Moshe Safdie first rose to international fame as a result of Habitat, a unique "three-dimensional modular building system" he designed for Canada's Expo 67 in Montreal. He has also been quite active in his native Israel, restoring and revitalizing the city of Jerusalem with an architecture informed by archeology, blending the new sensitively with the old. He is the author of two books, "Beyond Habitat" and "For Everyone a Garden." He has worked in four major centers, Montreal, Boston, Jerusalem, and Baltimore, but he has designed projects in virtually every corner of the world. Mr. Safdie shared his thoughts recently in his Boston headquarters with Home Forum assistant editor, David Owens.
Do you have any thoughts on how contemporary society is mirrored by its buildings and structures? What do out buildings say about us?
I think I agree with what that statement suggests -- that our buildings and our environment are a complete and accurate mirror of our culture. That posses a few difficult problems, because it says, as a corollary, that the architect and the planner cannot transcend their society, or, as Sullivan put it, an architect cannot transcend his client. There are too many forces existing in guiding, directing, limiting the work of an architect for him to be able to transcend them altogether. They are expressed in building codes, in the attitudes of mortgage bankers, of builders, and of the user. Of course the user would be the client. Except that, in our society, very often the decision makers or the group we call "clients" are not the users.m In the case of a corporation headquarters, the committee that acts as client to the architect are not the users in the sense of the employees who spend eight to nine hours a day working there. One of the conflicts in our society, which has only come to the surface during the postwar years, is the one between the realm user and the decision- maker. If we must look at what we have in the way of environment and say "That's a mirror of our culture," it's pretty sad.
Yet, such a mirror offers us a challenge, I think.
Yes, I would be fascinated to see someone with an insight into the fabric of our society -- a creative social scientist -- do an analysis of the positive and negative aspects that one can read from our environment. A tremendous force, certainly in Western society, certainly in North America, is the general withdrawal from an intense community life. The notion of a "strip," -- a horizontal community like Los Angeles -- which some of my contemporary collegues have come to admire and write about -- suggests "Here is a society completely governed by the mobility of the car."
OK, that's one way of looking at it. The other way is to say, "Well, what is that strip really representing?" It's representing a social system in which man's movement from point A to point B in his activity in the city is built into a mechanism which makes it impossible for him to interact with other people in society. Whereas in earlier city forms interaction was built into the formal framework so that whenever you went out of your home the formal system of the city made you interact with others, made you meet people you didn't know. This formal system of the "strip" completely prevents you from having any interaction.
It's also interesting to see that this is changing in America. A lot of people point out that the renewed interest in "downtown" is the result of the energy crisis, but I think it is also a social reaction to life lived in seclusion, or at least in a very homogeneous environment with people very much like oneself. The pendulum is now swinging back into a desire to rub elbows. There's no way to explain Quincy Market, where we're sitting now, and its enormous success. To think, fifteen years ago, that a market, located in a city center, with poor parking facilities, would be animated day, night, and weekend by people coming from the entire metropolitan region, was inconceivable. I see them coming and I realize that what's being expressed here is really a desire to interact again -- to take the riskm of interaction.
It used to be very fashionable, ten years ago, to talk about the next phase, beyond the mobility of vehicles. You would not need to go for a meeting in Houston to discuss something, because electronic means would make it possible for a whole group of people to meet without having conferences. Why would you have to go shopping? The grocer would show us on the TV how beautiful the tomatoes are. Even if we developed a TV that enabled us to touch the object, feel its texture and smell it -- which is a long way off, technologically -- even if we did, I think that the pleasure of touching the actual tomato, feeling it before we buy it, and interacting face-to-face with the grocer is irreplacible.
Some definition of structure must enter into all this. I suspect yours is broader than most. I think that, in explaining my attitude toward structure,m I should throw in the word function.m Both are grossly misused words. Let's look at the popular understanding of these words. By function,m the layman has come to understand minor issues in the design of objects. The designed object could be a vehicle, a table, or a hospital. So, invariably you would find that, in talking to a corporation head about the design of office space, his notion of function would be how easy it is to clean the place, and how direct and efficient the circulation routes would be between departments. The quality of the environment, of light and space, the psychological well-being of the worker in the office space, never enters the discussion, and is not considered to be part of function. So functionm has been demeaned.
The word structurem is also misused, because usually by structurem we mean the skeleton frame of the building. I've been inspired by a realization that, starting with objects in nature (and the science of morphology), we can learn how hundreds of aspects of function -- relevant and essential to the survival of an organism -- evolve through natural selection a responsive form. And right there the word functionm has expanded a hundredfold. Because the function that relates to the survival of a tree, the connection of its form to its function, has to do with resisting winds, going through the cycle of cold and hot, growth and the replacement of cells, collecting water, preserving water if it's in a hot climate, evaporation, and so on. It's almost funny to say this, but the tree is a relatively simple problem compared with human habitation. All the physical notions of survival and adaptation exist in the human environment, and added to these are a whole series of quite complex notions which are much more difficult to quantify or to define than some aspects of the environment. Yet, they're all part of structurem and function.m And for me the most inspiring process is when I discard the old notions of functionm and structure,m and expand them to include all these things. I must also adjust my frame of mind in terms of my role in society: I am a member of society whose role it is to serve that society by participating and helping to build the environment, and my role is no less defined, and no less responsible than the man who grows wheat. We don't see
him as a slave of society because he grows wheat. My role as an architect is exactly the same, and in that role my first responsibility is to define the needs and take them seriously. My belief is, that, as designers first enter into this frame of mind and then pursue this process, we will have wholesome environments.
In other words, a readjustment of our views about the design field.
Yes, for example, a notion has evolved in Western society -- which we have taken for granted -- that what we need are more geniuses if we're going to have a wonderful environment, livable cities and good houses. This is total nonsense. Centuries before and after that notion was born, people with no formal training whatsoever built the most wonderful environments. I'm talking about the vernacular architecture of the Mediterranean, the medieval hillside towns in Italy, the desert villages in Iran, the Indian pueblos,m the mosques. These are for me some of the greatest pieces of environment and architecture ever created, and they were not created by a daVinci -- obviously we don't even have a name connected to them. What we reallym need is a reorientation, because that reorientation not only affects the designer -- becomes part of the process of design -- but also the user.m You see, the user has hism problems. The user who builds a Swiss chalet out of wood in Mexico City or Tehran, or who wears a black suit at ninety degrees, ninety percent humidity, in Africa, or who accepts a whole series of other fashionable dictates to conform to some position, has such enormous insecurity in terms of exercising his realm judgment, that he is an impotent partner for the designer. We must insure that the attitude of both is reoriented.
Would you explain the concept of "building in the vernacular?"
Building in the vernacular is -- let me read you somebody else's definition -- "buildings built by a society for itself; folk architecture, whose distinction is that it developed without pretense to elegant style or evolved form, growing instead out of the practical needs of the inhabitants and the formidable restraints of site, climate, and preindustrial society." It has also been called "indigenous; produced or living naturally in a locality, anonymous, bearing no name or known authorship." And, "vernacular -- belonging to, or used by, a people." It has more recently been called "architecture without architects." I think that gives you all the aspects of what we mean by the vernacular. Indigenous.
I went through the educational system in which four years of the history of architecture did not include one lecture on vernacular building. We just went from one heroic architectural design culture to another, neverm covering any indigenous building, though they amount to 90 per cent of the building done by man through the ages. This 90 per cent interested me a great deal, and the 10 per cent which involved my whole educational process became of secondary importance.I've worked in so many different cultures now, in West Africa, the Canadian Arctic, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, that I'm quite aware of how the sense of territoriality (and of privacy) greatly varies. But, whatever it is specifically in any locality, the vernacular is one of the strongest forces in the definition of both private and community architecture.
A friend of mine has described a phenomenon he experienced -- that a building can bring to the surface a person's very best qualities and cause him to act on them.
I had a friend who, when Habitat had just been finished, said that by living in it he felt that his view of himself, his relationship with the world of nature, had been changed, I tend to be more general about such experiences -- to look at it as more of a holistic analogue: the experience of a Gothic church compared with a Baroque church. In the case of Gothic, elements are brought together, in a highly integrated and interrelated languagem -- the most precise word to use for building material, gravity, sunlight, color, storytelling in windows, ritual -- into a symphony of great impact on the spirit. And in the Baroque, seemingly for the same God and the same religion, we have a stage set, made by the palette of the painter and the manipulation of the plasterer, which does not need to relate the light, to gravity, to space, to actual building, to the elements. One is in harmony with nature and the elements, and one is a stage set. I find that quite a revealing comparison in terms of life today.
To what extent is our environment in the Gothic tradition related to real life, and to what extent are we creating stage sets? I mean, almost every restaurant we go into today is Baroque in the notion that it is a stage set. You get it in hotel restaurants where the faked feeling of being in a boudoirm or in an 18th century palace is attempted in some way. But they forget the 18th century palace had wonderful windows and wonderful gardens and real light, notwithstanding the vulgar decor.
Your emphasis on gardens is very suggestive to me. Do you, in your thinking along this line, extend it beyond plants and trees and children -- to clusters of lives, society, ideas, humanity?
When I chose the title for my second book, "For Everyone a Garden," I was very conscious of the powerful symbolic meaning of the word. When I tried to trace its roots, I became aware that it had a lot to do with the fact that we, for millennia, have used the notion of garden as a symbolic image of paradise, as a combination of nature and of man's intervention with nature. And this notion of paradise brought forward into our contemporary environment as an objective helps to clarify many things. In other words, when I say "a house with a garden," everyone knows what I mean: they think of a good palace to be in. When I say "a house which ism a garden," I think that goes further.
Do you see general progress being made in stretching the mental climate, of getting through, of getting past, conservatism?
Life would be intolerable unless I did.