For Moshe Safdie, social responsibility in design comes naturally


Trees and gardens, and not just buildings, play an essential role in the projects of renowned architect and urban planner Moshe Safdie.

In his next memoir, If Walls Could Talk: My Life in Architecture and a short video, For each a garden, renowned Israeli-born architect and Companion of the Order of Canada, Moshe Safdie, reflects on the role of nature in his designs. Prepared for a global arts platform called Shifting Vision, the video is due to go live this weekend to mark Earth Day and environmental sustainability.

Here, Mr. Safdie, 83 – whose work includes the National Gallery of Canada (1988), Vancouver Library Square (1995) and award-winning international projects such as the spectacular Jewel Changi Airport (2019) and Marina Bay Sands Resort (2011), both in Singapore – explains why gardens and greenery are an integral part of institutional and commercial buildings.

You are keen to bring together architecture and the garden, yet nature and buildings seem to oppose each other. What is your starting point for reconciling them?

The idea of ​​the garden as a central element of architecture has evolved. It is people’s desire to have an outdoor space where they can look up at the sky.

Programs like LEED are important, but they are not enough. You could design a school to the highest LEED standards, for example, but you could still have tiny windows that don’t let in light.

— Moshe Safdie, Israeli-Canadian architect, urban planner and theorist

When I was young, I participated in a travel grant and saw that given the choice, most families would choose a house with a garden. I realized how central this was in most cultures, whether it was a small outdoor space or an atrium or terrace in a large building.

Is there an ideal ratio of green space to built space in a commercial or institutional building?

The idea expanded for me as my work evolved. When I designed Habitat 67 [one of Mr. Safdie’s first prominent works, modular housing at Expo 67 in Montreal], the idea was simple: for everyone, a garden. Later I designed the Skirball [Cultural Centre near Los Angeles, which opened in 2013]. Californians live a combined indoor-outdoor life, so I created an outdoor space for each program function that takes place indoors. There are works of art inside and a sculpture garden outside, for example.

What do you consider to be one of your most successful accomplishments in bringing the garden into a commercial or institutional setting? site?

Jewel [in Singapore] takes the idea of ​​the garden one step further. There was an international competition, and some of the consultants came up with Disney-type themes, mechanical dinosaurs, and so on. Why would anyone travel to Singapore to see a mechanical dinosaur? I said, let’s make a magic garden instead – an intense marketplace for airport shoppers that sits alongside a park. Now, I think the public realm should always be a combination where commercial activity cohabits with open space.

Isn’t that hard to do in a cold country like Canada?

It’s more difficult, but it’s doable. You can have terraces that open and close with the seasons. In cities like Toronto and Montreal, people crave those months when they can be outdoors.

Everyone likes to sit on the grass for lunch, let’s say, but how important are trees in an urban project? What is their role ?

Trees are essential. If all buildings had them, our environment would be in better condition. I learned that you can plant really big trees in a few feet of soil if you take care of it.

Green spaces and light should be integrated into urban structures, Safdie says, as exemplified by Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore (above) and the Albert Einstein Research Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil (top).

There is growing interest in vertical farming and the built environment, but most of these projects now have an industrial feel. Is there a way to make them look more like gardens?

Many of them are improvised and unimaginative, but there are ways. I think agriculture should be integrated into urban structures – the food yield may not be huge, but it would be culturally and psychologically good. It would be nice for kids to see the food they are going to eat grow.

Your influences are eclectic – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the film Avatar, for example. How do you translate these influences into ideas that can be designed while respecting the laws of physics?

We’re stuck with gravity, although I’m fascinated by the design for the moon. Here on Earth, we can still design with a sense of lightness. You can make a building look massive, but you have some control over the space. True, we can imitate the hanging gardens – Avatarmaybe not yet.

Are green spaces a luxury or a necessity for a public building?

It’s a necessity. It is a question of values. I am currently working on a number of headquarters and office buildings for different companies, and all of them have gardens. The idea is that you are working indoors, you should be able to enjoy fresh air and daylight. The major tech companies are all creating gardens in their offices – it gives them an edge. It is a question of well-being and it contributes to tackling the climate issue.

You mention the shortcomings of environmental architecture programs like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification, but they’re also necessary, aren’t they?

Programs like LEED are important, but they are not enough. You could design a school to the highest LEED standards, for example, but you could still have tiny windows that don’t let in light. It might be ecological, but it would be miserable. LEED doesn’t say you need a view or care about indoor light because everyone works on screens. We must go beyond environmental values ​​towards ideas that are more difficult to quantify.

Do your ideas all come back to Habitat 67?

We have done many projects that adopt the idea of ​​Habitat in other contexts such as commercial buildings. In the early years after Habitat, the idea drew a lot of criticism as irrelevant, but now I’m glad there’s a generation of architects embracing the garden principle.

Do you think people’s views on green spaces in buildings have changed since COVID-19?

Absolutely. I find a huge appreciation for green spaces. I remember when the pandemic started and a friend called from a fancy building in New York and complained that she couldn’t open the window and didn’t have a balcony. People just crave the outdoors, and there’s an expanded sense of its value.

How do you want people to feel when they enter one of your buildings?

A feeling of elevation. Welfare. I want them to breathe more deeply. If you enter an airport where it is daytime, you feel better than if it is dark. If there is a garden, you feel even better.

When I travel, some of the most beautiful landscapes I see are those that have both green spaces and human activities. There is nothing more beautiful, for example, than a rice terrace in Southeast Asia or tea in Darjeeling. It makes me realize the pleasure we derive from the combination of nature and human intervention. I think that’s why we’ve always marveled at gardens – that’s what we need in the 21st century.

Moshe Safdie designed the iconic Habitat 67 in Montreal.

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