Q&A with Architect Moshe Safdie

At Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the shimmering play of water and light is a constant companion to the vast collection of American masterworks. Last month, I was lucky enough to tour the museum with Moshe Safdie, one of the world's most renowned architects and the man who created this magical integration of nature and art. As he strolled through the galleries, he spoke softly and eloquently about the project, and I hung on every word.

Describe your first impulse to become an architect.

It was when I was growing up in Israel. I was always interested in agriculture, and I'd started thinking about creating a kibbutz with my youth movement. Then I moved with my parents to Canada, and farming was not at the top of the agenda. I've always been obsessed with design as well, and not just buildings--I used to doodle cars. It's the feeling that one could intervene with the environment. As soon as I started studying architecture and creating little houses, I was hooked; it became a calling.

What aspects of building excite you and inspire your next project?

There are so many facets to what makes a good design. I love doing a type of building that I've never done--an airport, hospital, library, or museum. It allows the typology to evolve from the first principles of interpreting the program of building types. Questions like, What makes a great municipal library? What makes a hospital conducive to patients and healing? Invention comes from considering that initial program, and appreciating the uniqueness of the site, and creating a design that resonates with the heritage, culture, typography, and climate of a place. Also, I'm completely intrigued with the expressive powers of the building systems, and working at the cutting edge of structural and material possibilities.

Which architects inspire you?

From the past, Frank Lloyd Wright is a great inspiration. I also admire Swiss architect Le Corbusier because I always react to his work, and sometimes feel the opposite impulse. In the present, I feel a collegiality with Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, and Richard Rogers because we work with similar themes.

Where do you find inspiration, and how do you begin the design process?

Broad inspiration comes from the designs of nature, plant life, and the evolutionary work of D'Arcy Thompson; the entire field of the revolution of natural forms and morphology.

When it came to Crystal Bridges, how did you settle on the defining detail of integrating art and nature?

When we decided to build the museum in the bottom of the valley, in a streambed, and employ water as part of the experience, that led to the potential of a building that integrates with nature, the pond, and the notion of water flowing through it. I started to think about which museums try to accomplish that. As far as art and nature, I knew about the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen. It's located directly on the shore of the Oresund Sound in Humlebaek. I went with Alice [Walton] to visit, and it reaffirmed the potentail of integrating art and nature.

When you return to Bentonville, as you did last month, and stroll through the finished building, how do you feel?

I feel terrific. Uplifted. It's a great satisfaction to see it so vitally alive.

Where do you spend most of your time, and what does a typical day entail?

Half of my time is spent traveling now, mostly to Asia. So I'm on airplanes standing, reading, sketching, and sleeping. The trips to project sites are very intensive, with meetings, site visits, looking at mockups, and so forth. Then I return to my home in Boston and hope to have two weeks of uninterrupted design work in the studio.

How do you unwind?

Two to three times of year, I go to Mexico with my family and spend time with my grandchildren.

You're an avid sketcher, and you've said that young architects should pick up pencils more often. Why is that important?

I think computers are effective tools, but they are stiff and rigid and don't allow the fluid thinking that needs to occur at the beginning of a project. Pencils, pens, and charcoal are more conducive to fluidity of thought. Many young architects have been schooled on computers and become dependent on them, and they miss that facility. The reverse of it is that I wish I had their know-how with a computer, but I'm another generation, so I don't. The possible results come from the ability to utilize both.

You've been adept at realizing the aspirations of an incredibly diverse group of clients around the globe. Is there a common thread that helps you translate such varied viewpoints and desires into built form?

My cultural and intellectual agility. My clients couldn't be more different in mind-sets, aspirations, and backgrounds. We find a common ground because I am a listener, and I am interested in understanding places and culutre and enjoy the diversity of what humanity is all about.

How have your aesthetic and perspective changed from your earliest work in the 1960s to your most recent projects?

What's changed a lot is the problems I address, and with it the architectural issues of response. In the sixties I did a lot of work with modular housing and habitat projects. Then for many years it was mostly cultural institutions that were site-specific and program-specific. Now, we are back focused on the issues of the public realm. We've come full circle and we're back to working with the architectural issues of affordable housing and density that we addressed 40 years ago. As with my latest projects in China and Singapore, much of the language and issues has to do with problems you are trying to address.

Do you have a daily ritual that prepares you for digging into the creative process and wrapping your head around a project?

I used to run--that was great thinking time. These days I swim daily, and I only stay in hotels with pools. Although swimming is less effective--if I think to hard I hit the end of the pool. One of the benefits of working for fifty years is that I can now design in my head, and think through issues before they're on paper. I have a new understanding of how Beethoven was able to compose deaf, because the music was in his head.

What will be the most important factors in influencing the future of architecture?

We're beginning to have breakthrough in deploying smarter, more flexible materials and building much more responsibly to nature than what we do today.

Have you ever been to Austin?

Yes, once. I have a vivid memory that it was one of the hottest days I've ever experienced. The two hottest cities I've ever been in are Dubai and Austin.


Photo by Paula Disbrowe

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