The Current

Architects can build a better future, but need help to make big ideas happen: Moshe Safdie

Award-winning Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie says his profession needs to think big to come up with ideas to solve problems like climate change.

Ideas like giving up personal car ownership would improve our cities, says architect

Architect Moshe Safdie reflects on his long career and what comes next in his new memoir If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

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Award-winning Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie says architects have a role to play in solving the world's problems — but only by engaging with the policy makers and other professions who can make their ideas a reality.

"You've got to try and do it by going beyond just providing a service, but by becoming a force of influence in the culture," he said.

"That is the higher calling of architecture, just like any profession has a higher calling."

In a career spanning more than half a century, Safdie has designed several Canadian and international landmarks, including Habitat '67 in Montreal, the Vancouver Public Library, and the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. His new memoir If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture looks back on what he's learned. 

Habitat 67, a world-renowned residential housing complex designed by Safdie in Montreal, one of the features of Expo 67 that still stands to this day. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Safdie spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about the book, and the role of architecture in the fight to limit climate change. Here is part of their conversation.

What do you see as your role? 

I have to remind myself that I'm only an architect, because in our role as architects, we think we can change things dramatically. We can reshape cities, we can bring about new transportation modes. Of course, we can't do any of those things on our own, but we can point the way. 

As an architect, my role is to conceive of the best possible environmental solutions to the problems at hand. And the problems at hand today are how to deal with megacities and high density all over the world  … and we need to come up with humane and uplifting design solutions.

It means conceiving them. It means partaking in the education process to convince people outside architecture why they're needed, and to try and even influence the body politic to move towards their realization. 

So it's more than just providing a service. I mean, an architect who's just, you know, doing his thing simply can say, "I provide a service, the client comes to me and asks me to design a house or it could be a school or could be an office building and I provide a service and do my best." That doesn't change things.

But if you want to change things for the better — and you look at our cities today and I feel we have to change them for the better because they're not getting any better just by letting the marketplace act unimpeded. Then you've got to try and do it by going beyond just providing a service, but by becoming a force of influence in the culture. And that is the higher calling of architecture, just like any profession has a higher calling. 

In a 1997 book, Safdie suggested city dwellers give up personal car ownership, and switch to an on demand rental model. Companies like Zipcar and Evo have offered such a service in the decades since. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Is that about suggesting ideas that, politicians, administrators, what have you, may not be willing to suggest? One of the things that you raise in the book is the idea of a city without private cars, and some sort of car-dispensing service. You compare it to almost like a Coke machine where the bottle comes out, the car comes out of the ground for those who need a hired car. Are those the types of things that an architect can suggest, just to get the conversation going? 

Absolutely. I wrote the book, The City After the Automobile [in 1997] … it's a somewhat misleading title because I wasn't suggesting we give up the mobility that cars provide us. But I was saying if we didn't own cars personally and we had them on demand as we needed them, just like the bicycles, then the city would transform. There'd be half as many, or third [as] many vehicles. There'd be less parking. I mean, everything would transform for the better. 

Since then we've got Zipcar and a lot of companies are now looking at cars on demand that are left there, like bicycles, and picked up at will. So I think it's even beginning already to evolve. But this is precisely the kind of ideas that architects and urbanists need to come up with, which provide a framework for the possibility of industry — and the private sector working with the public sector — to start bringing it towards realization. 

What about one of the big burning issues, obviously, that the world is facing and that's the issue of climate change? There are more frequent and more extreme weather events that are happening. What's the role of an architect in building spaces that work with the environment that we're living in right now? 

In that sense, I think the role of the architect is very much integrated with the role of the urban designer and the city planner, because the impact on the environment that is created by building, which is enormous, is not only by the buildings we build, but by the infrastructure that it requires.

Safdie sits in front of Habitat 67, one of the exhibits at Expo 67, in 1967. (File photo/The Canadian Press)

If, for example, we build suburbia after suburbia, the impact of it is that you have to have cars to [commute], and therefore we have all the pollution that that generates. So our responsibility is to design uplifting, wholesome buildings — tougher to do than your ordinary cookie-cutter building — which are sustainable and energy-efficient and minimize the carbon footprint. 

But at the same time to choose urban forms and typologies, which also imply or require an infrastructure, which is in itself efficient. Hence the idea of automobile-by-demand is more efficient than owning cars by the millions. And that electric- vehicles-on-demand is more efficient than fossil fuel, and so on. We must always look at the urban implication of the architecture as well as the architecture itself. 

Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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