The Israeli-Canadian architect of the groundbreaking Habitat 67 project in Montreal talks about social responsibility, designing for context and his approach to housing
In developed and developing countries alike, the problem of urban housing seems to be here to stay. Today, the FT revealed London mayor Boris Johnson’s proposals to provide a further 42,000 homes a year to accommodate population growth in the British capital. Meanwhile, in the lead up to the World Cup in Brazil, a group of homeless workers occupied the area around São Paulo’s $350m Itaquerão stadium, protesting against a 20-35 per cent rise in their rents since it was built.
As the number of people living in cities continues to grow, architects, planners and governments are grappling with how to increase density while keeping down costs and retaining public spaces.
This is a conundrum that Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie tackled at the age of 29, with Habitat 67, a pioneering design for a prefabricated, high-density urban housing development that integrated gardens, fresh air, privacy and generously proportioned apartments. The project was built for Expo 67 in Montreal and attracted worldwide attention. He has since built around the world and written widely about architecture and urban planning.
Safdie’s buildings are known for their dramatic curves, geometric patterns, a balance of indoor and outdoor spaces and an influx of light. His work is underpinned by a desire for a building’s aesthetics to reflect its context and function and an interest in inclusivity and community – interests he attributes to his time living on a kibbutz as a child.
He spoke to Icon about his career and the contemporary approach to housing.
Habitat 67 was the project that kickstarted your career. Why do you think it was so successful?
The public suddenly realised there were alternatives to the traditional apartment block and this excited them no end. The idea that you could have urban living with quality of life – with a garden, openness, air, outdoor spaces near your dwelling, a sense of community – for people, this was magical.
Why do you think it didn’t go on to be replicated elsewhere?
It was a matter of affordability. I got a moving letter today from a 24-year-old woman with a child. She is in love with an apartment in my Sky Habitat building in Singapore, but can’t afford it, so asked me to help her get a loan.
When you take land and construction prices and the costs developers add on, it’s a struggle between affordability and the ideal. Moreover, the development was so desirable when it was built that it immediately became gentrified.
My first attempts at projects based on Habitat – in Puerto Rico and Washington – didn’t work because of various factors – technology, scale, numbers. In New York, where it could have worked because there's an affluent market, there was too much resistance – because of unions, building codes and the fact that the technology was too ahead of its time.
But 40 years later, I’m doing several projects in Asia that include a good part of the ingredients of Habitat. My project in Qinhuangdao has a lot of terracing and generous public outdoor spaces at various levels. It is also permeable – it has large openings in the mass that allow the city to see through to the sea and vice versa.
Bishan in Singapore is a 30-storey building with three levels of community space, swimming pools and gardens. About a third of the units have outdoor terraces and the rest have generous balconies. Both are middle-income housing.
These aspects differentiate them from almost any other project in Singapore and in China, where even my most eminent colleagues tend not to think in terms of amenities and community spaces.
How do you think your approach to design has changed over your career?
The first years of my career were completely focused on housing. After that, I found myself deeply engaged in the historic city of Jerusalem – and the question of the compatibility of contemporary development with the traditional fabric of an area.
That informed my later work in Canada, particularly the Quebec Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery in Ottawa, where I was again working in historic contexts.
Later on, all my projects – for example, the Khalsa Heritage Centre in India – felt like they were relating to heritage and out of this came my obsession with always exploring the site, culture and programme of a project, even if it isn’t a historic area.
This resulted in work that was adaptable to place and didn't lend itself to the kind of signature style that's easy to identify regardless of where it is, which some people have come to expect from leading architects.
What do you think is wrong with current approaches to urban housing?
The problem is much wider than housing. What is absent today is a conceptual framework of how to deploy high-rise buildings – residential, offices – as urban building blocks to create a public realm. Whether that's purely housing or mixed-use, the problem prevails. The formula in China, for example, is half a dozen towers – some residential, some office – sitting over a podium that is a six-or-seven storey mall.
There are profound advantages to mixed use. Housing requires light, air and a view and offices require light, of course, but not the same kind of amenities as housing. When you mix them in a single project – like I did in Chongqing – you are able to position things in the most advantageous and complementary way.
A difficult thing now is to understand limits on daylight. In Qinhuangdao, there's a regulation that requires every apartment to get three hours of sunlight a day – measured during the winter solstice. This has had a profound impact on design: you can't do single-loaded apartments, you can't put flats on the north side of a structure and sun and light are the governing factors in manipulating the form.
That's the kind of problem we should be facing and, by and large, it's ignored. People are either indifferent or sloppy about light and views – the things that make a dense city tolerable.
For me, it's about humanising mega-scale housing and finding how to create a truly public realm – not intricate malls that turn their back on everything around them.
Do you think architects have a responsibility to society?
Well, what we do has an enormous impact on people's lives. It's not about style or expressiveness – it's about measurable quality of life, and that's a major responsibility. Unfortunately, our influence over decisions is limited.
Decisions are made by the laws, clients, economics and the marketplace, but we have a responsibility to exert our influence over decisions as far as possible to angle them towards the objectives I've been speaking about. It's important that, as a profession, we stop being yes men and, instead, be a critical voice. That puts us in confrontational situations, but we have to accept that as part of the game.
Which of your projects are you most proud of?
I can't pick one because they deal with such different issues. I'm proud of Habitat, the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem and the National Gallery of Canada, my first truly public ceremonial building.
And I'm proud of Marina Bay Sands, because I never dreamt it would become such a meaningful symbol to every citizen of Singapore. And I believe that this was not because of its form, but because it stands for something deeper than simply being a spectacle.