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Designing for dignity

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Born in Haifa in 1938 when it was part of Palestine, Safdie witnessed firsthand its transformation into the state of Israel in 1948. He spent summers on a kibbutz at a time of austerity, which "affected me for life," he says. "I grew up in a country where the environment was very social justice oriented," the source of his enduring idealism.

While a student at McGill University in Montreal, Safdie tackled "the biggest unsolved problem: urban housing." As he toured gigantic public projects (monolithic slabs that became incubators for crime and poverty) and suburban developments like Levittown, he saw two extremes: "dehumanization or dispersal." He adds, "I thought there was something in the middle, and I came up with a new building typology that led to Habitat."

His prefabricated units were stacked so that the roof of one apartment was the terrace for its upper neighbor. In contrast to cookie-cutter high-rise towers, the units afford ample views, sunlight, privacy, and a sense of community. They combine amenities of the suburbs with interaction of the city. Today, Habitat is considered a landmark in 20th-century architecture, a monument to modernism's utopian vision.

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