Safdie In Jerusalem
Moshe Safdie


Moshe Safdie

©Moshe Safdie Associates

I'd like to talk tonight mostly about the ten years I've spent working in Jerusalem, and some of the lessons that have come out of it. I first went back there in 1967 to work on a part project that led to several other projects, and my first reaction was one of awe and a kind of nervousness where I could just not put pencil to paper, for its heritage - architectural heritage, and obviously more than just architectural. The city had been divided since 1948, and literally divided. There was hardly any crossing. And so, all of a sudden seeing it as one city again, gave a sense of exploration. One could wander through places which were inaccessible for a quarter of a century. And one of the first things I did as I crossed the line, is visit some of the settlements that had been built on the other side, including a visit to a village built by Palestinian refugees who had built it after 1948 when they had moved down towards Bethlehem. And I was fascinated to see that there was a village which was not historical building, which was recent building, built with fairly limited resources, and yet it was a wholesome environment which really responded to the needs of the people who built it. It related to topography, it was even a reasonable density. And five miles away, across what was once a border, were enormous housing projects built by the Israeli Ministry of Housing, built at the same time, with well-meaning architects, not only architects who were proud of the multi-disciplinary teams, with sociologists, engineers, and the works. And obviously - it was obvious to me at least — that the village was a superior environment and that it had been achieved by people who had no professional training. And yet all the efforts on the other side, through the institutional structure of a particular bureaucracy were unable to come up with such results. That was the time that Rudowsky had put together his exhibition 'Architecture without Architects'. And it led me to a much more in-depth and detailed analysis of the vernacular of vernacular building, because it seemed to me to pose some of the central questions we face in contemporary building. Now one of the things that became apparent to me as I visited villages and settlements and towns was that they expressed and they demonstrated a fitness to purpose which was exceedingly more comprehensive than most of what is built by architects. I use the term 'fitness to purpose' in the way that D'Arcy Thompson used the term when he developed the science of morphology at the turn of the century. Not only was this fitness to purpose demonstrated at the scale of building, the scale of room, the scale of house, but it was demonstrated at the scale of the urban environment, of the total environment. And so, again, using morphology as a model, it seemed that we could find a kind of evolution or a process of continuous perfection of the environment, demonstrated in these buildings. Now, also, it seemed to deal quite easily with issues that we seem to fail with in contemporary building. For example, there seemed to be an accepted - culturally accepted, voluntarily accepted - rules to the game in vernacular building. Each peasant, each person, each family, builds their house accepting certain rules. And these rules in some way - or let's call it cultural heritage - in some way means that whenever someone builds in those environments, it is an additive process which responds to the environment that was there before. That the sum total of all the individual building efforts are greater than the parts. Now how is it that we are unable to agree on common denominators, to agree on certain common ground that makes the efforts of one architect comparable with the efforts of another architect? It seems to me that, in first round of the peasant versus the architect, it's one up for the peasant. And that leads to other questions. For example, the relationship of art to building to environment. In the vernacular, there is total integration between so-called craftsmen, artists, builders - in fact, art is devoted mostly to the making of things for daily life. So that art is the making of life's objects, utensils, textiles, carpets, objects for ritual and worship. All these activities are on-going in these cultures, and the people involved in them do not think of themselves as so-called artists, nor do the people in the population think of these makers as artists. I think that art today is essentially used to embellish poor environments. we are all familiar with these urban piazzas which are constructed with three or four high-rise office or other towers on them; then there's a sense of emptiness, that the place is bare, and the Fine Arts Commission goes and seeks a distinguished artist and spends half a million dollars on a great big sculpture in the centre of that piazza. Well that sculpture is not going to give life to the piazza; because the problem of a piazza is giving it a sense of place where people can use it, where they have shade, where they have activity, where they have shelter, where they have the right scale. And using art to embellish a dead piazza that's unable to respond to people's needs, is not going to make it a better piazza. Well, let me come back to Jerusalem. When I started to work there first, I thought that the problem was essentially one of formalistic harmony. What I mean by that is, there was a city with some very strong forms, very strong architectural vocabulary. And I thought that if I could be responsive to those forms in my buildings, then I would create the sense of continuity and harmony with what existed. I should qualify that I felt it important for my buildings to belong to the place and respect it. Well I later realised there was much more to that. That the reaction of trying to respond in terms of forms, without understanding what is behind them, is destined to lead one into the same kind of eclectic and arbitrary route that I've mentioned before. In 1970, the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, who has a sense of great responsibility for what is happening there, invited a whole committee, known as the Jerusalem Committee, to review the Master Plans and proposals that were put together for the city. In his very impressive way, he managed to get the entire who's who of the architectural and related professions. Everybody was there - Lou Kahn and Buckminster Fuller and Philip Johnson and Larry Halprin and Denys Lasdun and Nikolaus Pevsner, and on and on - and they all spent several days looking at what was proposed. They reacted to the Master Plan with absolute terror. They were appalled, they said, or we said - I was also a member of that committee - because it was felt that all the mistakes that were made in other cities were being repeated. Six lane expressways coming up the Valley of Ben Hinnom, cutting under the Old City, running through some of the older neighbourhoods, etc. etc. Luckily this kind of response led to a halting in any intention of building the road system that was proposed. But I felt at the time, and felt even more so later, that the Committee had reacted to a certain extent to what was on the drawings, but also to a certain extent to what was not on the drawings. They kept saying 'what is the spirit that Jerusalem is all about? What do you want to make of Jerusalem?' And it seemed to me that what was being indicated is that the conventional way of master-planning a city - the land-use plan and the road-plan that goes with it, with some general and vague zoning and building ordinances - was simply an ineffective tool of guarding urban growth. It basically dealt with quantitative issues. It could not deal, and didn't attempt to deal, with qualitative issues. One plan after the other was made in which, then, as today, yellow is used for 'residential', red is used for 'commercial', green for 'parks', purple for 'industry'. But the yellow tells you nothing about the kind of residential environment, the red doesn't tell you what kind of commercial space one is talking about - is it the bazaar, is it a shopping centre? Furthermore, the very method of making land-use plans of this kind pre-supposes a kind of separateness of uses in the city, which in itself is dubious. And so, two things became clear. One is that more effective tools were essential if we wanted to intervene qualitatively with what happened in the city. Particularly in a city like Jerusalem where the issues were so sharpened by the constant comparison between the new and what preceded it. Secondly, I think it became clear that, in the final analysis, when you try to build in Jerusalem something which was in harmony with what was there, you sooner or later had to deal with value questions about the basic institutions. It was no longer a question of imitating the small houses of the villages or arches, but the question is 'What is a shopping environment about? What is the hospital life, what should a hospital be? What is a hotel all about?' and I'll elaborate on some of that later.


The Jerusalem Watershed. Desert & Fertile Plain

©Moshe Safdie Associates; Monica Pidgeon

One of the fascinating things about the city is that it is on the watershed. As you stand on Mount Scopus and Mount of Olives and look east, there's the Judea desert. And when you look west, towards the Mediterranean, it is relatively green. And so the city is a dividing line between the green and the desert.

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