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Moshe Safdie, FAIA, Awarded 2015 AIA Gold Medal

AIArchitect

Dec. 10, 2014

The American Institute of Architects Board of Directors on Dec. 10 awarded the AIA Gold Medal to Moshe Safdie, FAIA. Safdie first burst on the architecture scene with bold proclamations on the future of dwelling with Habitat 67, and has since refined this late Modernist manifesto into a balanced and moderated approach to designing public cultural spaces across the world. The AIA Gold Medal is the highest honor the AIA confers on an architect. It acknowledges an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Safdie will be honored at the AIA Convention 2015 in Atlanta.

AIA President Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, notified Safdie by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. Safdie responded “This is very nice. It is a great honor and a particular honor because it is recognition from my peers. It is a vote of confidence in the values that have guided my architecture.”

The middle path 

In his long and storied career, Safdie has forged a middle path between the opposing poles that have defined 20th-century architecture. He exploded into the design community fully formed (appropriately enough) in the middle of the 20th century with Habitat 67 for Expo 67, Montreal’s 1967 world’s fair. This series of 158 stacked and terraced apartments crystalized, for too short a moment, the enduring dreams of Modernist architects to produce modular mega-structural buildings that could fundamentally reshape how people live—all completed before Safdie’s 30th birthday.

Mega-structure is a theme he would return to, but here and elsewhere Safdie balanced grand size and presence with a sense of warmth and invitation. While his architecture can be seen as iconic and monumental, it is also intensely intimate, comforting, and affirming. Habitat 67, for example, is massive: 354 concrete modules on a narrow peninsula near the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. But it’s human-scaled and neighborly, with flexible floor plans and rooftop gardens, its mass broken up and disguised by an idiosyncratic jumble of terraced units, demonstrating a granular urbanism of its own.

Perhaps his signature formal characteristic is an ability to walk a middle path between the use of organic curvilinear geometry and rectilinear grid-based forms. He is also a symbolist, investing narrative into his buildings and presaging prominent architects like Daniel Libeskind, AIA, who have turned emotional metaphor into a global design brand. But Safdie is also an architect content to let each singular combination of site, space, and materials speak for itself.

These oppositions are not equivocation. His self-assurance has allowed him to resist practicing in a narrowly prescribed signature style, and has made him an eminent architect the world over, and a national design treasure for three nations.

“Here we have the ideal architect:” wrote AIA Gold Medalist Kevin Roche, FAIA, in a letter of recommendation, “a responsible and sensitive creator, a solver of problems, a modest but brilliant artist, not as well-recognized or known as he should be, but an example for all architects.”

Simple tools, extraordinary results

Born in Haifa in 1938, Safdie moved with his family to Montreal in 1953. He studied architecture at McGill University, and after graduation worked with AIA Gold Medalist Louis Kahn in Philadelphia, an influence that still shines through his work. He returned to Montreal to work on Habitat 67, and then began a series of teaching posts that culminated with his job as the director of the urban design program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1978–84. Since 1978, Safdie has been based in Boston, but he is a citizen of Canada, the United States, and Israel, where he established a Jerusalem office in 1970.

Many of Safdie’s Asian and Middle Eastern projects exhibit a sense of timelessness closely associated with his mentor Kahn. Safdie once told Tablet Magazinethat if architecture is good, “then it will feel obvious, and like it’s always been there.” In Israel, his Mamilla Center blends in contextually and materially with a 19th-century Jerusalem neighborhood, offering people a stylish and contemporary urban shopping experience. In Punjab, India, his design for the Khalsa Heritage Centre, a museum of Sikh history and culture, shows visitors an elemental juxtaposition of stone and concrete with water. Opposite wings of the museum are separated by a footbridge over man-made pools, and the sculptural presence of the stone and concrete buildings, with the stillness of the water below, lends the site an air of ancient inevitability. The building is made up of a rich mix of orthogonal geometry and curvilinear forms, organic and flowing in some places, rigid and rational in others. This mixture alludes to the primeval determination the earliest builders felt when they conspired to put together posts, lintels, and right angles in defiant opposition to gravity and the natural world they struggled against.

This is a pattern seen throughout Safdie’s architecture: the broad, explicit combination of grid-based forms with fluid curves. Safdie is constantly colliding arcs into squares, smashing spheres into cubes, and affixing ovals to rectangles; using simple, easily recognizable tools to create emotionally evocative architecture.

“Moshe’s architecture has a clear Platonic form: pyramids, triangles, rectangles, cubes,” wrote Pritzker Prize Laureate Richard Rogers in a recommendation letter. “It has a human scale and yet it achieves a monumental quality. Moshe is a true Modernist, influenced by Le Corbusier and Kahn; a master of light and shadow en masse.”

Some of Safdie’s most notable works include:

Salt Lake City Public Library in Utah, a triangular glass library intersected by a crescent-shaped wall which forms an urban room and leads visitors up to an observation deck with views of the nearby Wasatch Mountains. The transparency offered by the glass library volume, and the gracefully arcing wall and public space it forms, evoke a dramatic contrast of enclosure and openness.

Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, a concrete prism carved into Mount Herzl that takes visitors on a linear narrative journey thorugh the individual identities of Holocaust victims, finally giving way to an observation deck with broad views of Jerusalem below, symbolizing the collective future of the Jewish people.

Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, Safdie’s return to mega-structure architecture, which places a surfboard-shaped platform filled with restaurants, bars, and a pool 57 stories in the sky on top of three bifurcated, curving legs. Its mixed-use program (theater, museum, hotel, convention center) makes it nearly a city unto itself.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., an idyllic village of copper-clad shells containing American art. This village of forms creates a series of dams and bridges over a reservoir fed by the nearby Crystal Springs, intimately revealing the natural landscape and huddling around the water like a group of timeworn river stones.

The right solution 

In her nomination letter, Boston Society of Architects president Emily Grandstaff-Rice, AIA, wrote: “Moshe Safdie has continued to practice architecture in the purest and most complete sense of the word, without regard for fashion, with a hunger to follow ideals and ideas across the globe in his teaching, writing, practice, and research.”

But Safdie’s body of work makes it clear that this pursuit of ideas and ideals is not a rambling journey free of responsibility. He believes in empirically ideal design solutions, which, because they are true, are inherently beautiful and seemingly inevitable once realized. Safdie has rejected notions of architects as amoral artistic free agents, lounging on a throne of absolute rights to experiment and provoke. “A solution is a process of moving toward the truth, which is the complete opposite of freedom from rules,” he wrote in his 1970 book Beyond Habitat. “We have very few alternatives to the right solution.”

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