Moshe Safdie is one of the world’s most iconic and inventive living architects, with projects that include Montreal’s famed Habitat 67 housing complex and the prismatic Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Safdie has a luminous legacy in the form of his buildings and, at 84, he now also has a memoir: If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture, which is out in September.
Safdie’s life story is studded with personal tragedy—like losing his second child, Dan, to SIDS—and moments of levity: one night, security guards caught Safdie and his then-wife Nina noisily dismantling a much-loathed public sculpture on the Habitat grounds. But If Walls Could Speak is primarily a professional memoir, an account of the complex politics involved in any major building project, and an expression of Safdie’s lifelong belief that architecture can, and must, be a force for social good. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You write about a mystery at the heart of architecture. How is it different from the other expressive arts?
Some people think of architecture as utilitarian, others as totally expressive. It’s both. It’s not just an art form: it’s about building an environment, and it’s about providing shelter. The public often thinks that a building can be functional, but ugly as hell. To me, that’s impossible. If it functions properly—not just in terms of “the plumbing works,” but in the way it serves the activities of the building—it is beautiful.
So no properly functioning building can truly be ugly? You must find some buildings awful no matter what.
I do think that, too often. But when I analyze the ugliness, most of it comes from the building being detrimental to the quality of life within it. Take a black glass tower going up 100 floors in the middle of Dubai, the hottest place in the world. It sits there in the baking desert sun. So it ends up being not very liveable and, therefore, ugly.
In the book, you say Jane Jacobs’ ideas may have saved New York’s Greenwich Village from bulldozers, but they destroyed the notion of big projects.
The pendulum swung too extreme there, as pendulums do by nature. I think that the combination of Jacobs’ impact and very conservative U.S. administrations—starting from Reagan onward—discredited planning and urban design. The idea was that the marketplace knew better and the developers knew best. This was less extreme in Canada, but the suburbs of Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto are all classic cases. Toronto has extraordinary over-concentration at its centre and acres of single-family houses at the perimeter. There’s just no balance. Market influence over what happens in Toronto is way out of control, in my opinion.
What new architectural wisdom emerged from the pandemic?
One of the interesting post-COVID ideas is that high-rise residential buildings should almost be mandated to have outdoor spaces: balconies, terraces, communal open areas. We have to integrate nature and plant life into every building. It costs so much more to achieve a quality of life at high densities, like in Hong Kong or midtown Manhattan. The extremes we go to don’t make any sense.
What sort of architecture is going up in Canada today? Do we build anything other than condos?
The level of architectural adventure in Canada, and the propensity of developers to go out of the box, is extremely limited of late. You see a few little things happening in Vancouver, fewer in Toronto and almost none in Montreal. But a few projects have taken some chances. There’s the Frank Gehry complex going up in Toronto. There’s also that twisted building, Vancouver House. I’m not fond of it, but it is a tour de force.
What does Canada do well?
You can see it in the works of Arthur Erickson, one of the great Canadian architects. Arthur understood the genius loci of where he was building in Canada. That commitment to place is Canada at its best, even as you move into the largest scale: tall and high-rise buildings. When I come to Toronto, it always impresses me that King’s Landing, a 38-year-old Erickson structure, is still the best building on the waterfront.
Which of your Canadian designs do you look back on with the most satisfaction?
Well, Habitat is like my firstborn. It was the one time in my life when, for four years, I did nothing but one building. That’s rare for an architect. The National Gallery was my first museum. It’s been nice to see how well it works—and how much it’s loved—more than 30 years later. I would say the same for the Vancouver Public Library, which was a radical design that changed what municipal public libraries can be. It introduced a new element, the urban room, where people could read, lounge, have coffee and even visit a few shops.
And, in the world as a whole, are you most proud of Yad Vashem?
That was certainly the most emotionally demanding building. I know from the feedback I get that it moves people deeply, so it succeeded in its mission. Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore was a game changer for me in terms of its scale; that building became the symbol of a country. Its success also opened up Asia in a major way. I was inundated with projects after that—some that I’m doing now—like Raffles City Chongqing, an eight-building development in China.
Asia is currently doing what you say North America no longer does, which is dream big.
My peers are managing to build the most advanced projects in Asia. Norman Foster has major work there, and so does Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, which has been building in China extensively. Zaha Hadid has projects in China and the Middle East—I mean, her office does. She’s deceased. But her office did Beijing Daxing International Airport, which is one of the most spectacular in the world.
Most of your professional attention is focused on your two huge Chinese projects. What do you do when you’re not working?
I swim for 45 minutes every day. That’s good thinking time, too, so I suppose it’s not real leisure. Aside from music, theatre and reading—the things we all enjoy—I travel to places I haven’t seen before, like Bhutan. I also have six grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter on the way. That takes up a lot of my time these days.
Writing a memoir usually means you’re thinking about your legacy. How would you sum up yours?
I didn’t think about that when I was writing. I thought about architecture, urbanism, what works and what doesn’t work. What have I learned? What has succeeded? What has failed? I have a motto: for everyone, a garden. I first embraced it when I was building Habitat, 55 years ago. The impact of that saying on today’s architecture—that’s my legacy.
Habitat is taking on a renewed life for a new generation, too.
Bjarke Ingels Group referred to its new residential project in Toronto as “Habitat 2.0.” Their public acknowledgement of that lineage was very moving for me. And Epic Games, the video-game makers, are in the process of totally digitizing the original Habitat—the one that didn’t get built after Expo scaled it down. People can wander through and do whatever they do in video games. Walking through my own incomplete project blew my mind. I’m still hoping I get a chance to build that in real life wherever they’ll accept it.
So you have no plans to retire?
To the best of my knowledge, my energy level has not diminished from what it was, say, 20 years ago. I’ll stop living, but I’m not retiring.