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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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Safdie's designs reflect both ethical and aesthetic agendas. One building he hopes will produce a positive effect is the new US Institute of Peace headquarters on the National Mall facing the Lincoln Memorial. Founded by Congress in 1984 as a nonpartisan organization devoted to conflict resolution, the federal agency is not well known outside policy circles, partly because its offices were located far from the power grid.

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That changes in September, when the institute's new home can show off its mandate to build global peace. Thanks to a highly visible site, Safdie suggests, "This will actually be a peace symbol." The roofline, sheathed with curvilinear shapes that billow upward like the fluttering wings of a dove, is the most dramatic element. The hovering, white-glass shapes change with the light, opaque during the day and "glowing at night," Safdie says, "like the other monuments."

Pointing with pride to a colossal atrium in the Great Hall, press secretary Allison Sturma says Safdie wanted the soaring space to feel uplifting, like the noble mission of the institute. "We're not hippies flashing a peace sign," she says. "Our staff works on the ground to prevent violent conflict or resolve it – easy to say but hard to do."

Safdie is now fulfilling his lifelong desire to mitigate dehumanizing mega­scale in a 6 million-square-foot residential complex, Golden Dream Bay in Qinhuangdao, China, a beachfront city east of Beijing. The radically original shape of the clustered towers equips 2,200 condo units with gardens, balconies, natural light, and shared recreational facilities. This "habitat of the future" features 15-story-high "urban windows" – voids that frame vistas instead of blocking views. By offering high quality-of-life dwellings in a congested area, "We're actually cracking the middle-income housing syndrome of big-scale, family housing in a dense, urban setting," Safdie says.

After years of mainly cultural and institutional commissions, Safdie's firm is sought after by private developers who used to consider creativity an impractical frill and shun design architects. The recognition has dawned that visionary design is a major – and extremely profitable – attraction.

What Safdie's diverse projects have in common, he says, "is conceptual engagement with a similar principle: They all belong to their cultural and geographic setting." Resisting the uniformity spurred by globalization, Safdie seeks to interpret the "genius loci" (spirit of place) for each project. Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges's founder, selected Safdie for his sensitivity to the site's rolling hills and Ozark woods. "The design responds very gently to the setting, is respectful of nature, and doesn't seek to dominate the landscape," says executive director Don Bacigalupi.

More than four decades down the road from his early triumph, Safdie is at a crossroads. The challenge, he says, is "to solve the extraordinary problems that face us, like sustainability, congestion, density, mega­scale, transportation issues, and integration into the urban fabric." If his philosophy influences future urban habitats, styles may change. The foundation of architecture would not be the current "auteur" trend of personal, sculptural styles but concern for the fragility of nature and dignity of human nature.

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