Moshe Safdie

B.Arch. 1961
Boston, MA
November 12, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I came to Montreal when I was fifteen from Israel and I went to Westmount High. And I did the last two years of high school there. And grade 11 was the last year and we had to figure out what next. And somehow, it just came to me; I wanted to be an architect. I didn’t know an architect; I had never been to an architect’s office. All my family were business people. My parents sort of were negative about it. They thought I should join the family business, my father particularly. But it seemed like that’s what I wanted to do. I sort of doodled houses and cars and sort of felt like I’d like to design things, but I did it out of total innocence. I was sixteen when I made the decision. I was seventeen when I enrolled. It was then the Bachelor six-year programme. And I guess as soon as I got there, the first year, actually, maybe it was the second year, I started feeling with a passion I did the right thing. By then maybe my parents also got used to the idea that I won’t be in the family business. And the kind of breakthrough was Stuart Wilson in third year, the first sort of real studio. And, you know, I remember that very passionately, you know, very passionately kind of because through Stuart I sort of saw architecture as a kind of mission, as a kind of thing you’re sort of completely into, you know, that it becomes your life. And, you know, it had this- his attitude and his sort of- had overtones of The Fountainhead, which by then I think I had read. And sort of heroic and yet he was also a bitter man, you know, not a fulfilled person. So there’s the architect who’s not totally fulfilled but totally committed, you know, were he to design buildings.


And, you know, after that, sort of being hooked, was- the last three years were sort of forming one’s attitudes, forming one’s values. And there were several players in that as far as my education goes. I mean there was sort of Gordon Webber who was into the sensual and photographs and models and drawings. And there was Peter Collins, who was a historian who talked about why one is an architect in terms of the values, you know, his interest in Auguste Perret, the rationalism. My rationalistic side as an architect, which I think is highly developed, maybe over-developed, really goes back to Peter. That there’s a cause and that there’s a purpose and that there’s constraints and that there’s an order and there’s a framework, there’s an ethical framework. And I think that comes from Peter. Also that comes from John Bland. John, who I don’t remember taking a direct studio with, or maybe I did but- you know, he gave this sort of humanistic tone and it’s interesting, sort of almost a contrast between the buildings they were building at the time, he was doing Ottawa City Hall, and you know, very Miesian, very precise buildings, but John always came through to me as a kind of a great humanist.


There was something about the school at the time that sort of, in spite of us being a prisoner of the fashion of the time, of the moment, sort of had a very humanistic line through it. So as I came to the final years, Doug Shadbolt arrived. And Doug and I had a couple of, you know, memorable, for me memorable events. I remember studio in fifth year in which I did something that if I pulled out of the archive today, it would look like a Richard Meier house. It was sort of Bauhaus and white and all the forms that I grew up with in Israel. You know, I grew up in a Bauhaus city. I grew up in a Bauhaus house. I mean they were all sort of white, curvy balconies and strip windows and all that. And I did one of those. That was pre-Richard Meier. And Doug gave me shit. He said, “That’s an easy way out. What are you doing? What’s the meaning of that?” Really gave me hell. And that was interesting because it shook me up. It shook me up about pursuing things that are easy and also of having facility and doing the easy thing. And the sort of final highlight at McGill was Sandy van Ginkel, who sort of came as a visiting professor. I had started my thesis. I should say that an important event for me and to give credit to CMHC where credit is deserved, they had formed that new scholarship, at the time it was new, of studying housing, picking one student from one school of architecture in Canada and sending them off in the summer to study housing on the continent. That was the first year that they formed the scholarship. And I was picked. I remember Michel Barcelo the- what was that? The École des Beaux-Arts, Université de Montréal, and discovering separatism on the trip because here was my first separatist friend. Many more to come later. And, you know, we traveled and then we went to Ottawa and worked at CMHC. And I came back saying I’m going to do housing for my thesis. So sort of-


That was the year between-

Fifth and sixth.


And I had sent in a report saying I was going to do for my thesis the Knesset, the parliament of Israel, so going back to my roots. But by the time I came back, I had a report called- titled A Case of City Building. City living, A Case of City Living. And that work became sort of the programme for the thesis and I was going to do housing. And van Ginkel was around and I was very taken by his rhetoric and sort of the whole connection with Team X and Aldo van Eyck and Giancarlo de Carlo and all the people in Europe who were sort of rebelling and reacting against sort of conventional modernism. I was very anti-Miesian. I was sort of antithetical to the sort of mainstream of what was going on. I was interested in Le Corbusier but not totally convinced by him. Certainly not by the recent work like Unité d’ habitation and so on. And here came these, you know, architects who sort of taught pedestrian scale in connection with a historic fabric and so Sandy became my thesis advisor. And because he was not teaching full-time then, I actually made a pilgrimage I think once a week to his studio and spent a few hours working on my- discussing the thesis with him. And so it evolved. It was actually part of a wonderful experience. So all in all, I had a great time.


That is a model of your thesis behind you, isn’t it?

Right. That was one of the four models, that’s right. It was a three-dimensional building system. There was a model of the whole town of it and that was a detail model.

And you graduated, I guess, what, 1961?


So I guess your first project was Habitat.

I worked for a year for Sandy van Ginkel. I went- and Blanche, his wife, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel. And then I went to Philadelphia. I worked for a year for Kahn. Very important experience, I was very privileged. I realize today how privileged I was. And as I was working for Kahn and I was working on the management institute in India, there was some talk about David Reinhardt, a colleague of mine in the office, and I going to India to supervise the construction. And Sandy showed up and said, “There’s going to be an expo. I’m working with Robillard, Claude Robillard to do the master plan. Why don’t you come and join us?” And so I left Kahn and came back to Montreal. And my condition to Sandy was, “I’ll work on the master plan but I’ d like to develop my housing theme, my housing system thesis as I do that, you know, perhaps as even an exhibit for the World’s Fair”. He said, “Why not? Sure”. So I came back. And I guess after working on the master plan for some time, proposing Habitat, everything sort of thereafter got documented but yeah, Habitat was the first building. And going back to do the master plan for expo was the sort of catalyst of all of that. It’s sort of a fairy tale, I have to admit.


You know one invests a lot of emotion and passion in projects and often people say, “Which ones are most important to you? Which ones are more memorable?” In a sense, it’s like talking about kids and saying, “Oh, which of your kids do you love the most?” which is an impossible question. But there’s no doubt that Habitat has this kind of special place. To continue the analogy, it’s my firstborn. But beyond that, it’s clearly a radical building, perhaps still the most radical building that I’ve ever built. I don’t know about proposed but at least built. And, you know, it’s one of those lopsided careers where you do something early in your life, which is sort of a bit harder to explain because where was the experience to make such a complex building and where was the maturity? And yet, I don’t think of Habitat when I visit it today with the distance of somebody who’s sort of far enough to think that somebody else did it, as an immature building. Or you know, you look at the building and you sort of say, well, not only did I not know much about building, but I had an office of all youngsters, you know, that I put together. All my colleagues, classmates and friends from Philadelphia, I mean, we didn’t know about building. We learned, you know, which each stone. But I think a couple of other highlights were, you know, my first building in Jerusalem, which is in some sense tragic, because it’s the Yeshiva Porat Yosef, which never got finished properly. But it was, here I was back to my roots, back to Jerusalem, an historic city. How the hell do you build in the heart of the old city a contemporary, a large contemporary building? And I think I lived up to the occasion with a tragedy that through a conflict with the Rabbis and all that, the building sits there unfinished. It tells a story but it’s not what it should be. And then full cycle back to Canada, National Gallery. By then, I’d already designed a Quebec museum and sort of came to terms with building a cultural building in a historic city in Canada. But National Gallery was special: across from parliament, incredible site, great client, you know, Jean Boggs, inspiring clients. And again, I felt this is sort of a turning point in my evolution as an architect. And it was because it was a new kind of experience for me, both designing it and then experiencing it as a building. And so, you know, you do have these sort of benchmarks. The gallery is one of them. In some ways, the Vancouver Public Library is also. A building that came out totally unexpected for me. I expected what I expected. Surprising me as I went along. You know, “What’s this building all about?” as it was getting built and people making all kinds of associations, which I didn’t even consider as I designed it. “It’ s the Colosseum, it’s Bruegel. It’s, you know, the spiral towers of Babylon, It’s Egypt, God knows what but there it is. It came out in spite of myself. So, you know, these are fascinating.


You know, we talk about professional practice and it’s amazing how it’s changed and how it keeps changing and some ways, it hasn’t changed. I had the, you know, I had the experience of going to Kahn and experiencing an old-fashioned practice of a master designer who ran it as a studio, who designed everything in his buildings from the first charcoal sketches to considering how the stainless steel railing met the stone tread with equal passion. I was informed by that process; I’m a prisoner of that process. That’ s the way I work. I, unlike Kahn, I think in that sense, that also is an indication of how practice has evolved, I’m surrounded by people working with me for many years, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years, who see this as an adventure that we do together, people who have devoted a great deal of talent, of their talent to do these buildings. And somehow we’ve found a way to be complementary to each other. And that means that we can you a lot. I mean, you know, we can do three, four major buildings. And I can work on the Toronto Airport, on one hand, and a museum in Boston at which time I’ll do something else in Jerusalem. Because we are, you know, a team of thirty, forty people, fifty. You know, we have new tools. They change your life but they don’t change practice, the computers. But I think that the big struggle is going to be between the very large practices that are run very much as service businesses, who, by necessity specialize very often. And you get these practices, which do arenas and do hospitals and others that do developers’ work. And I’ve struggled to keep our practice different. We’ ve done a library. We could probably do three more. I’d rather do a hospital, because I haven’t done one, you know. We’re doing an airport. I’m really enjoying it because you’re solving from first principles things you’ve not solved before. You’re learning! And that does not mean that I mind having done several museums because you also learn and bring that. But still, I think the diversity of practice, the ability to do things and to learn about them, which is not economical in the traditional sense of the service corporation. You know, I mean the best way for you to compete in the market is to be so efficient and so good because of repetition about what you’ve done and nobody can compete with you. A lot of practices survive that way. I would say that these are the practices that set the tone for the profession. But then you get a kind of a dual-profession of a few sort of exploring new ideas, new technologies and have the clients and the projects to go forth in that opportunity, and the mainstream of the profession, which have clients who have a very short fuse and little tolerance and not very aspiring objectives and they struggle to survive and do their best within those constraints. And, you know, I sometimes can’t quite make heads or tails of that kind of polarization.