Moshe Safdie: The Landscape of Modernism

The Israeli-Canadian architect, urban designer, educator, theorist, and author gives a taste of his upcoming talk at Modernism Week.

Kay Kudukis Current Digital, Modernism

Moshe Safdie has built habitats in a variety of places. He is also known for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

At 26, Moshe Safdie achieved fame for his multifamily development Habitat 67, the main housing for Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. He day-tripped with Richard Neutra, and apprenticed for two years with Louis I. Kahn, who is counted among the 20th century’s most important architects.

Now 80, Safdie has built habitats in a variety of places. He has also designed and built: Yad Vashem, the Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem (which is built in a cave); the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Kansas; and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Although each project is magnificent to look at, one would be hard pressed to say “that’s a Safdie” because they are decidedly different from each other.

Safdie will speak during Modernism Week at 1 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Annenberg Theater. He spoke with Palm Springs Life about his philosophy of design and his individual style as well as his thoughts on the category of architecture known as modernism.

Moshe Safdie
on modernism:

“It’s a complex term because it embodies some ideology in many people’s mind stylistic. I grew up in Israel, a country that bears the biggest inventory of modernist buildings of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, like the White Architecture and the Bauhaus, so I grew up with the stuff and somewhat took it for granted until I started studying architecture and realized the whole radical ideology and body of work that evolved from those decades, which I landed into in the ’60s.



Modernism did not include Frank Lloyd Wright for some reason, but you think of Falling Water, I mean it’s as modernist a building as you could imagine.

“A series of architects — Norman Foster, Renzo Piano come to mind — embraced the ideology and took it further. Richard Rogers also embraced the ideology of modernism.  And then there are those who embraced the idea of post-modernism or even later on what I call “Permissivism” — meaning you’re an artist, you do what you want. You’re free to express. They all took it different places, I think, but also all were impressed by the same ideology. I don’t think stylistically, in terms of modernism in the Neutra sense, or in the Bauhaus sense or the Mies Van der Rohe sense we continue in that architecture, but ideologically we do it. Therefore we all consider ourselves modernists in that sense. It’s in part ideology, in terms of the values that generate architecture, the values that an architect must subscribe to, but the actual design solutions are evolving. My work is much more regional and contextual than a modernist in the ’30s, ’40s or ’50s. They’re reinvisioned.” 


Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada, which put Moshe Sadie on the map and helped launch his career.

… on classifications:

“I think there’s a problem with ‘isms’ in architecture because it immediately forces people to classify things. And the classification tends to be stylistic. So when people say modernism, they think glass and beams, canopies or the White Architecture with lots of curves and straight windows.

“I think that the isms miss the richness and subtlety that is possible for architecture. I think we need to strive for clearer classifications because there are differences between approaches that architects have, and there are also stylistic differences. But there are deeper elements in terms of the how of the design and the why of the design and rarely do we discuss that. I think it’s the influence of the fashion industry and the whole notion of branding in our culture, the impact of branding and styling I feel is detrimental to thinking in architecture.”

… on his favorite architect:

There’s lots of them; it’s like music — I love Bach, but then what about Beethoven or Mahler. I think the same is with buildings. I walk into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and you can’t deny it’s magnificent.

…on his own style:

“I hate buildings that you get lost in, that you don’t know where you are. A good design always self-orients you. I hate buildings that overbear with their mass, so I try to open them up. How to open up the buildings? Fractalizing [Safdie’s own term]. Picking them up gives you lots of surfaces for gardens, bay windows, terraces, and playgrounds. Basically it’s integrating nature with architecture, and to do that, you need a lot of horizontal surfaces no matter how high you’re building.”



… on what he thinks about his buildings today:

“I love most of the things I design. When it comes to drawings and details of my buildings I have a total photographic memory. It’s disturbing.” 

Moshe Safdie, speaks during modernism Week at 1 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45, $60. To purchase tickets or for additional information, visit