Israeli Architecture With Eastern Promise

With his biggest projects now in Asia, Moshe Safdie, the best-known Israeli architect in the world, is shutting down the office he opened in Jerusalem in 1970. The future, it seems, is in China.

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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - In the spring of 1998, Parkash Singh Badal, then as now the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Punjab, came on a state visit to Israel. His hosts accompanied him to, among other places, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, where he saw the Children's Memorial, designed by Moshe Safdie about a decade earlier. The memorial pays tribute to the Jewish children murdered by the Germans and their helpers. Badal, the scion of a respected Sikh political dynasty, was moved to tears by the visit and asked to meet the architect without delay.

Two days later, he and Safdie were already sitting in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel and discussing the possibility of constructing a Sikh heritage center in Punjab - "and two weeks after that, I landed in India," Safdie recalls. "Badal had a slight mess on his hands because he'd brought in an architect from outside, instead of choosing a Sikh architect for the project. There were a lot of arguments about that in the community, but the moment I showed them the plan with the model, the whole dispute simmered down."

A rendering of the building in Chongqing. Credit: AP

Maybe you are simply charismatic and know how to sell projects to difficult clients?

"Who knows, maybe I am simply a talented architect?" Safdie answers with a smile.

The Khalsa Heritage Center in Punjab. Credit: Ram Rahman

After a design process that went on for 13 years, the Khalsa Heritage Center, which presents the illustrious, 500-year history of the Sikh religion, opened two months ago. The complex spans 400 dunams (100 acres ) on the outskirts of the Punjabi city of Anandpur Sahib, and is made up of a series of buildings that stand boldly but in harmony alongside a brook. The complex is divided into two main blocs, which are connected by a bridge of arches that stretches across the rivulet. Inside are a museum, library, auditorium and research and commemoration center.

The center's design draws on aesthetic concepts and values from Sikh history. The buildings, for example, are covered in pinkish sandstone reminiscent of the monumental fortress cities of Rajasthan and Punjab. Safdie's fondness for symbols - which sometimes finds excessive expression in reality - can be seen in the shape of the roof, which is reminiscent of a lotus flower, or in the scrupulous use of typological numbers in the arrangement of the interior spaces (the galleries are arranged in groupings of five, a sacred number to Sikhs ).

Habitat 67, Montreal.Credit: Timothy Hursley

"When you design a place like this there is a very heavy sense of responsibility," Safdie says. "I had a lot of anxiety at each and every stage. It's a bit like the work on Yad Vashem [Safdie also designed the new museum, among other things, at the Jerusalem Holocaust center] - a kind of reverence and sacred awe."

Crystal bridges

The new museum at Yad Vashem.Credit: Timothy Hursley

Khalsa Heritage Center is one of four major projects Safdie has unveiled in recent months. It is a "harvest" - his word - of a decade of strenuous labor in the international arena.

Two weeks ago the United States Institute for Peace opened its new headquarters on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and on November 11, 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, opened in Bentonville, Arkansas, where the retail giant is headquartered. Another important project designed by Safdie, which was also unveiled toward the end of 2011, is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, in Kansas City, Missouri, which is intended to give a dying downtown an energy boost.

A rendering of the building in Chongqing. Credit: Safdie Architects

This series of projects, each an achievement in its own right, solidifies Safdie's status as the most important Israeli architect in the world today. His face was immortalized on a Canadian stamp issued two years ago, and two notable projects of his in Israel, part of the new Terminal 3 at Ben-Gurion International Airport and the Yitzhak Rabin Center, in Tel Aviv, grace stamps of the postal service here. He is a welcome and respected figure among both political leaders and wealthy entrepreneurs around the globe, and his buildings receive extensive coverage in both the popular and professional press here and abroad, albeit not always with a generosity of spirit.

Recently Safdie decided to close the Israeli branch of his office, which had operated in Jerusalem from 1970, and to focus his efforts on a new office in Singapore, for the sake of projects he is designing in the Far East.

"This isn't a closure but rather a reorganization," he explains. "Until recently I maintained a permanent team of 20 in Jerusalem, and that meant that I had to keep them supplied with steady work, no matter the size of the job. I wanted to reach a more flexible arrangement and I created a new relationship with my employees, who continue to represent me on the ongoing projects, and the moment there are additional projects I will reach an arrangement with them. It makes no difference to the client - they still work with me."

But the bottom line is that you closed down the Israeli office.

"I have projects today that are extraordinary in their importance and interest. There were moments when I had to weigh taking on a project in Tel Aviv even though I was unsure of its quality and the client, versus competing for the national Chinese art museum in Beijing. I didn't want to be locked into having to pay 20 salaries."

In practice, supervision of Safdie's Israeli projects is today in the hands of three former employees: the architects Irit Kochavi, Carlos Prus and Miron Cohen. They deal with four projects: an expansion of Ben-Gurion airport, the expansion of the city Modi'in, the headquarters of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, and a master plan for Dead Sea tourism. Safdie comes to Israel once every two months ("at least" ) to meet with them, and no less important, to devote his time and personal charm to the clients. His next project in Israel will be taking part in the design competition for the National Library of Israel.

The American dream

Safdie, 73, lives today in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, photographer Michal Ronen-Safdie. The couple live in a handsome 18th-century house near Harvard Square, one of the swankiest addresses in the area. His office is not far from there, in Somerville, in a red brick building that once housed an engine factory. On the ground floor is a sophisticated workshop for construction of models, one of the office's central tools, and the two floors above it contain workstations, offices and conference rooms.

To a meeting with us at his office late last year, Safdie came dressed, as always, in a crisp, open-collar white shirt. The same Montreal tailor has been sewing it for him - according to an original design by Safdie - for 35 years.

In a certain sense, his career can be seen as the realization of the American dream, with a substantial stop in Canada. He was born in Haifa in 1938, and in 1953 moved with his family to Montreal, where his father had work in the textile industry. He attended architecture school at McGill University, and over the course of his studies for bachelor's and master's degrees he developed an innovative and original system for modular construction, which resulted in housing that combined the convenience and privacy of the suburbs with urban density.

While few of his classmates had the privilege of seeing their final project realized, Safdie scored a huge achievement: The Canadian government chose to build his design, Habitat 67, to serve as a residence for distinguished guests to the Expo 67 world's fair.

Habitat is a residential building composed of prefabricated concrete units that were piled on top of each other like Lego tiles. Each unit's roof serves as a garden for the unit above it. Access to the 158 apartments is through a sophisticated system of bridges, elevators and public squares. The use of advanced technologies of prefabricated construction was intended to reduce costs, expedite the building process, and improve its quality.

The millions of visitors to the exposition, among them Charles de Gaulle and Indira Gandhi, made a pilgrimage to Habitat to witness up close what was said then to be the future of residential housing.

"Montreal has an international landmark and eventually 158 urban families will live just a little better than the rest of us," wrote Ada Louise Huxtable, an influential architecture critic for The New York Times, at the time. "Both the puzzle and the promise of the future is in this housing." In the end, even though the project was supposed to provide quality housing at affordable prices, its uniqueness and high maintenance costs wound up attracting well-off families to be its permanent residents.

Habitat paved the way for Safdie's career in both Canada and the international arena. After he appeared on the cover of Newsweek, under the headline "The Shape of Things to Come," he went on to perfect the model and designed plans for similar buildings in Puerto Rico, Jerusalem (which was to be covered in stone and with plastic domes ), New York, Rochester and even Tehran. None of them was built.

Even after more than 70 projects worldwide, and close to half a century later, Habitat was and has remained the enterprise most identified with Safdie. "It is undoubtedly my most radical project and the root of my architectural credo. The opportunity that I had to implement it is the exception," he acknowledges, but then adds, "In the world I am known today also for other projects."

The Habitat idea was abandoned for years, but today Safdie is planning new versions in Singapore and in China - this time with far greater density.

Dove on the roof

Habitat was only one critical point at the start of Safdie's career. In the early 1970s, he began participating in prominent international contests, such as the one to design the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He opened a branch of his office in Jerusalem and designed, among other projects, Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Jewish Quarter (a project that went on from 1971 to 1991 ), and the expansion of Hebrew Union College (1976-1998 ).

The euphoria that followed the Six-Day War finds clear expression in Safdie's Jerusalem architecture: super-monumental buildings and a pseudo-historical language (he calls it "contextual" ) that is placed within modern molds. Sometimes it looks more like archaeology than architecture.

His love affair with a united Jerusalem, and later also with the people of Israel as a whole, continued with a series of important national projects: The city of Modi'in (1989 ), the museum at Yad Vashem (2005 ), the Mamilla project in Jerusalem (2009 ), Tel Aviv's Yitzhak Rabin Center (2010; Safdie also designed the gravesite of the assassinated prime minister at Rabin Square ), and others. He was cheered for some; others prompted fierce criticism. Among other homes, he maintains an apartment in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

The general public knows his name also from the "Safdie Plan" for expanding Jerusalem westward, which was shelved four years ago under pressure from environmental groups. Safdie, who was hurt and angry, told Haaretz at the time that discussion of the plan had turned into "demagogy." Finally he asked that his name be removed from the plan - after it was rejected.

Safdie's body of work in Israel tends toward broad use of metaphors: Old-fashioned Jerusalemite alleyways and patios in Mamilla, a dark maze that opens out onto a forest view at Yad Vashem, or elements on the roof of the Rabin Center resembling a dove's wings, symbolizing the assassinated prime minister's journey from wartime general to the statesman who signed peace accords.

The occasionally simplistic use of images clashes with Safdie's impressive capacity for developing architectural space and form, and with his personal language that rests on the knees of modernism.

"I know there is criticism of this," he says. "Some critic wrote recently that my architecture is like dessert - very sweet and fattening. I think the general public's response to my projects is very strong. You can be an intellectual and say that popularity detracts from architectural quality. On the other hand, you can see in the public's identification something very positive.

"I hope I am not Tchaikovsky," he adds in reference to the sweetness criticism, "I love Bach. I think that Habitat is Bach."

After a busy decade of activity in Israel, Safdie was invited to head the urban design track at Harvard University's architecture school. Surprisingly, this move helped him to land projects in his previous home country, Canada. Over a relatively short period of 15 years he designed some of Canada's most important national landmarks, among these the National Gallery in Ottawa (1988 ) and the Montreal Art Museum (1991 ). The attention he garnered led to commissions for projects in the United States as well, such as the Salt Lake City Library (2003 ), which won him much praise, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (2003 ).

Safdie's most important buildings have always been in the public sphere: museums, libraries, cultural centers, schools - even a lavish mosque planned for the Dubai shoreline that never got built.

Singaporean fantasy

Safdie owes his renewed leap into global public awareness and the vibrant East Asian countries to the Marina Bay Sands project and its owner, the Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. This project in Singapore, which opened last year, covers 1.3 million square meters of a once-in-a-lifetime location on the city-state's waterfront. It comprises a casino, a 2,500-room hotel, shopping mall, convention center and public promenade. Adelson submitted the winning bid in the Singapore government's tender to build a casino, the initial catalyst for the entire project.

"The Singapore government was looking for a project to symbolize the spirit of Singapore, and Sheldon Adelson was looking for a plan that would win," Safdie says. "We had clear guidelines for the design, such as a demand for large public areas at the foot of the project. From that standpoint, the challenge was to get to a commercially successful project that would also appeal to the government."

Marina Bay Sands is an architectural fantasy that functions as a high-end resort. It consists of three tall towers, which are connected at their tops by an upper level that is reminiscent of an overturned surfboard or canoe, on which is a swimming pool with an unbelievable view along with restaurants and bars. Luxury brands competed to rent the shops on the project's commercial floors (Louis Vuitton won the most glittering and conspicuous store, a sort of glass crystal that rises out of the water ). The convention center glories in - what else - a roof in the shape of a lotus flower. Safdie once more takes issue with the symbolic interpretation: "It could also be an open hand."

The connection between Adelson, a decidedly right-wing man and a prominent supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, and Safdie, a personal friend of the Rabin family who vehemently refused to build beyond the Green Line, is hardly self-evident. Politics, it turns out, is a taboo subject in their conversations.

In the past, Safdie was not afraid to voice his opinions on sensitive political matters relating to Israel, and last summer he followed the social protest movement with keen interest: "I think it's a wonderful thing that happened, even though it is not clear to me where it is going at the moment. But it brought up for discussion heavy national issues that need to be dealt with."

The impression between the lines is that you are not pleased with the present government.

"I do not underestimate the difficulties of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but we should be giving the sense that we are actively seeking solutions. Right now the world feels precisely the opposite."

To what extent does your Israeli identity help or hinder you in getting projects in the world?

"Except for the projects in Israel, my being Israeli has contributed negatively to my global activity. It is hard for me, for example, to get projects in the Persian Gulf emirates. On the other hand, there is something in my professional standing that rises above the politics of the moment. My identity is always at the forefront, and I also think that every article that is written about me refers to me as an Israeli architect."

A few months ago Safdie was approached by a leading group of Asian entrepreneurs who want him to repeat the Singaporean success in Chongqing, a city in southwestern China. As a result, he is now designing a mixed-use development there, intended to cover 800,000 square meters, to be located at the meeting point of the Yangtze and Gialing rivers. The complex will consist of six towers, the two tallest of them 77 stories high. There too Safdie plans to connect the towers with an upper level that will contain the lobby of a future hotel and a string of luxury restaurants.

"The principle of using suspended levels was conceived with Habitat, where the rooftop also serves as a garden," he points out. "When you build in the densities of China, you cannot provide public green areas on a reasonable scale on the ground, and so you have to raise them upward. I visited China in 1973, and at that time there wasn't a single tower, not in Beijing and not in Shanghai. Today the Chinese are in a process of urbanization and densification that is unprecedented in history, and for this you need to invent new urban systems."

He is presently competing in the finals for the commission to design the Chinese national art museum in Beijing, and is up against some of the other leading architectural firms in the world.

Storm in Missouri

Safdie is not a fashionable architect. In a world that is increasingly drawn to showy buildings in the Zaha Hadid style and to eccentric shapes that were created by digital means, he remains loyal to a personal language and to dependable clients, who appreciate his ability to provide excellent solutions for complicated buildings. His architecture draws its strength from classic (some would say conservative ) modernism, but also tries to toss into the boiling cauldron of the design process specific attention to the surroundings and culture.

"I do not try to imitate the local forms but rather to look for the character of the culture in which I am operating," he notes. "I think that is my contribution to the discussion about architecture and globalization."

His last three projects in the United States - the Peace Institute in Washington, the art museum in Arkansas, and the performing arts center in Kansas City - reflect, on the one hand, a crystallization of his design language, and on the other hand an attempt to seek out a new and freer formalism. Safdie decided to enclose the Kansas City building, which houses a theater, concert hall and ballroom, in two giant shell forms with a scalloped casing. It is somewhat reminiscent of the iconic Sydney Opera House, especially because of the way the stage towers are concealed inside the sculptural casing. A powerful storm that hit Kansas City on opening day did not prevent tens of thousands of people from standing in line to get a peek at the building from inside.

The headquarters of the U.S. Institute for Peace, for which Safdie competed in an international design contest, stands on one of the most prominent lots along the National Mall, on the banks of the Potomac River and directly across from the Lincoln Memorial. The institute, which was established by Congress almost 20 years ago, and now has a physical location that represents it and gives it a public identity.

Safdie created an airy building with two enormous interior courtyards that serve the public and staff. He covered them with an opaque-glass roof that introduces natural light into the building during the day and shines outward at night like a lamp. The roof is reminiscent of that of the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.

Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart empire and founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, had decided to devote a year of her life to searching for an architect who would design for her a unique building for a museum of American art. "She visited two of my museums without my knowledge, and one day she telephoned and asked me to come meet her," Safdie says. "We visited the site together, talked, and at the end of the day I said to her: 'I suppose you are now beginning the search process.' She replied: 'No, I'm already done. I want you to do this building.'"

Walton, incidentally, managed to gain the museum a lot of attention even before it opened by going on a shopping spree for art works worth millions of dollars. Among these was an iconic painting by the American artist Asher B. Durand that cost her $35 million.

Crystal Bridges is one of Safdie's best works, because it expresses his ability to generate a moving synthesis between landscape and architecture at a site planted in the heart of a park - without forgoing the building's functional and representational dimension. The museum is situated in a valley, through which runs a rivulet that feeds from a spring nearby. Two arms of the building are extend to the valley, thus creating a kind of lake in between them. That move increases the power of the natural surroundings and also creates an interesting system of motion that revolves around a shallow pool. The galleries themselves are housed in eight separate pavilions made of concrete, glass and wood.

Safdie says that he receives a lot of compliments for the new museum and in general. "I get letters from people I don't know who visited my buildings and wanted to share their sensations with me. I try to answer many of them myself. About Yad Vashem, for example, I have a folder with hundreds of letters that I got. People write to me what they feel after the visit there, when they get to the end of the exhibition and stand and look at the view of the groves. Lately I've been getting a lot of moving letters about the Crystal Bridges Museum. People write to me, 'Thank you for what you have done for our town.'"