Moshe Safdie: “The Unbuilt Work is the Place You Grow the Most”
Unbuilt works of architecture might haunt an architect—that which has never been realized, the ones that got away. But some architects see their unbuilt projects present in whatever they’re working on right now, extending through time. A new book, With Intention to Build: The Unrealized Concepts, Ideas, and Dreams of Moshe Safdie (Images Publishing, 2020), explores how the unbuilt work of this AIA Gold Medalist influences and lives on in his firm’s future projects. In this interview, excerpted from the book, Safdie discusses projects that never came to fruition, how his early years with Louis Kahn and Buckminster Fuller continue to influence his work, and the lessons of unbuilt architecture.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
MS: Moshe Safdie
In his book The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of ArchitecturalMeaning, Robert Harbison compares artistic pursuits such as literature, music, painting, and architecture and concludes that the last is exceptionally vulnerable to forces outside the creative process. He notes that we can partake of “unbuilt or half-built” books, paintings, and musical works if their creators lacked the time or will to complete them. But architectural works can’t be enjoyed in the same way. What’s your view on that?
The first act in creating architecture is generally its representation. Is there value in the drawings or the models as representations of ideas? Through the history of architecture, representations have had lasting power as ideas. Piranesi, for example, didn’t represent buildable environments, but certainly his drawings have had an effect on architects for centuries.
I wouldn’t dismiss the representation of unbuilt architecture as valueless, but it’s important to differentiate it from real architecture. In our media age, that distinction is blurred. Most people’s impressions and opinions of architecture come from photographs, itself a representation. How many people form opinions of architecture from having been in it? A shockingly small number. There is a hierarchy and difference between a project that was conceived and sketched out very conceptually, and one that has had the investment of energy, engineering, and detailing that a building receives when there is an intention to construct it. In our collection of unrealized projects, at one end of the spectrum we have Centre Pompidou—ideas represented in models and drawings. They did not go through intense engineering. At the other end there is the Ballet Opera House and Columbus Center, which was in design development and detailing, working drawings, shop drawings—fully buildable. It can be enjoyed more than just conceptually, as a crafted building. It’s important to distinguish between these two types: worked out, fully engineered designs and conceptual projects.
Does architecture have a vulnerability that other arts have, such as an unfinished novel or symphony?
It depends on the art form. In music, if you have the score, you have the work. But you need the performance to enjoy it. Maybe a musician who has perfect pitch can read and hear the music, but most people need the performance. You might argue the same for architecture: if you have
the drawings, you could build the building. With a work of literature or painting, once written or painted, it’s complete. Architecture is unique in that respect. Its transformation from representation to reality requires lots of energy and resources, unlike most other art forms. I question the attitudinal difference of some architects embarking on conceptual design. Sometimes I am amazed by an architect’s representation that chooses to ignore fundamental physical forces that govern realization—the project that just “floats” out there. As an architect, you know it doesn’t address structural needs. There might be a 60-foot glass wall represented with little lines of glass division. But to build a wall of that scale you need a frame structure, which is not there. That would change the character of the architecture. When we do competitions, for better or worse—and sometimes I think it’s to our disadvantage—we don’t draw what we don’t think we can build. We are already infusing the design with engineering and detailing.
An unbuilt work of architecture is never “diluted,” never value-engineered. It preserves a certain vigor by virtue of its incompletion. Might we think about “unbuilt” as a phase in the life of all projects, completed or not? Aren’t there elements in all projects that end up “unbuilt” because of lack of resources or other contingencies?
There’s a key word in that question that’s worth challenging: “diluted.” When you conceive of a work that does not test economics, the fabrication capabilities of materials, or gravity and its structural implications, that concept is “freer.” But is it less diluted, more sublime? Or just deceptive? To me, meeting the constraints of reality enriches architecture. And if it doesn’t enrich architecture, it’s conceptually flawed.
The more architects are inclined not to deceive, they will solve the problem they intend to. For New York Habitat II, for example, we were looking at 40 to 50 floors of load-bearing structure—heavy and inefficient. Could we use a frame to insert the units into? I rejected that idea because the material technology did not encourage that direction. But a suspension structure—cables in tension—could be a lightweight way to support them. The elements could be lightweight, repetitive modules attached to cables, held by a superstructure of masts and pillars. We wanted a sense of repetitiveness and lightness in a modular system. Conceptually, it was on the road to being buildable.
How do unbuilt projects inform the way you interact with clients and move projects forward? How does unbuilt work enhance your work on future projects?
I’ve never thought about that question. Going back to my Habitat days, there was some accumulated impact of the succession of unbuilt projects: Puerto Rico, New York, Washington. My own reaction (which sometimes I regret) was to retreat, in a desperation to build. I felt this deep need to build, and out of that came projects like Cold Spring in Baltimore—basically, traditional construction. They were not as big a departure from convention as Habitat was. But there was a great sense of wanting to build something. Not having that opportunity led to depression; it was discouraging. But then you get out of it. It teaches you about how many disappointments can you sustain, and the impact of that on your work as an architect.
You’ve written, “Architecture is a tectonic, material medium; inherent buildability must be deeply embedded in the process.” Can you talk about inherent buildability in your unbuilt projects? How does it inform the design process from the first stroke?
If an architect doesn’t have a profound understanding of the capabilities and behavior of materials and structural systems, he can’t be a good architect. It doesn’t matter how great the team of engineers working with him are. Without understanding the organic nature of these things, conceptually, it can’t be informed by the engineering forces in the building, for example. An architect must have enough understanding of the nature of materials and structure to conceive the nature of the structure. Buckminster Fuller made me realize that we have a moral obligation to build with minimal resources because that is the way to maximize what humankind can produce in terms of shelter and cities. When you see a use of materials that feels right, you can achieve great architecture. When you conceive of architecture in ways that are not efficient, your concept is flawed. I think this idea of inherent buildability should drive the curriculum of architecture schools.
Inherent buildability is a presence sitting with you all the time when you are designing?
Yes, and it’s not like I’ve got it all up my sleeve. We started a project three weeks ago, and today we met with the engineers. We have a few ideas about how this 20-story building could be structured and framed. We got positive support to go in one direction over another. That’s what happens in competitions—we might have just three weeks to consider structural and environmental systems. I hate it when a client says, “Just make me a rendering.” You can’t. It’s very superficial.
Kahn worked very much in this way.
He was very much like that, and he romanticized it, which actually was quite inspiring—his conversation with a brick. You can have that kind of conversation with a brick, with wood, with every element in your building. Wright spoke about it differently, but was also very much like this. When he would find a methodology, like his concrete-block houses, it would generate his whole conceptual approach.
What did you learn in your work with Kahn that you brought to your own practice?
I learned how to be an architect from beginning to end. From the day you meet a client and see the site, to the day the building is occupied. Momentum is significant in the making of architecture. Often the relationships extend beyond the project, into subsequent projects.
What can be learned from an unrealized design? What have you learned from your unbuilt work over the course of a more-than-50-year practice?
In many competitions you don’t have a relationship with the client, and some unbuilt projects are not competitions. The value of a competition is that you focus on an idea very intensely with relatively few distractions, often with fewer inhibitions. The greatest lessons of competitions are the ideas that prevail, that find their way into other projects because of the intensity of the process. It’s like a pressure cooker, and sometimes what’s left in the pot is enlightening beyond the competition, even if the project’s not realized. You might learn how to structure a tall building, or something completely different. It depends on what the project is about and your focus. The lessons are so different depending on the project, what you take from them into your other work.
Do you prefer the competition experience over a commission, generally, with unbuilt work?
It’s very different. If a competition design isn’t built, it’s something you spent two or three months on and that’s it—you haven’t spent years and gotten attached. When a commission doesn’t go forward, a project you’ve worked hard on, it’s far more painful. The problems you’ve solved are not just conceptual. You’ve gone through public hearings, permits, code interpretations, meetings, all the things to get a design ready for construction.
With a competition, there is less commitment. It’s like you went on a date.
Right—a couple of dates, and it didn’t work out. With a commission, you get married. But in both cases, potentially there is a lot that gets translated into other work.
What do unbuilt projects teach you about seeing a project to its realization? Would you have done things differently in certain projects not built? Do you ever play the game, “if only …”?
“If only I’d done this” is a game you can play with a built project, too, maybe more so. I’m not big on that. I just go on. I’m not a tormented designer. Once I’ve built it … sometimes I’m disappointed, but not often.
How do unbuilt projects live on in future work?
Ideas tend to manifest themselves again if they are strong. They can have a continuing impact. What’s interesting about that question is the new technology we have. A few years ago, an architect took information available on the most significant of Louis Kahn’s unbuilt buildings and produced a series of photorealistic renderings. The building came into a new life. Recently we’ve taken some of our early, unbuilt projects—Pompidou Centre, the Supreme Court of Israel, SFSC Student Union—and created renderings and animations. They are still just representations, but they have a certain power and have afforded us an understanding of the spaces differently than we had, which reopens the exploration.
The great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham had a quote about unbuilt architecture: “A noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
That’s a beautiful quote. The word “diagram” is used in such a profound way. It’s poetic. It’s a revelation actually. The word, in the sense that Burnham is using it, captures the ability to summarize the essence of a design in a very compact way. Many architects have searched for the right terms to express this. Le Corbusier says the plan is the generator: in the plan you discover the essence of the design, which generates the whole building. For me, the site is the generator because the site possesses in it a diagram as well—there’s an essence to each place that I am searching for, trying to express.
When we’re lucky, and we have insight and maybe modesty, we come upon these diagrams from time to time. Sometimes we borrow those diagrams. I’ll give you an example. I was in Lou Kahn’s office when he worked on the Salk Institute. There was version one, and version two, which got built. Both had the notion that there was the study where the scientist thinks, and the lab where the scientist physically does things, and the meetinghouse where people congregate to discuss. When I worked on the design of the Superconducting Super Collider, the Salk diagram not only haunted me, it possessed me. While the resultant designs are very different, largely driven in both cases by the uniqueness of each site, the Salk diagram was very helpful. Burnham is telling us: There are all kinds of superfluous things in a design, but there’s an essence, a DNA. The diagram is the DNA, and it lives on.
How have the unbuilt projects informed and shaped the core design principles and values, such as creating the public realm, fitness to purpose, buildability, making community, responding to the essence of place, working with nature, humanizing the megascale?
When you look at the body of the unbuilt work, with few exceptions it is some of the most significant work we’ve done. Some of it is radical and adventurous, pushing out of the frame or box. The original Habitat proposal pushed much further than the scheme that was built. It pushed beyond the limits of real estate and construction. Our unbuilt work is where we have been stretching the furthest from convention and the norms. All have lessons for the long term. What I’ve concluded is that the unbuilt work is the place you grow the most, and you need to do that. That’s how architecture evolves.
Featured image: Habitat Original Proposal, Montreal, Canada, model, axial view, 1964. All images courtesy of Moshe Safdie Architects. Cover courtesy of Images Publishing.