• The fellowship program that Moshe Safdie instituted at his firm in 2003 is so important to him that he runs it without regard for the bottom line—even in a recession. “We’ve shrunk the office,” he says, “but not the fellowship.”

    Credit: Tracy Powell

    The fellowship program that Moshe Safdie instituted at his firm in 2003 is so important to him that he runs it without regard for the bottom line—even in a recession. “We’ve shrunk the office,” he says, “but not the fellowship.”
It’s not uncommon for firm leaders to maintain a presence in academia, but time in the classroom is time away from the business. What about bringing the teaching experience in-house? This is the solution that Moshe Safdie—who directed the Urban Design Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1978 until the early 1990s—devised. Since 2003, the Somerville, Mass., office of Moshe Safdie and Associates has selected two individuals to participate in a yearlong, sponsored research fellowship. Topics of study have included tall buildings and the urban impact of mobility-on-demand.

What was the impetus for starting the fellowship?

I missed teaching.

Why had you stopped teaching?

The practice was suffering. I had an endowed chair, and I felt guilty about occupying it.

So why not go back to teaching?

I thought, rather than doing a studio now and then, why not do something like it in the context of the office? It would give me more time to spend with the fellows and have some application to the office as well.

How did you structure it?

(1) It should be a couple of people, so there can be dialogue. (2) The fellows should not be straight out of school. (3) They should have a passion for the subject—so we had to say what we’re doing, specifically, each year. (4) It would involve all our consultants.

How do you find the fellows?

We advertise. We try to get the word out. We send a poster to the schools, but that’s limiting because we’re not interested in recent graduates. We want people who are out of school, but sometimes there are people doing graduate work that relates to what we’re proposing.

How do you choose the participants?

They submit portfolios. We shortlist them, and then we fly people in for interviews—one of our budget items. Two are chosen each year. We’ve learned that the chemistry between the fellows is critical, so we put them in the middle of the office.

What’s the day-to-day experience?

[Principal] Chris Mulvey coordinates it. I interact with them at least weekly. It’s a lot like a school studio format, except we’re not student and critic, we’re collaborating. We all throw in ideas; we all have our say. It’s a team, and I’m an active member of the team. It’s more like a postdoctoral research lab.

How has it evolved?

We’re making a bigger effort to engage the rest of the office. We’re working harder at the interaction. Once a month, we schedule a presentation. One fellow had been working with Bill Mitchell, [professor of architecture and media arts and sciences] at MIT. Bill started being one of our visiting critics, and he’s since become an active collaborator. It wasn’t planned, but it’s evolved into an ongoing relationship with the MIT Media Lab.

How do you budget for it?

There’s a stipend: $55,000 to $60,000. It’s livable.

How does it relate to the firm’s work?

There’s a tendency for research to become highly theoretical. We are architects and urban designers. We’re not statisticians or transportation consultants. I insist on bringing it back to the urban design and architecture. It’s so easy to drift into theory.

Do you re-evaluate it each year?

Yes. We discuss the subject matter for that year.

What’s next?

We want to publish a book on our fellows’ work.