Beyond the Physical to the Fundamentals

Sep 14, 2010
*Special to asia!
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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.


He is the man who has been entrusted with building some of the most sacred spaces in Israel's holiest city, Jerusalem. Moshe Safdie is the architect behind the restoration of the historical district of Mamilla that sits right outside the entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, and more significantly Yad Vashem.


Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem, Israel

Photo credit: Timothy Hursley


Yad Vashem is not just another Holocaust museum; it is the Holocaust Museum in Israel, and 3 million people a year visit to learn more about the genocide that led eventually to the creation of the state.

One of these visitors was the Chief Minister of India's state of Punjab. Moved by the design of Yad Vashem, he contacted Safdie through the Israeli foreign minstry.

That was how Moshe Safdie came to design the Khalsa Heritage Centre, the Sikhs' museum in their holy town of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, India.


Khalsa Heritage Centre

Khalsa Heritage Centre

Photo credit: Ram Rahman

In an interview in Jerusalem, Safdie (MS) told me about designing the centre and his philosophy of capturing the essence of a place.

MS: When I did the building of the Sikhs which is about to open in Punjab, in India, I am looking for what constitutes the tradition of buildings in India – what is the Sikh tradition, and how to make the building feel like it is a Sikh cultural facility.

I think the Sikh Museum is a very contemporary building, but at the same time, it reminds people of the fortress tradition, the fact that Guru Gobind had built his fortress in that place; and it's built in a setting of sandstone cliffs and is clad with sandstone to relate to the landscape.

I made the roofs out of silver metal because there is a tradition of building gold domes and silver domes. I chose silver because I wanted to make the point that this was a secular building.


Khalsa Heritage Centre

Khalsa Heritage Centre

Photo credit: Ram Rahman

Architects of today, particularly the leading architects, they find themselves – because of globalisation – building in different places.

Modern architecture has generally ignored the uniqueness of the locality. When they say international style, it means the same style can go anywhere. And many architects, they bring their style with them.

I don't feel that you can do this successfully because I feel that it is very important to have buildings which belong to their settings. Also culturally, it is important that the people in a place feel that a building is part of their culture.

So what I do in India, what I do in Singapore, and what I do in Jerusalem comes out very, very different.

Safdie is also the architect behind Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort, which was completely different in terms of purpose and setting.


Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Photo credit: Timothy Hursley


MS: In Singapore, I am thinking of how to make Marina Bay be the new spirit of Singapore, a high-tech advanced society that wants to be very modern.

It is tropical and there is a certain tradition of tropical architecture, even the tradition of the colonial architecture, so how do I bring all this together in the architecture?

The government – in the documents for Marina Bay – spoke about wanting a contemporary urban development. To my mind, the challenge was to create a public place like the public domain, the public realm of the place that really works for the tropics.

I think many malls in Singapore are underground, without light, or multi-level, very introverted, and not part of the street life at all. I wanted to make something that was the opposite, something that was full of life, something that is indoor/outdoor, something that you can go out to the waterfront, which opens up at night, and creates a new and unique kind of urban meeting place that would really be tropical.

The Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort is the latest of Safdie's work in Singapore which began in 1978, with designing the Ardmore Habitat, and later The Edge on Cairnhill condominium.


Ardmore Habitat

Ardmore Habitat, Singapore

Photo credit: Cymie Payne

Safdie also did the master plan for the Housing Development board's public residential estate, Sengkang New Town, and advised the country's Urban Development Authority.


MS: In terms of creating public space, Singapore is probably one of the most advanced in the world, in creating urban design guidelines to enhance the public domain.

There are guidelines on the landscaping around buildings, how they open up, what happens at street level, all of which are aimed at making buildings more open, more friendly, more public, more pedestrian-oriented.

I think in that aspect, Singapore is very advanced, and continues to learn.

On the housing side, Singapore learnt as it went along. It was the first to build massively for the public. The early developments were very utilitarian with the long corridors, but they were building in an enormous market.

As the years go by, HDB becomes more adventurous, more experimental, (with) still a long way to go. Private housing now has also become important. There is now a lot of private housing being built. You are now getting some of the young architects in Singapore doing very interesting work in housing, and we are getting Singapore architects very active in China, in Vietnam.


Urbanisation Pressures in Asia

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