Moshe Safdie: Megascale, Order & Complexity

Moshe Safdie – Megascale, Order & Complexity. This free and public talk was held on 23 October 2012 at Hamer Hall presented by Monash University. I could not sleep one night so listened to the lecture again and transcribed most of it, things I do when I can’t sleep! Hope those of you who could not make it find this useful:

“Iconic Architecture” ”wow factor” “signature architecture” “starchitects” all these are relatively new terms in architecture. Architecture has joined other art forms (visual arts) as an expressive art. It is up to the creator and designer to produce what they wish. Safdie names Phillip Johnson as the corrupter of modern architecture who in 1982 says “there are no rules, nor rights or wrongs in any of the arts today nor in architecture, only the world of wonderful freedom.” This is along the notion that the market knows best – there are no controls. However the market is blind and dead, it is not ideological but instead knows only about prices and not values.

Another school of architecture present today is one that responds to the ecological crisis that we are experiencing – the term ‘responsible design’. Safdie asks, “Is there an ethic in architecture? Can we evaluate architecture as right or wrong or is it totally subjective?” He believes there is an ethic, there may not be one answer but there is always a fundamental question. Architecture is material, its medium is material. It is informed by structure and material, not paper architecture, “let the building be what it is meant to be.” For example if you are designing a school there is one key question – is it a great place for learning? There may be many responses but there is only one question.

Architecture should relate to place. What makes a building rooted in its culture, climate and history? There needs to be an understanding of the essence of place (but what exactly is place? Context? Koolhaas famous saying of F context..) Safdie then goes on to talk about the Megascale: 100 years after the first skyscraper we still do not know how to deploy the high-rise tower. How to create the public realm/urban place in a city in which the high-rise style is the dominant building block? You get Corbusier’s visions of the contemporary city and also E. Howard’s garden city. Current public housing are oppressive and depressive. Howard’s principles became the never ending suburban living. How do you transform the apartment building? If they became houses with gardens in the air everyone would be happy?

Habitat 67: Rooted in the concept of pre-fab with each apartment having a garden. The building today is a wonderful place to live in Safdie says. Two years ago they set out to re-visit Habitat 67. How would they do it today? With changes in technology and higher levels of density – what would a model of a modern-day Habitat 67 possess?

Themes dealt with:

  1. Fractalization – breaking up surface, creating more interaction between inside and outside
  2. Porosity
  3. Light penetration
  4. Mix use

They came up with many models with some of the ideas under construction in China such as Qing Huang Dao – east of Beijing, built as middle-income housing:

The structure form terracing with gardens but also larger urban windows. Yay or nay? Can’t say I am a fan of this aesthetic. But every apartment has at least 3 hours of sunlight measured in the winter solstice which is implemented as a by- law.

Similarly in Singapore, Bishan: Again middle income housing comprising of 600 units with many apartments have gardens open to the sky.

Marina Bay Sands Singapore: a more complex project to really explore the public realm. Marina Bay Sands is a massive mixed use complex, called an “integrated resort” – with casinos, convention centres, shopping, museums, theatres, hotels etc. Safdie saw it as an opportunity to design an interactive meeting place on 10 million square feet of land. The main street is integrated with the river to create a new indoor and outdoor public realm. Therefore instead of creating a gigantic indoor shopping plaza the waterside promenade is integrated into a larger urban spine. Many facilities with towers are set back so the pedestrian scale not compromised. Like Safdie’s housing projects there are many gardens on all levels – the key was in the cross-section which has many levels of shopping and indoor/outdoor spaces to give people shelter when they need it according to the weather. As you move indoors to the urban spine there is a mix of commerce and culture. The gardens continue up to the 59th floor featuring a Sky Park – a public open space on the roof  with jogging paths, observatory, swimming pool etc. The space is connected to nature – which is something people don’t think about for tall buildings in the city. (However I was told by a friend later that this was not the case and you had to pay to get up there..the well-photographed pool also is not public but you need to be a guest of the hotel to use. it me or does it looks like three towers with a boat like shape planted on top, ie not really different to any other tower except its connected above? Can’t say until I visit one day, the public realm may be successful and can not be judged by the built form only. )

Another project that has become an icon in Marina Bay Sands is the Museum of Artscience-  a museum to explore the connectivity between art and science. The building is of  complex form – referred to as the lotus, the hand of welcome, or the ‘ bunch of bananas’.  For this project the question was how to rationalize the construction for buildability. A parametric model was created using computation to order structures mathematically so that they become inherently buildable. Safdie sees computers as an extraordinary tool and has embraced technology unlike many other architects of his generation (e.g. John Andrews).

Childrens memorial in Jerusalem: Single candle in a room reflected into hundreds by mirrored walls. Design was rejected in 1976 due to misunderstanding of the concept, people thinking it was a disco tech etc. Ten years later a donor who lost his son in the holocaust saw the model and was touched, wrote a cheque and the project was built. (What a way to win a commission!)

Sikh museum: Picked a site that was within walking distance to the sacred places. Incredible energy and fast pace with the land chosen and purchased after two weeks. It took ten years to build and opened last November 2011. Accommodating 6000 people a day the complex connects to the town on one end bridging across to the museum and library/auditorium on the other. The structure has a stainless steel roof with concrete walls sheathed with sandstone and gardens terrace down towards water. From the north as you approach the building appears fortress like, rising out of the sand dunes with no windows.

Historic holocaust museum: New museum is three times the size of original. It was an international competition in three phases. Safdie did not want a big building on the mountain, but a building that’s underground which penetrates the mountain from the south and emerges from the north. As a result the concrete galleries are totally underground, descending deeply into the earth and slowly emerge back to life.

Monash School of Music: The site is like a gateway where major pedestrian walkways are being planned – a welcome to the campus building. After designing a number of performing arts buildings, Safdie says he realised the process is very much like designing musical instruments. A concert hall has to sound great, has the right sight lines  acoustics, is versatile and able to accommodate various musical performance from classical to rock bands etc. It is also a social building of the highest order that has the potential to be an extrovert building to bring life to the campus. Therefore at Monash the Concert hall is positioned south to become a welcoming element, the amphitheatre to west, and the entrance from east. It is a a courtyard building essentially – which is the heart of the building. The concert hall itself has no seats under the balcony  but instead surrounds the orchestra allowing people to choose any position around the performers. There is an abundance of daylight which can be controlled if darkness is needed.

The last two projects talked about is back in the US:

Crystal bridges: museum built in the centre of a valley. Essentially a series of pavilions clustered around pond – it’s also flood proof. It is built entirely out of local pine, concrete and glass.

US institute of peace: Facing Lincoln memorial in DC. The question for this project was: How does a building become a symbol of peace? There is no simple answer. However Safdie though it should be a building that glows, which has a sense of wholesomeness, whiteness, purity and simplicity of the memorials surrounding it like the Jefferson memorial. The resulting series of interpenetrating domes allow light into and out of the building. The plan is organized around 2 atria – one public and one private work space for research. These two wings are symmetrically flanked by structure made of light steel and glass to produce a very pure geometry of spheres and mathematical geometry.


People often ask Safdie what inspires him. Safdie responds by saying that studying nature and how natures designs really inspires him the most. He sees that there is a connection between fitness and beauty. Beauty has something to do with our recognition of fitness. An ethic of architecture seeks fitness, and then it will find beauty. A poem he wrote in 1982 responding to Philip Johnson at the time, still relevant today summed up his presentation:

“Beauty” a poem written by Moshe Safdie in concluding his book Form and Purpose:

He who seeks Truth
Shall find Beauty

He who seeks Beauty
Shall find Vanity

He who seeks Order
Shall find Gratification

He who seeks Gratification
Shall be Disappointed

He who considers himself as the servant of his fellow being
Shall find the joy of Self-Expression

He who seeks Self-Expression
Shall fall into the pit of Arrogance

Arrogance is incompatible with nature
Through the nature of the universe
and the nature of man
we shall seek Truth

If we seek truth we shall find Beauty

And that’s the end of the one hour talk. I really do love and agree with everything he says however they do not always appear convincingly in the built forms. It’s like I’m nodding my head as he says something and as soon as the slide appears with the big housing structures I’m like hmmmmm. The issue of building big megastructures is still not can we densify ‘appropriately’? Sure with ventilation, light, gardens and all, but once you are elevated you are removed from the ground plane, from the streets, from where all the activities and public life are. And the scale just doesn’t look like it fits with the surrounding context – most are conceived as iconic grand buildings. However the strong message of fitness and beauty sounds like a convincing way forward.


5 responses to “Moshe Safdie: Megascale, Order & Complexity

  1. phoebe! It’s mostly a written account of a lecture given by a well known architect haha i.e not much of my own thoughts just writing what he delivered in his talk but it is still pretty interesting!

  2. Thanks for the lecture review. I was there myself, and came away with precisely the same impression as you: that Safdie’s philosophy of architecture is spot on, but that it doesn’t translate well into many of his projects. I have to confess that I haven’t experienced any of his buildings, so perhaps I should reserve judgement. At any rate, looking forward to the Monash music centre being built so I can see for myself.

    If you’re interested, I wrote an article about the whole Melbourne Architecture Annual experience for our blog, here.

    A question if I may, for another article I’m writing about the physicality of material. At some point in his oration, Safdie refers to the pysicality of material in a very simple way. It’s like a three or four word sentence. Did you come across it in your transcription?


    • Hi Warwick,thanks for stopping by demusitecture!I have been enjoying reading panfilocastaldi for a whole now, very informative and relevant. As for the quote I can’t quite remember now but most of what he said I wrote down, hopefully it comes to you eventually!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s