America’s Busiest Foreign-Born Architect

Timothy Hursley

Moshe Safdie has created visionary buildings all over the world.

His visionary buildings are scattered from Savannah to Shanghai. And with five significant structures recently completed—and nine others on deck—could Boston-based Moshe Safdie, a 73-year-old Israeli who was schooled in Canada, be the busiest architect in America? Last year alone saw the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri; and the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“Each of these projects has a lot of seriousness,” Safdie says, “and yet they’re all so different in their aspirations and purpose.” Among his coming attractions are the Free Library of Philadelphia, Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center and the National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel in Jerusalem.

Safdie has maintained a globe-trotting workload since masterminding the beehive-like Habitat ’67, the first-ever major prefab residential project, at Montreal’s Expo ’67. “One mission of architecture is to increase the integration and interaction within cities,” he says, especially the relationship between symbol, memory, identity and landscape. “How do you make a building resonate with the life that’s going to be in it?” he says. Crystal Bridges, for instance, is comprised of a series of pavilions that meander around and above reflecting ponds in a forested ravine—a design that echoes the topography.

Of all Safdie’s works, the most resonant may be the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, a spike of concrete that slashes into the hillside of the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. His plan draws visitors into underground galleries before taking them up toward a zinc and glass conical hall filled with victims’ names, photos and testimonies, which then bursts hopefully into the open air with a stunning view of the surrounding hills.

For all his optimism, Safdie says he’s distressed by the corrupting influence branding has on his profession. “It’s a frightening force that implies a formula and is driven by consumption,” he says. “Everywhere you see the same shops, the same brands, the same lighting, the same architectural features.”

The challenge, he says, is to design authentic contemporary buildings that feel like they belong to a historic place without aping the architecture of the past. “I love to show that I can accomplish that.” msafdie.com.