Designing for dignity
Moshe Safdie's success doesn't distract from his desire to create habitats that fit cities – and honor the individual.
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Born in Haifa in 1938 when it was part of Palestine, Safdie witnessed firsthand its transformation into the state of Israel in 1948. He spent summers on a kibbutz at a time of austerity, which "affected me for life," he says. "I grew up in a country where the environment was very social justice oriented," the source of his enduring idealism.Skip to next paragraph
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While a student at McGill University in Montreal, Safdie tackled "the biggest unsolved problem: urban housing." As he toured gigantic public projects (monolithic slabs that became incubators for crime and poverty) and suburban developments like Levittown, he saw two extremes: "dehumanization or dispersal." He adds, "I thought there was something in the middle, and I came up with a new building typology that led to Habitat."
His prefabricated units were stacked so that the roof of one apartment was the terrace for its upper neighbor. In contrast to cookie-cutter high-rise towers, the units afford ample views, sunlight, privacy, and a sense of community. They combine amenities of the suburbs with interaction of the city. Today, Habitat is considered a landmark in 20th-century architecture, a monument to modernism's utopian vision.
In Jerusalem, Safdie switched gears, adapting his geometric style to a dynamic dialogue with the historic city. One of the most heartbreakingly moving works of all architecture is Safdie's Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem. Based on the Jewish tradition of lighting candles to honor the dead, the memorial consists of a dark, tomblike space lit by a single candle whose flame is infinitely multiplied by mirrored panels. Pictures of the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust line a vestibule while a recording chants victims' names. The ensemble has a shattering emotional impact, yet sparks of light flicker like shards of hope.
Safdie also injected a note of optimism into his Holocaust Museum, also at Yad Vashem. He tunneled a dark passage into a hill to a dimly lit chamber. A path winds past exhibits about the horrors of the Holocaust before emerging to a panoramic, sunlit view over the landscape, where, Safdie says, "there is a sense of renewal and hope."
Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of Las Vegas Sands, admired Yad Vashem so much that he commissioned Safdie to design an "integrated resort" in Singapore. The city-state known for social engineering mandated specific criteria: "an iconic cultural building"; a public, pedestrian path along the waterfront; connection to transportation infrastructure; and creation of a life-enhancing destination. Safdie's design for the massive complex is quickly becoming the visual logo of Singapore. "The eighth wonder of the world," Mr. Adelson calls it.
Among the many linked structures, two stand out dramatically: triplet hotel towers topped by a daringly cantilevered, three-acre SkyPark and the ArtScience Museum that some liken to a lotus, with 10 white fiberglass "petals" reaching toward the light.