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Moshe Safdie Is Still Designing the Future of City Living

Old Habitats die hard

Developed as a young architecture student’s master’s thesis at McGill University, Habitat ‘67, a utopian dream of better apartment living, became both the first and most iconic work of its creator, Moshe Safdie. The Israeli-Canadian architect was at the beginning of his career when he finished this radical take on urban housing, ziggurats of precast concrete cells that has become one of Montreal’s most famous buildings and an essential strand of urban design DNA. But the essential ideas contained within its step-like structure—opening up dense urban towers to the elements to create more humane and community-minded living space—has been a cornerstone of a half century career spent rethinking how we live in cities. Before a retrospective of his work, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, opens at the Boston Society of Architects in March, we spoke to the Israeli-Canadian architect on the future of the profession.

You and your firm do extensive work in rapidly urbanizing areas such as China, India, and Singapore. What lessons should the rest of the world take from these rapidly growing cities?

"It’s a taste of the world to come. The size and density of cities, and the issues that they raise in terms of transportation, congestion, and typologies, are indicators of what’s coming to other places. This kind of urbanism is cropping up everywhere, both in the poorer and more industrialized countries, from Sao Paulo to Mexico City to Cairo. Addressing the issue in these cities feels like working on the frontier. Take China, for instance. The urbanization over the last 10 years could have, and maybe should have, learned from all of the mistakes that the United States made in the preceding 30 years, the way that we built highways through cities, the way we designed transportation, the congestion. Yet they didn’t. They just went at it, as if we had not experienced anything, and repeated many of the problems that we had."

What are some of the things being done differently in those cities that we should we bring back to the United States?

"I’m trying to address the typology of large, mixed-use, high-density projects. The pattern that’s developing in these cities is the transportation is handled by freeways and highways. Shanghai, for example, has multi-level highways running right through the city and divides it. That means developers are trying to get large enough plots to build mixed-use projects of three or four towers with malls in them. They internalize space, and privatize public spaces, and aren’t connected, so the streets become just about transportation and less and less vital to public life and the public realm. It’s increasingly commercialized, and developers aren’t mixing commercial and culture. The public realm is really suffering in these cities. Culture occurs in the private room, in a commercial environment. I’m trying to show that the commercial areas can be much more connected, much more extroverted. To me, that’s the biggest contribution of Marina Bay Sands (a massive, mixed-use development Safdie designed in Singapore)."

You put a premium on doing projects that develop shared space and community. Are there any projects that you turn to recently that do a great job of accomplishing those goals?

"Let’s begin with public agencies. One of the things that really bothers me is that in the last 30 years of market-driven policies, planning and urban design have become discredited and subject to suspicion. There’s no question urban renewal was a big failure in the ‘60s. There were planning agencies that intended to make some sense of the whole and make different parts of the city connect, but that isn’t happening like it should. The one place where a planning agency creates guidelines and is proactive with urban design to shape private development for the public response is Singapore. They’re able to do that because they have extraordinary authority, because most of the land is publicly owned. A public agency in New York City trying to tell a private landowner what to do with his land—if anything has a commercial impact, it becomes an uproar. But Singapore has demonstrated the power of doing things that way. Marina Bay Sands just wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t have that power. That’s why they achieved other things, such as building a continuous ring of promenades around the river, and turning the bay into a major public realm."

You wrote a book in 1998, The City After the Automobile, about how less cars on the road will change urban design. How do you think the coming age of driverless cars will change our cities?

"My premise was, the privately owned car which we need to store and park everywhere will need to be replaced by something that doesn’t need private storage, and therefore, makes it public, not private. I called it automobiles on demand. Right now, we’re seeing companies in America such as ZipCar. We’re seeing automobile on demand, electrical cars—technological changes are bringing about a massive change. Both the self-driving car and on-demand vehicle open up an easier transition to other modes of transportation. Airports and trains become much more convenient when you eliminate the paradox of having to eliminate, or drop-off and park, a vehicle during your trip. It increases your chances of using a train. I think this will be the big breakthrough that starts decreasing congestion. Our research fellowship looked at the urban design impacts of this new reality: on buildings, the entrances change, the ways you approach them changes, all these things start to occur. You will begin to get urban concentration in suburban regions. You get multiple centers of density, like in cities like Houston and Dallas, but now you start getting more of that due to public transportation, which wasn’t as possible with a greater reliance on private automobiles."

Can you talk me through the Sky Habitat, its design inspiration, and how it reflects the new ideas of urbanism you’ve been talking about?

"Looking back, when I was working on the original Habitat, I came to the conclusion that the compact, extruded, high-rise building didn’t make for good residential and work space. It just creates a lot of internalized space. You’d subdivide it into apartments that became little cells of internalized space with internal corridors. The most brutal expression of that was public housing projects, done with little regard for amenities and quality of life. The question became: How do you break up and open up a building to create opportunities for gardens, outdoor space, transparency, views? Over the year, the process of breaking up the mass of a building and opening it up became the dominant theme in my strategy for making high-density, high-rise apartments more livable. And that’s the process across the board. It’s about breaking it up into house-like habitats. At the Sky Habitat Singapore, it’s about creating the conditions of a park and garden in the tower. You need to break up the mass, create horizontal and multiple circulation paths so it’s more of a network, not just built off a central core. These are the strategies that tend to keep re-occurring with my projects. What I’m happy to report is that this seems to follow the movement of the profession as a whole."

Do you ever get tired of feeling like you’re seeing versions of Habitat all over the place?

"It’s like, you know, a building goes up in New York, it looks familiar, BIG is doing projects that echo it. You feel absolved in a way, a little "I told you so," and relief, because it shows that people are reaching similar conclusions. It’s a way to make buildings more livable, and I’m delighted."

"Do you feel like the profession of architecture is recognizing more socially conscious, community-minded architecture, with, say, the awarding of the Pritzker to Alejandro Aravena?

"If if look at the 50 years I’ve had in this profession, I’d say I emerged as a young architect during an era—the modern movement, the work of the 40s and 50s—that was extremely socially conscious, but not very effective in what it was proposing. But then I think there were 20, 30 years that were extremely permissive, that were influenced by the culture of branding and commerce, that gave rise to words like wow effect, starchitect, iconic building. At it’s best, they’re great cultural and community focal points. At their worst, they ignore urban issues. I think at this point, we’re going back full cycle. There’s much more sensitivity and awareness of urban design issues. Humanistic issues, the realization that there’s a limit to energy and resources, has created altogether a greater sensitivity to nature. The very term green architecture, which is a term that’s abused a little bit—some people think doing a presentation with the color green makes it green architecture—shows there’s a desire to find a way to fuse nature with the urban environment, the architecture of gardens."