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Moshe Safdie: The Power of Architecture PART 2

Part 2 begins with Safdie entering his Israeli office in downtown Jerusalem. It is from there that he directs a project, still incomplete, that has occupied him for thirty years – the development of the Mamilla district in Jerusalem, once the no man’s land that, before the 1967 war, separated East from West Jerusalem. For Safdie this is more than just urban development. It is his attempt to create a crossroads, a common ground that will not only unify the city, but will bring together the peoples that live there – Arabs and Jews alike. His discussion of the project leads quite naturally to his expressed conviction – and faith - that ultimately the two peoples will learn to coexist on the territory they share. We see Safdie and his wife Michal shopping in the Arab market near their home, greeting old friends, and then we  make a brief excursion to the recently erected security wall in the vicinity of Jerusalem – on which Safdie has strong, and strongly expressed, opinions.
Now we return to the United States, on the road between Boston and Salem Massachusetts, where Safdie will be guiding us through one of his most recent creations – an expansion of the oldest functioning museum in the country, the Peabody Essex historical museum. We tour the museum with Safdie, and then pay a visit to the historical cemetery just behind it where the victims of the Salem witch trials are buried, and whose old tombstones, with their varied profiles, inspired Safdie’s design of the house-like pavilions that constitute the new wing of the museum.

We visit one of Safdie’s most important Canadian creations, the Vancouver Library, and then find ourselves back in Jerusalem, where Safdie is addressing an international architectural conference. He is speaking to them about a project still under construction, his redesigning of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, and in due course we find him leading the conference delegates on a guided tour of the museum construction site. We follow him as he negotiates the long, triangular, concrete structure that penetrates the earth, tunnelling under a hill, and re-emerges, flaring out on the opposite side. The sequence ends with a brief visit to the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial that Safdie designed years earlier.

We then move to another memorial – the tomb of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995. Safdie had been a close friend of Rabin and his wife, and designed the tomb at the request of Leah Rabin, Rabin’s widow. This takes us to Tel Aviv, and another construction site, this time of the Rabin Centre that will house a Rabin museum and library. It is perched atop an abandoned generating station, on an escarpment overlooking the city, and is designed to embody  Rabin’s legacy, that of a military man who evolved into a man of peace. We then return briefly to Rabin’s tomb, where Safdie offers his reflections on the renewed leadership required, on both Palestinian and Israeli sides, so that peace may at last return to the region.

There follow two visits: to the Harvard Business School Chapel in Cambridge Massachusetts, one of Safdie’s most charming creations, where light is filtered through prisms in the ceiling to play rainbow-like across the walls and floor, and to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, emblematic of the important role that  ritual and ceremony should play in public architecture.

Finally, in Israel, we visit a project that brings us full circle to the ideals and principles that motivated Safdie to create Habitat ’67 at the beginning of his career. It is an entire city, Modi’in, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, built from scratch over a period of 15 years, on land where nothing had existed before. Sixty thousand people now live there, and the project is far from complete. Safdie, as principal planner for the project, capitalized on the region’s terrain, made up of ridges and valleys, to create housing on the ridges separated by verdant valleys of parkland, all converging on a city centre that is only now being constructed. Here, on a scale far beyond anything that could have been imagined for Habitat, Safdie has been able achieve his objective of creating housing that is both dense and humane, and it is here that we leave him, active and robust at the age of 65… in mid career.


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