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Natural Habitat: Moshe Safdie's 'Global Citizen'

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This past fall, Skirball Cultural Center opened the "Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie," a sweeping exhibition that delves deep into the work and nearly fifty-year-long career of the Israeli/Canadian architect. Models, drawings, photographs, and films illustrate a body of work that spans from North America to the Middle East and Asia. The title underscores not only the geographical breadth of Safdie's work, but his commitment to making architecture as a social, cultural, and, even, political act.

The U.S. premiere of the show, "Global Citizen" was timed to coincide with the completion of the Skirball's fifteen-acre campus designed by Safdie. Conceived by Donald Albrecht, curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of the City of New York, the exhibition first opened at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, in 2010 before traveling to two other Canadian museums and arriving in Los Angeles. Located just off the 405 Freeway, on terrace carved into the hillside, the Skirball was the architect's first cultural building in the United States and the commission began a thirty-year partnership with the center. To mark the occasion, "Global Citizen" curators added an entire room dedicated to the Center's architecture.

A model depicting Safdie's design for the Skirball campus fills the gallery. As with many of his postmodern contemporaries, Safdie's forms are meant to evoke meaning and make references. Pen and ink sketches on the walls reveal the influence of Villa Adriana, the compound of ruins outside of Rome that had been the vision the emperor Hadrian, on his design. The Skirball scheme is a collage of geometries pulled from the classical into the present: halls with vaulted roofs, galleries with peaked skylights, semi-circular courtyards and a blocky belltower.

Skirball Founders Courtyard Museum Rooflines | Timothy_Hursley
Skirball Founders Courtyard Museum Rooflines | Timothy Hursley

At a gathering organized by the Israeli consulate, managing curator Erin Curtis touted the architect's "progressive contextualism" or sensitivity to the landscape in the work and she relayed his understanding that respect for nature is a key Jewish value. A Safdie quote hangs on an opposite wall and reads: "I was moved by the beauty of the site, nestled in the hills -- an oasis of nature in the heart of a metropolitan region; soft and feminine hills and valley inlets."

In a recent email exchange I asked Safdie about his relationship to the greater context: Los Angeles. "I used to favor the Bay Area decades ago, but as I spent time in L.A. over the last three decades, I learned to know its vitality," he replied. "I think of it as a city of interconnected oases with a lot of desert in-between (metaphorically). In time, perhaps, the desert could be made to bloom as well. Of course, when one makes friends in a city, one gets to know it in more depth, and this has been the case for me."

But a lot changes in thirty years: from the time Safdie embarked on the commission to now, when Caltrans makes slow progress widening the freeway roadbed, carving away at the verdant hillsides of the Sepulveda Pass in the process. L.A. is burgeoning and while the metaphorical desert may not be blooming, it is certainly teaming with life. I recall the billboard used to hang over the stretch of the 405 not far from the Skirball. It read: "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now." The phrase needled commuters stuck in traffic to reconsider their housing options. While much of Safdie's late career is dedicated to urban planning schemes in Israel or cultural institutions -- performance centers, museums, halls across the globe that use formal architectural gestures to respond to a site and a program, his early work was devoted to reconsidering housing. In Habitat '67, the first project that brought him international acclaim, you can see the attention to the quality of the social and cultural settings that defines his later work.

"Global Citizen" presents models, drawings and even a full-size bathroom unit from Habitat '67, which was commissioned by the Canadian government for the 1967 World's Exposition in Montreal. A radical proposal for affordable housing, the design stacked prefabricated concrete boxes into geometric hills dotted with gardens. A megastructure ready to take on issues of urban growth and density, the Habitat scheme included not only apartments connected together by skywalks, but also commercial and institutional facilities like a small city.

Glen Small Recovery Room Green Machine | Courtesy of Assembly
Glen Small Recovery Room Green Machine | Courtesy of Assembly
Glen Small Recovery Room Turf Town | Courtesy of Assembly
Glen Small Recovery Room Turf Town | Courtesy of Assembly

158 units were built for the '68 Expo and still stand in Montreal as a monument to a utopian vision actually realized. Safdie later produced unbuilt editions of what he called "three-dimensional communities" for New York City and Puerto Rico. His ideas resonated deep and wide at the time. In 1971, Newsweek featured the architect on the cover of the magazine with the headline "The Shape of Things to Come."

Habitat falls within a spectrum of housing experiments undertaken from the late 1950s through the 1970s, which includes projects such the Metabolist Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) by Kisho Kurokawa in Tokyo, now slated for demolition; and, completed in the same year, Alison and Peter Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens in East London. The later council housing project featured communal gardens and "streets in the sky" meant to foster community, but made out of unrelenting precast concrete, it was criticized for putting the brutal in Brutalism.

Habitat of the Future, A Frame Landscape View | Safdie Architects
Habitat of the Future, A Frame Landscape View | Safdie Architects

This body of work around housing by Safdie, the Metabolists, the Smithsons, and others grew out of restlessness with Modernist dogma and recognition of the movement's limitations in regards to social and environmental concerns. As such, these designers reflect larger postwar changes in culture at large and their architecture serves the demands of global citizenship. Recently, the exhibition "Glen Small: Recovery Room," revealed the influence of Habitat closer to home. Curated by Orhan Ayyuce and Assembly gallery, the show rescued from the archives a pop-visionary model of Green Machine, Small's late-1970s, high-tech, eco-housing in Venice, CA. Where Safdie used prefab concrete modules, Small used Airstream trailers supported by superstructure covered in plants. Like the Habitat schemes, the project addressed the need for increased density and low-cost, sustainable housing.

An ink and graphite chart by Safdie hangs in the first "Global Citizen" gallery at the Skirball. An early study for Habitat '67, it's covered with population growth data and analytics. Here, the architect makes an argument for density as a corrective to sprawl and, presciently, makes a case for parks and pedestrianism. He breaks down the requirement for any project into four categories from largest unit to smallest: the city, the living environment, the community structure, and the family. With worldwide urbanization rates soaring, his analysis is as relevant now as it was decades ago. Only the scale is larger and the ecological demands are more pressing. To wit, the final gallery of "Global Citizen" revisits Habitat through the lens of a contemporary planet. On view are Habitats for the twenty-first century that address regional adaptation, structural and economic feasibility, and climate change. The designs are uncomfortably huge schemes, supersized complexes that, perhaps, mirror the current demand for housing and the extent of our environmental footprint. The work, Safdie notes over email, was the product of research fellowship embarked upon by his office over the past few years.

"Since we did it, it has spun off a number of projects in China, Singapore and Sri Lanka, applying the ideas and concepts we developed," he explains. And what of Los Angeles, a city in need of ideas new approaches to housing? Well, that's more personal. "Of course, I would be delighted to do a Habitat for Los Angeles. And now that the Skirball is completed, I'm looking for a Los Angeles project, so I can visit my children and grandchildren frequently."

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