Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

With Light, Moshe Safdie Builds a Global Architectural Legacy

January 22, 2014 12:18 am 0 comments

The view at the end of the prism of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, designed by Moshe Safdie. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

JNS.org LOS ANGELES—”Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie,” on display at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center through March 2, lets the light shine in on the famed Israeli-Canadian architect’s work around the world.

Through architectural models, photos, and renderings, the retrospective reveals how Safdie, who was born in Haifa in 1938 and moved to Canada with his family when he was young, has integrated culture, history, and modern design into his projects on three continents.

Safdie’s work encompasses more than 85 completed buildings, communities, and master plans, converting into structures the dreams and construction budgets of a surprisingly diverse clientele—including mid-westerners in Wichita, Indian Sikhs in Punjab, and the governments of Israel, Canada, and the United States.

His most significant commissions have been for the public sphere: cultural centers, libraries, memorials, schools, religious facilities, and museums, including the Skirball Cultural Center, where two new buildings that he designed—spaces for social gatherings, lectures, and meetings—have recently been added to his overall plan for the culture center’s campus.

A sense of place is built into his work, especially at a site like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., where low-slung pavilions are situated around reflecting pools, filled by a nearby stream.

“I can’t design without being on the site. I have to see the relationship,” Safdie, after taking a group on a tour of his recently completed Skirball structures, said in an interview with JNS.org.

Speaking of the Skirball, Safdie pointed out that “it’s not a building about religion.” It was the culture center’s “content” and “activities,” he believed, that would make a Jew identify with Judaism. “The architecture enhances the activity,” he explained.

The Skirball is “becoming increasingly social, not just Jewish,” said Safdie, who worked on the project from its inception with Skirball founding president and CEO Uri D. Herscher, who is also a rabbi.

“People have written generally that museums are becoming a replacement for houses of worship,” said Safdie, whose additions to the Skirball are being pitched by the institution as places for “social celebrations,” including bar and bat mitzvahs.

The new spaces, which are light-filled and connected to outdoor patios and gardens, are clearly connected to his earlier work. Beginning with the groundbreaking “Habitat” he designed for Montreal’s Expo ’67—the residential community of stacked, prefabricated, concrete blocks that eventually put him on the cover of Newsweek when he was 33—to his cathedral like tower of glass and steel entry way in the National Gallery of Canada, and the wall of glass reading area of his Salt Lake City public library, architectural models on display demonstrate how light is the central theme of Safdie’s work.

According to Donald Albrecht, the Skirball show’s curator who wrote the accompanying book, “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie,” Safdie’s “language of transcendent light, powerful geometric form, and metaphoric imagery produces building that are ceremonial and uplifting.”

“I’m a light maniac,” admitted Safdie. “Light is central. Light is our wellbeing. Light is nourishing. Deprivation of light is a very bad thing for us,” he added.

But according to Albrecht, Safdie also has detractors. They see him as an architect whose “grand forms seem bombastic, his contextual references ersatz, his metaphors too facile,” wrote Albrecht.

For example, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum has been labeled by some as “too theatrical and too optimistic,” according to Albrecht. Nonetheless, the museum for which Safdie felt an “extraordinary responsibility” has become a must-see of Israel.

The design is a long triangular, mostly underground structure that cuts across Yad Vashem’s hillside. According to the show’s text, visitors walk through a “dimly lit narrow space tracing the development of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust,” that eventually opens onto a panoramic sunlit view of Israel.

Many of Safdie’s project drawings are also on display. “We use a computer all the time, but it doesn’t substitute for sketching,” said Safdie. “My sketches are essential to the process; I can’t think on a computer,” he said.

He also uses Legos. “I used them to make Habitat,” said Safdie, who noted that Lego had transformed his three-towered fantasy, Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, into an architecture set of the interlocking plastic blocks.

Considering that Safdie is an architect whose projects have been built under various governments, and in countries with miniscule Jewish populations like Bangladesh, or Beijing—or even a Muslim country like Dubai, where he completed plans for mosque (not built)—he has never experienced anti-Semitism. “I have never felt it my career,” said Safdie.

Speaking about the future of the profession, Safdie, who has also taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, felt that students of architecture “underestimate what they need to do.”

“They think it’s all one design party, but it’s not,” he said. Safdie estimated that design represents only 20 percent of the time he spends on projects, the rest being spent on translating a concept to reality and “dealing with the world.”

Despite Safdie’s success—both he and his work are even on Canadian postage stamps—he generally sees his profession as “underpaid and under-rewarded.” But he still encourages those who are passionate about architecture to go into the field.

“If it gives you satisfaction, it’s wonderful,” he said. “There are great rewards.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →