Moshe Safdie was born in Haifa in 1938, into a secular family which came from Aleppo in Syria. The city of Haifa - with its mountainous topography, its proximity to the sea, its modernist architecture and its impressive complexes of buildings and gardens (such as the Baha’i Center) - had a formative influence on his aesthetic growth. When Safdie was 15 his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, in 1955, he began his architecture studies at McGill University, invested much effort in his studies, and was awarded scholarships that enabled him to tour North America and form his own impressions of its architecture.
Safdie grew up into a domain of severe modernist theories, at a period when these theories had already begun losing some of their strength. A new wind was blowing beneath the surface, and it also affected prominent modernists such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Le Corbusier, who had wearied of formal reduction, drew once again on the architecture of Viollet-le-Duc and on regionalistic ideas. The chapel at Ronchamp, which he built in 1950-1955, is an excellent representative of this change in him. Mies van der Rohe - the champion of reduction, whose sayings “Less is more” and “God is in the details” were adopted by many architects - reconnected with history and the past, declaring “Technology is rooted in the past. It dominates the present and tends into the future”.
Safdie’s key work - the Habitat residential complex (1958-67) - was born as a final project for his degree in Architecture (McGill University), which studied industrialized and modular building methods.
Safdie extended the principles of functional industrialization to a residential complex that was simultaneously functional and individualized. As an architect who sees himself as committed to human and social values, Safdie grappled with an old urban problem - one which became exacerbated during the sixties with the growing profusion of anonymous high-rise buildings in the cramped urban centers of the United States - and sought to introduce an individuality and a rural quality of life into urban residences. The theoretical project was implemented (for the international exhibition Expo ’67) as a modular residential complex which enabled a large degree of freedom in the design of each one of the residential units, including attached roof gardens.
In December 1967, six weeks after the close of Expo ’67 and about six months after the Six-Day War, Safdie landed in Jerusalem for an international conference, on the invitation of Arieh Sharon. Safdie was enthused by the human mosaic that makes up the city - Armenians, Muslims, Ethiopians, Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, Arabs, Israelis and soldiers, pilgrims and tourists; he was fascinated by the various levels of building that had been unearthed in the diggings, and especially by the Herodian buildings in the Old City, the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim buildings (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa Mosque), the British buildings, the scents of the market and the life-styles that had survived in this place for years upon years - as well as by how these various styles had managed to co-exist harmoniously side by side.
In Israel these were the days of the euphoria following the Six-Day War. Mordechai Ben-Tov, then Minister for Housing, invited Safdie to implement his plan for modular residences in Israel. A 1969 plan to build 1,500 residential units on the mountainside at Kfar Manchat near Jerusalem was not implemented for political reasons, but did arouse local arguments. Although the plan was not carried out, Safdie’s work on it enabled him to exercise possibilities of extending the ideas of Habitat to the local environment.
Concurrently, Safdie worked on two further projects: the Porat-Yosef Yeshiva (1970) - a significant project in terms of its influence on the development of Safdie’s formal syntax - stands near the Western Wall. Inside an opaque involucrum of stone walls, Safdie created arched spaces and domes of industrial precast concrete, which repeat themselves in a recurring pattern. Although these are not flat panels that comprise cubes, but arched sections that comprise domes, the end-product at the Porat-Yosef Yeshiva is a kind of architectural blend of Habitat (Canada) and Jerusalem.
A more problematic project in Jerusalem was the conservation of the Jewish Quarter - a residential and commercial area in the upper Old City of Jerusalem, at its south-eastern corner, at the point that looks out towards the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The planning of the Quarter required the architects to relate conceptually to the myth and the historic symbolism of the renewal of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, beside practical and professional considerations involving problems of construction and rehabilitation, archeological diggings, limitations on grounds of religion and faith, political and economic pressure. Safdie was put in charge of the designing of Block 38 in the Quarter (seven buildings, containing 37 residential units), and in order to carry out this work he opened a firm in Israel.