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From huge to humble: Architect Moshe Safdie at the Skirball

Habitat of the Future, A-Frame Habitat. View of project and surrounding landscape. Part of the Safdie exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Habitat of the Future, A-Frame Habitat. View of project and surrounding landscape. Part of the Safdie exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Marc Haefele writes for Off-Ramp on literature, arts and and culture. Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, is at the Skirball Center through March 2.

More than any other living architect I can think of, Moshe Safdie has tried to change the face of the inhabited world, and he’s done this on nearly every continent. For 44 years, he’s been thinking about new ways for people to inhabit places.

Safdie does this in the form of innovative housing that consists of aggregates of units, but he breaks away from the clichés of both suburbia and of the urban skyscraper tower housing block, be they Fifth Avenue millionaire co-ops or Chicago’s Cabrini projects.

He’s brought the same originality to all of his other buildings, public and private.

His latest ideas are on display until next month at the Skirball Cultural Center — which, as it happens, is another creation of Safdie, completed late last year. The exhibit is organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Ark., a creation of the Walmart Walton family. Their museum is another Sadie project.

Safdie’s innovative dwelling-place research began with the Habitat '67 project, constructed for the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair. Intended as 1,000 affordable units, it ended up as 158 pre-fab habitable boxes of various sizes, in three modules, stacked like 8 stories of piled-up tree-houses, minus the trees. Each unit came with a garden and pre-made kitchens and bathrooms.

(Image: Timothy Hursley)

It got the entire world’s attention, and the effects of this revolutionary design are still being widely felt. There is a handsome breakdown of this classic project at the Skirball, as well as models and sketches of its prospective successors — like the Sky Habitat in Singapore and Sri Lanka’s Colombo Residential Development.

They all avoid the obvious verticals and oblongs of both modern and postmodern architecture, using sharply angled high rise structures and the clustered units pioneered in Montreal. But they seem to have most in common is a connection with the surrounding environments, an almost Babylonian tendency toward balconies, elevated shrubs and trees and literal hanging gardens: Safdie’s recent residential  projects seem to drool flowering vines in great profusion.

Beyond the housing innovator, there are at least two other Safdies. First, there’s the Moshe Safdie who is responsible for some very impressive international public architecture, widely ranging from the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Israel ...

(Image: Timothy Hursley)

... to the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass., to the public libraries of Philadelphia and Salt Lake City, to the exotic Sikh Khalsa Heritage Center in Punjab. What’s impressive about most of these is how well they fit into their environments: Even the glassy Peabody somehow nests perfectly among the ancient New England housing of old Salem. 

On the other hand, there is the high-roller, big-client Safdie, in whom extravagance triumphs over sense and good taste.

(Image: Timothy Hursley)

Take Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort, which he composed for Las Vegas gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson. This is a frightening monument to big spender affluence at its most Asiatic, supposedly based on a card trick. Apart from what might well be the world’s scariest infinity pool, this multiple casino-hotel-restaurant complex is simply a 10-million-square-foot pastiche of postmodern architectural flaunt that puts everything in Vegas to shame.

Yet like everything Safdie does, it’s fun to look at, even fun to think about. You just don’t really want to be there the way you do in his best work: You want to settle down and live in Habitat '67, or  spend a Saturday studying in his luminescent Salt Lake City library.