Beyond the Physical to the Fundamentals

Sep 14, 2010
*Special to asia!

Prominent Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie discusses capturing the essence of a city, building what is sacred, keeping our history and creating humane living spaces in Asia's burgeoning metropolises.

One of the pressures facing Asian cities is meeting the demand for housing as more people move to the urban centres. Safdie described how to make it work


MS: Making it work is one thing, making it humane is another.

I think that one of the biggest challenges of our time is the very heavy density that you get in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing. Even now in the second-tier cities in China, you are getting concentrations of people, millions of people in second-tier cities, and the pressure for density is extraordinary.


Golden Dream Bay, China

Golden Dream Bay, China

Photo credit: John Horner


With it is a risk of dehumanisation and I think the greatest challenge is how to humanise that mega-scale.

We have in our office a separate division. We take some young architects in who work experimentally on the issues of today, dealing with different models, how to humanise the mega-scale, how to humanise the housing in high densities, how to create typologies that have more open space, garden space, more transparency, more openness, what are the designs tools that one can use to do this.

It is extremely difficult because the tendency is to concentrate. It is more economical to build more massive compact buildings.

Regulations vary a great deal. For example in China, you have a regulation that when you build high-density housing, each apartment should be getting three hours of sunlight a day. That is a very interesting regulation because of the impact it has on design.

Other places where you don't have such regulations, and you get a lot of buildings shadowing other buildings where they never get sunlight.

It is much more difficult to create a liveable environment when it is high density than when it is medium or low density.



Ardmore Habitat

Habitat '67, Montreal, Canada

Photo credit: Timothy Hursley


Preserving Cultural Heritage

Another problem facing many Asian cities is also preserving the cultural heritage in the midst of breakneck development.

MS: In the West there was a long period, I would say from the Second World War right through to the ’60s, when heritage buildings were being demolished right and left, and there was no respect for the tradition of the older architecture.

Even great buildings like the Penn Central Station got demolished in New York.

In the 1970s, there was a great movement about the significance of heritage and I think today, in Europe and America, heritage buildings get saved.

In Asia there was a great tendency to eradicate the historical architecture. Singapore in the early years demolished massively. Chinatown has been preserved, a few areas have been preserved, but part of it was to sort of kick off the colonial past.

In China, it was even more extreme. I was in Beijing in 1973, and it was a massive urbanisation of traditional courtyard houses with wonderful qualities and tree-

lined streets. I came back 30 years later, most of it had been torn down, and what came in its place had no relationship to the past.

I think Asia still has that tendency to wipe out the past and say that the future is beautiful. But the future is not so beautiful when you wipe out the past. In fact, the future benefits from being related to the past.

So I think in Asia, we need to still develop, and it doesn't work by building a high-rise building and putting a pagoda at the top.

That is not relating to the past, that is just having a Disney-like relationship to the past.

(Relating to the past is) to go more to the essence, not to the superficial. It's all about understanding that these things worked in the past so they will probably work again.


Moshe Safdie

Moshe Safdie

Photo credit: Stephen Kelly


As a master of his craft, Safdie stressed to the essence of what architecture is, both a science and an art.

“When architecture pretends to be an art and forgets that it is a building art which serves society and has to work and has to be responsible, has to be sustainable,” he added. “It becomes sculpture, not architecture.”



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dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi