered making this the subject of his thesis - a concept of low-cost community construction.

The idea was based on factory-made homes that could be assembled into one unit to create a kind of suspended honeycomb, with each unit having its own private view and garden.

"I remembered that idea," he says," and I presented it to the steering committee as the symbol of the exhibition. It was a kind of combination of basic chutzpah of a kid who believed in what he was doing and was certain that everyone would agree with him. I was an immigrant, I barely spoke English, I didn't know French, but somehow I convinced them that it was important, and the amazing moment came when the Expo directorate decided to go with the idea and present it to the government. I was taken in a private plane to Ottawa to meet the prime minister, Lester Pearson, the finance minister and seven cabinet ministers, and I presented the plan to them. They were persuaded and approved the budget.

"When I got back from Ottawa, someone from the steering committee called me and said, 'You're fired.' I looked at him and didn't understand what he was saying, so he explained, 'The government budgeted money for it, so there is no reason you should be a government official - go open your own office. And that's how my office got started."

So it came about that at the 1967 World's Fair, Safdie's Habitat, which was built with a special budget of $15 million and also accepted as a thesis by the university, was the symbol. Everything that happened afterward was straight out of the movies: international hoopla that instantly crowned a young man of 29 as the world's most innovative and creative architect.

Did you expect anything like that?

"Absolutely not. I was in shock when I saw myself on the cover of Newsweek, and only then did I grasp what had actually happened."

After he got over the shock, Safdie soon realized that success at such an early age had a price. "The project became a subject of controversy among the architecture critics," he notes. "The critic of The New York Times wrote that it was the project of the century, but others said it was showboating, wasteful and failed to address the cold climate of Canada, and that only someone who came from the Mediterranean region could have conceived it."

How did you feel?

"Something very interesting happened. It was the type of event that can be ruinous. But inside me something remained from the Reali School in Haifa - 'Act modestly' - the slogan on the shirts. I took my success with a dose of skepticism and didn't get into the publicity whirl."

Safdie's fame turned his career upside down: he began at the top and from there the only way was down. "Generally, at the age of 50-60 you start to develop the connections and get the important projects," he says. "Whereas for me, at the age of 29, accessibility and connections were self-evident."

But accessibility wasn't the only thing that was self-evident: so was a type of anxiety that Safdie generated, among both professional colleagues and potential clients. "People were afraid of me," he says. "For a long time I didn't get projects. People thought I would build abnormal buildings and drag them into showboat projects. I stayed in Montreal until 1978 but I never got one project there. Most of what I did was in the United States, Jerusalem and Senegal."

A sculptor, not an architect

In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Teddy Kollek, who had been elected mayor of Jerusalem two years earlier, established the Jerusalem Committee. This council of sages consisted of renowned architects from around the world, who were to discuss the future of the united city. Kollek invited Safdie to be a member of the group.

"He was the main factor in my return to Israel," Safdie says. "I came after the war and after Habitat as a star, and I fell in love with Teddy and with Jerusalem, and then I started the work on the Jewish Quarter [of the Old City]. I bought a ruin there and renovated it into a home, and from then on I was very close to Teddy. He was a paramount reason that I was later hired to build Hebrew Union College. He was my patron."

In 1970, Kollek asked Safdie to open an office in Jerusalem, as a condition for being given projects in the city, and Safdie became one of the busiest architects there. His first project was the Ben Porat Yeshiva in the Jewish Quarter; this is a stone structure that overlooks the Western Wall, an odd collection of arches in a Romantic orientalist spirit. Next, at the request of Major General Israel Tal, he designed the Merkava tank and in 1972 started work on the huge Mamilla project, critically situated along the seam between East and West Jerusalem. The project has since gone through different entrepreneurs, mayors, plans, ideas and engineers, and, a generation later, has not yet been completed. Safdie has accompanied it ever since, after amending his own design under public pressure.

Meron Benvenisti was the deputy mayor for planning and chairman of the city building commission at the time, and since then, "we have not been on speaking terms," Benvenisti says. "We were never friends from the outset, but we spoke because of my post. Since then I have stopped talking to him." The reason for the falling out began as a bypassing of authority but quickly deteriorated into a full-fledged war. Benvenisti objected to the plan for Mamilla as it was proposed, and Safdie went over his head, to the city engineer and then to Kollek, who backed him up. Benvenisti resigned, and to this day feels that his political life was aborted because of Safdie.

"In the end I left political life because of his grandiose plan in Mamilla," he says. "He thought he could come here on the strength of his image as a person of the world who was coming to the provincial city where people understood nothing. And I would not let him destroy the city through a megalomaniac project. The truth is that common sense triumphed over the megalomania, and Safdie changed the plan. That's what's so beautiful in him - when he fails, he immediately switches positions and goes on planning something that is the opposite of what he planned originally."

Safdie's original plan called for a vast complex with a system of roads and underground passages; it looked like a huge, closed mall. It bore no connection to its place or to the surrounding landscape. "It was not from life and not for this unfortunate city," Benvenisti says. "It would have been a white elephant. Even now, there is just such an elephant there - 'David's Village' - which is empty most of the time. Once an attempt was made to reconcile us, and effectively we made up, but to this day, whenever I see a Safdie project I am automatically against it. He is not an architect; he is a sculptor. He brings down a project from the sky, and what was there before is not important. He imposes his works on reality."

The Jerusalem architect David Kroyanker was then working for the city in the urban planning unit on a special contract. He drew up an alternative plan for Mamilla. "It was a plan that spoke of preserving most of the buildings that already existed and of construction on a far smaller scale," Kroyanker says. "Meron wanted to show that there was more than one solution. And then, in 1975, without Teddy Kollek knowing, we issued a pamphlet that was sent to all the papers and generated a great deal of interest. [The journalist] Amiram Nir made a television film about it. He tried to persuade the public that Safdie's plan was wrong.

"Safdie was an architect with an international reputation; we felt like small kids confronting this giant. The important thing was that we generated a public debate, and then the plan rolled around for decades. In the end, Safdie himself understood that it was not the right solution and eventually changed his plan. The whole system of underground roads was canceled, and what is happening there today is an improvement relative to the concept of 30 years ago, even though I think the construction today is too high."

Safdie is aware of the criticism. "There are things in Mamilla that I would do differently today," he says. "Maybe I would change some of the details, but all in all I am quite satisfied."

A heap of kitsch

In 1978, Safdie left Canada and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to become the director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. During this period he also got divorced, and married Michal Ronen, a photographer, who is the mother of his two daughters, Carmel, 25, a photographer, and Yasmine, 23, a teacher. Both daughters live in New York.

"And then something very strange happened," Safdie says. "The moment I left Canada, I started to get commissions for all the most important things. I did the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Quebec Museum of Civilization, the Museum of Art in Montreal, the Vancouver Public Library and the center for the performing arts there, and the opera building in Toronto. Until the end of the 1980s, I lived and taught in the United States and worked in Canada. I hardly received any commissions in the United States. That changed in the 1990s. I stopped getting projects in Canada and started to work in the United States and Israel."

In 1990, Safdie gave up teaching to devote himself entirely to designing and executing projects, mainly mega-projects. He still lives and works in Cambridge, pays infrequent visits to his Jerusalem office, but mostly is airborne. He leads a nomadic life from one project to another, in Australia, India, Singapore, Israel, Africa, the United States and Canada. He goes home to attend a dinner that has been long planned ("I didn't want to disappoint my friends") and the next day is back en route to a new site.

Most of Safdie's important projects in Israel have been built in the past decade: David's Village and the adjacent David Citadel Hotel, which are part of the Mamilla complex; the city of Modi'in, which he designed from start to finish; the new museum at Yad Vashem; the section of the new Ben Gurion Airport terminal from passport control to boarding; the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv; and, finally, the Jerusalem West project. It's a list calculated to spark envy, but not all the results have sparked admiration. Some continue to arouse antagonism - most notably perhaps, David's Village, a compound reserved for the ultra-wealthy, most of whom do not live in the city, so the site looks like a ghost town for most of the year. "That's sad," Safdie admits, "but the same problem existed in Yemin Moshe at first," referring to another ultra-exclusive neighborhood with a view of the old City.

So maybe it was wrong to build this section the way it was built?

"I don't think so. Fifteen years ago, Yemin Moshe was also completely deserted. Today, some of the foreigners who bought homes there have become permanent residents, and Israelis also entered over time. The same will happen here. If the city arrives at a slightly more normal state of affairs, embassies will move here and there will be a tremendous demand for prestige homes."

"It's true that he receives many commissions," notes Ziva Sternhell, an historian of architecture, "but that says nothing about quality. Kitsch often works on the masses and on the leaders who commission it. In the high professional literature, and even the less high, he is not mentioned at all - unjustly, in my opinion, because he has successful projects, and the difference between his good work and his bad work is very acute. Ben Porat Yeshiva in the Old City cries out to the heavens: he didn't understand that you can't do a thousand recurring arches there without deconstructing them - that is a salient failure to understand the Jerusalem language. It's grating. Or what he did at Jaffa Gate, lopping off the whole entrance and building a road underneath. The Mamilla story, which he corrected, was at first appalling. He wanted to erase everything that existed there. The David Citadel Hotel is a heap of kitsch. Jerusalem's beauty lies in reduction and simplicity. He is simply unable to read the context."

"Moshe never got fair treatment from the Israeli media or public," says architect Uri Sheetrit, who did an M.A. under him at Harvard. "A prophet is never honored in his own country. We know how to lavish praise on foreigners, but we take an imbecilic pleasure in hanging our heroes. In my view, Moshe is the most important architect our country has produced, with great influence on the history of modern architecture by any criterion, in Israel and internationally. He thinks Israeli and he feels Israeli, more so than the best of my Israeli friends, and he is committed to this country like few others. He could have rested on his laurels and not come here every month and a half in order to take abuse. If there is an architect alive along us who deserves the Israel Prize, it is him."

Not yet a city

Safdie has taken the sharpest criticism for his design of Modi'in, the new city that lies halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. "It is a city that doesn't deserve the title," says architect Hillel Schocken, head of the School of Architecture at Tel Aviv University. "Safdie is a very talented architect who has designed many projects, some of them worthy and important. For example, the Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem is truly moving. The museum in Ottawa is very beautiful. But not everyone who is capable of designing buildings is also capable of designing cities. And Safdie does not understand about urban planning.

"The most important element in a city is the public space and the maximum mixture of all types of people in it. If architects understood this, they would not have designed Gilo [a post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhood for the design of which the architect Avraham Yaski received the Israel Prize] or Modi'in. The rule is that in a good city, when you go out into the street, you should see people around you and not know anything about them. A city is meant to be an endless potential for human encounter. In Modi'in, I can at most meet someone from my neighborhood. It's at most a bedroom community.

"It has to do with Safdie's design worldview," Schocken continues. "Its roots lie in Habitat. Because to a certain degree, Habitat is a residential building that wants to look like the landscape, like a mountain. I don't think residential buildings should look like the landscape, but like a public space that defines a city. People in a city don't want to live in a park, but in a city. But he views Modi'in like a sculpture. In an aerial photograph it looks lovely in terms of sculpture, but in urban terms it's very bad."

Safdie rejects this utterly. "Maybe the opposite is the case," he says. "It is not yet a city. It's only five years old. Let it be 120 and then judge it. I feel that everything I did there justifies itself. But two things haven't yet happened. There is no city center - we are now building it - and, secondly, there will be a broad employment zone there that will be situated on the railway line. Once those two things happen, Modi'in will be a city. At the moment it is a suburb. The opportunity to start a city from scratch is exceptional."

According to David Guggenheim, a Jerusalem architect who teaches at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Modi'in is a superfluous city. He believes that instead, an effort should have been made to strengthen the adjoining cities of Lod and Ramla, cities where he is involved in preservation and renovation.

"But apart from that, Modi'in has much to say. Safdie did fascinating work there. Tel Aviv wasn't charming and wonderful when it was born, either. We have to let time take its course. In my opinion, he has done astonishing projects. He is a very talented architect. Sometimes he takes a romantic view of Israel, stemming from postmodernism, which for some reason has influenced him more than others today, and that I don't like. The bizarre domes of David's Village, for example."

Safdie has few kind words to say about the culture of giving credit to others in Israel. "The crass criticism that is voiced against me here is related to the Israeli style and is something you don't hear abroad. There is no doubt that my projects have drawn fire more than in other places. But it all balances out for me, because here I built my first city, my first airport and one of my best buildings, at Yad Vashem."

One of the projects in which Safdie is now most deeply involved is a mega-development in Singapore. To meet the deadline (2009), he doubled his staff in Boston from 50 to 100. The project's entrepreneur is businessman Sheldon Adelson, known as the world's richest Jew, who won an international competition to obtain it. The project includes a marina, an auditorium, hotels, a museum, shops and a casino with a six-acre park on the roof. It is all stupendous, tall, eye-popping and bombastic. Las Vegas-style.

Do you have red lines in terms of projects?

"In the past I did not take a commission in South Africa, but I did do work in Iran under the shah. I actually felt quite comfortable there. My red lines, in general, are lack of time and the location of the project, meaning the number of people who will see it. If I am offered a commission to do a museum in Venice or in Oklahoma, I will choose Venice."

Fly and vote

One of Safdie's most recent projects in Israel is the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. Safdie's connection with Rabin began during his first state visit to Canada, immediately after Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992. "The prime minister of Canada called me and said that Rabin and his wife wanted to visit the museum in Ottawa," Safdie recalls. "I flew there and took part in the dinner that was held in his honor and I gave them a guided tour of the museum. It was a very moving evening and the start of a friendship. After that we were their guests whenever we came to Israel. On the day of the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan, they were supposed to have dinner with us. When we heard about the signing ceremony, we called and said we supposed we'd have to find another opportunity, but Leah [Rabin's wife] said, 'No, we'll be there, but an hour late.' And so it was. And afterward, what happened, happened. Leah asked me to design Rabin's tombstone and then she asked me design the Rabin Center."

The design has come in for quite a bit of criticism, notably that it reflects an outdated nostalgia.

"I don't agree. I think it is very emotional, like my relations with Rabin, which were very emotional. We had a personal relationship. And my feeling was that with Rabin there was a separation between the politician and the leader, and when that happened, at a late stage in his life, it changed his whole line of thought. Somehow I wanted the design of the building to convey that feeling, and that led me to do the roof as though it is in flight. I am very pleased. I received outstanding reviews abroad."

Safdie is a citizen of three countries: Israel, Canada and the United States. "At bottom I am an Israeli, though I have warm feelings for Canada, because they were the first who opened the door for me. Now I have lived in America for more than 25 years, so I took out American citizenship as well, and I vote in all the places. I even fly in for a day to vote - especially in recent years in Israel, when every election is critical." W