Humanizing Architecture
Photography: Peter Ash Lee / Art + Commerce Moshe Safdie, FAIA

On May 14, at the 2015 AIA National Convention in Atlanta, the Institute conferred its Gold Medal on Moshe Safdie, FAIA, whose comprehensive and compassionate approach to designing public and cultural spaces across the world has touched millions of people and influenced generations of younger architects. In his acceptance speech, reproduced below, the Israeli-born Safdie outlines how personal experience and a deep and abiding design ethic drive his approach to site, context, and the idea that the experience of architecture has to be a human one.

I am deeply honored to receive this award, particularly as it is bestowed by my peers. I do so with humility, combined with a sense of confidence, that it represents recognition of the ideals and principles that have guided my work as an architect for the past 50 years.

As for humility, I always tell my students that if every time they take a pencil in hand to design, if they can identify completely with those who will live, work, and be in their building, it is half the way to victory.

I was born into a state in the making. It was an idealistic moment in my people’s history. It was not driven by fanaticism of religion, but by the ideology of the enlightenment. I grew up in the time of the kibbutz, the cooperatives, a society that believed in equity.

This experience had profound impact, forming my being as an architect in relationship to society. I do not say this as an abstraction, but rather from the perspective of where I— may I say “we”?—stood in relationship to those whom we served.

Ideals translate into an ethic, an ethic that must guide us as a profession. It is for each of us to personally figure out, but what more fitting moment today for me to declare my own?

I reflect on the words of my mentor, Louis Kahn: “Let a building be what it wants to be.” What is a building’s inherent and deep purpose? To me, it is discovering the life intended in a building, be it a school, hospital, performing arts center, airport, or mosque.

If you design a school, one question matters: Is it conducive to learning? This exploration for fitness to purpose must be at the center of architectural invention.

As a profession designing the physical environment, we draw heavily on society’s resources. Our art is a material one. How we use materials—the building systems we evolve, the energy our buildings consume—is fundamental to a responsible building.

This is about designing buildings that are inherently buildable, which are conceived—to use Frank Lloyd Wright’s words—“in the nature of materials.” This is what differentiates us from the other arts, from sculpture, from music. Through generations, it has been a powerful component of architectural expression.

We were all here born into a globalizing world. My commissions have drawn me to every continent and many countries and cultures. I have had the good fortune to design places for the Inuits in the Arctic, the peasants of West Africa, places for Sikhs and Muslims, national institutions for Canada, U.S., Israel, and China.

I became an attentive student of culture. I discovered the satisfaction of creating buildings which truly belong, which feel as if they have always been there, yet responding and resonating to the needs of today.

I learned that architecture cannot be independent of place, and the notion that there are universal solutions that fit all must disappear as colonialism did. All-glass skyscrapers in the desert were not meant to be, any more than igloos in the tropics.

I’ve always believed that we must draw on our heritage, the lessons learned from those who built before us. In the words of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Without contradicting the scriptures, it is also true that there is always the challenge of the moment: a planet in which, now, the great majority live in cities.

In the countryside and towns, we had guaranteed open space, air, light, and contact with nature. Now, living in cities, whose size escapes our imagination—10, 20, 30 million and growing, and at densities that were not intended for a species which evolved roaming the savannahs.

The reality is of a world in which the dominant building type is the high-rise building. With it, life’s sustaining elements are threatened: light, air, a sense of identity, contact with nature, privacy, as well as community. Neither the privacy of a house, nor the community of a village, are possible now without major new inventions which transcend individual buildings. They demand a new urban vision.

I have always felt that this should be the American Institute of Architects and Urbanists. In every age, and in every school of architectural thought, architectural concepts were derived from concepts of the city as a whole.

Architects always recognized that it is the aggregation of buildings that form places; and places form districts; and districts form cities. It is the urban environment that we experience in our daily lives that really matters. At a time where our cities are both thriving and ailing, proliferating to accommodate the majority of humankind, yet increasingly depriving us of the fundamental qualities of life, not only light, air, and nature, but the deprivation of mobility—the erosion and privatization of the public realm—now is the time to declare, once again, that it is the cities we create that really matter.

And since we are in Atlanta, may I dare echo “I have a dream”? I have a dream of high high-rise cities transformed, penetrated by light and sun, with plant life and gardens on land and sky. Towers clustered into communities, served by innovative modes of transportation, mobility restored.

That the agora, souk, and city squares of bygone days are reinvented into new centers, integrating culture, commerce, and governance into places we can call an urban oasis; where privatized malls give way to vital and inclusive city centers worthy of our civilization.

Humanizing megascale is the single most urgent task that awaits us in the decades to come.

In accepting this award, I want to remind us that making architecture is a collective act. Like grand opera, it takes a composer, libretto writer, conductor, chorus master, soloists, and many others to achieve. I thank the devoted members of my firm, many there for decades. I thank the brilliant engineers and other specialists I have had the good fortune to collaborate with, and, last but not least, the committed clients who have made all this possible.

Thirty years ago, concluding my book Form and Purpose, I summed up my thoughts in a poem. What I wrote then seems relevant today:

He who seeks truth shall find beauty.
He who seeks beauty shall find vanity.
He who seeks order shall find gratification.
He who seeks gratification shall be disappointed.
He who considers himself the servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self-expression.
He who seeks self-expression shall fall into the pit of arrogance.
Arrogance is incompatible with nature.
Through nature, the nature of the universe and the nature of man, we shall seek truth
If we seek truth, we shall find beauty.

—Moshe Safdie, Atlanta, Georgia