Meet the architect who broke all the rules of tradition. Moshe Safdie of Safdie Architects, the man who designed Singapore’s most iconic buildings, along with other innovative structures around the world, explains how Asian architecture and design can influence a society, instead of the the other way around.
I think by design we’re disruptors
Can you tell us about your early years in architecture?
I was born in Israel and, when I was 15, my parents emigrated to Canada and I studied architecture in Montreal. My first project, Habitat 67, was part of the World’s Fair in Montreal. From there, I immediately become involved with projects all around the world. I later relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was the director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and set up office there. We also have offices in Toronto, Jerusalem, Singapore, and Shanghai.
You established yourself with Habitat 67 and were instrumental in architecture all over Canada. How did you get into the Asian market?
I entered in a big way when I was commissioned to design Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. That totally changed the nature of our practice because the scale and complexity had little precedence, and building it in four years was certainly without precedence. That success spun off major works all over Asia: Singapore, China, Sri Lanka.
Are the logistics of dealing with the local culture in Singapore vastly different than China or Sri Lanka?
Singapore is the orderly model where things are organized and clearly articulated. The projects we have done in Singapore feel like collaborations with the public sector. China is a moving target because the approvals process — building codes, zoning — is anything but clear. In Sri Lanka, we are just beginning construction and I have yet to see how it plays out, but it doesn’t seem to be as complex as China.
How do you consider both the physical environment and also the culture where you’re building?
There is always the obvious — the climate, the available building materials. But it’s much more subtle to relate to the culture and heritage of a place. There’s the risk of getting into pastiche, or the Disneyfication of a culture, so the challenge is building something that is authentic and contemporary.
How do you prepare for that?
As a person who grew up in the East and was educated in the West, I suppose I am conditioned to reading into new and unfamiliar cultures. It’s about immersing yourself: reading, studying, listening to the music, and observing.
You listen to the music of the culture where you’re designing?
I think it’s the most revealing. When I was working on Virasat-e-Khalsa, the national museum of the Sikhs, I collected tapes of Punjabi music, Sikh ritual music, classical Indian ragas. I would listen to them while I was working on the projects.
Do you think Asian countries, compared to North America or other regions, have different philosophies in terms of public space?
One of my areas of focus right now is the public realm, specifically because I am involved with so many major mixed-used projects. When there is a big piece of public space, I struggle with the inclination to create privatized spaces. It’s natural for a developer doing an Asian mall in the heart of a city to fine-tune it to their commercial ends. But that certainly does not work hand-in-hand with connectivity to the city.
What is it about Asian culture that you think creates this challenge?
From the tradition of street markets, there has been a dramatic shift to the air-conditioned, sanitized mall. The contrast couldn’t be greater. Now, which is the valid model? Probably something that is a cross between the two. In countries that are very hot and humid, climate control is great, but being detached from nature and cut off from the surrounding streets is not the ideal.
How has that informed your work?
One of the things I am very proud about Marina Bay Sands is that it has all the comforts of a contemporary mall but it connects to the surrounding in a way that makes it very public. It’s like an extension of the surrounding streets, and it has a lot of integrated green space. It connects to the promenade along the bay in a way that is partially air-conditioned, and partially open to the sky. You give people the choice and, to me, that’s the idea of public space.
You talked about fine-tuning a project to commercial ends. In an airport project, where the goal is to get people to spend on retail, how do you balance financial objectives with your creative vision?
In the case of Jewel Changi in Singapore, the financial end result and the vision are complementary. The economic model of Jewel is that 70 percent of the business comes from non-passengers. Changi came up with the idea of creating a center — on the land side of the airport, not the air side — that creates a focal point in between the terminals. They wanted to know how to mix this with other attractions and our model was to have one of the world’s greatest gardens under glass.
I wanted to demonstrate that you can have an intense marketplace environment side by side with nature.
Asian airports, Changi especially, are often on the cutting-edge of innovation. How do you anticipate Jewel’s impact?
Jewel will not only redefine what airports will be like, but it will also redefine what an urban center can be like. I think the application of that will go well beyond Singapore. I think it will become quite relevant to Chinese and other Asian developments.
What were some of the lessons from Marina Bay Sands that you’ve carried with you to your current projects?
The biggest thing we got out of it was self-confidence. This was a mixed-use project that was pretty close to 10 million square feet. It has a variety of spaces — museums, theaters, hotels, transportation, and a lot of interior design. It gave us the sense that we could do anything, probably faster and more efficiently than any other firm in the world. That’s a great feeling to have as we pursue the very complicated, large-scale projects that Asia is putting forward.
What other projects compare to the scope of Marina Bay Sands?
Our Chongqing Chaotianmen project has over 10 million square feet of space. It’s got a subway station, a shipping terminal, a central bus station, a city park on the roof, residential, hotel, offices. You could not think of a more complex program. And we’re having a good time bringing this realization.
Do you consider yourself a disruptor in the industry or are you simply putting in a lot of hard work?
I think by design we’re disruptors. You can see it in our Sky Habitat project in Singapore that just opened. This is a 38-story residential high-rise at the perimeter of the city. We introduce concepts that we have been pursuing for many years: roof terraces, balconies, community space, swimming pools, parks in the sky. Right next to it you’ll see traditional apartment buildings. You look at these two projects and realize to what extent we are breaking from the norm. We are pushing the edges and we feel that is our mission. It’s not capricious, we’re not just making wild forms; it’s affecting the quality of life at the very immediate level.
As an educator, how do you advise young architects to find their own voice in this industry?
I tell young architects that it is a very tough field. It is short on reward, there are long hours and it’s tough, so you really have to be passionate about it. Once you have the good fortune to begin realizing projects, it’s the most rewarding thing to have something come to life and see how it can affect people’s lives.
The one thing that I see of all the young architects coming into the profession, perhaps nourished by our branding culture, is that they think they are sculptors at the big scale. The important thing is to remind them that we are not sculptors, but rather problem solvers who are shaping the environment. It’s not about manipulating forms, but understanding how people live.
Feature photo: Chongqing Chaotianmen, courtesy of Safdie Architects