The Early Museums
The first museum project that Safdie designed in 1971 was for the important competition for the design of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Safdie prepared the project in collaboration with 14 of his students at the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University, U.S.A.. The model is surprising in its innovative spirit and its industrial approach, taking into account the fact that it was done at the height of Safdie’s complex work in Israel and in the Jerusalem context. This i s an open design, skeletal in its character (a construction of glass and steel, incorporating concrete), which functions as an exposed and accessible cultural center, and as a “green lung” for the surroundings. It evinces a number of the principles that d istinguish Safdie’s later architecture: clear orientation, integration into the surroundings (scale, materials, vegetation, skylights and transparent walls to introduce natural light, and visual contact between interior and exterior) and much interest in geometrical form and technology.
Safdie’s first museum projects in Israel were modest ones. In 1973 he was invited to design the Paley Center - the Youth Wing of the Rockefeller Museum - in Jerusalem, on the boundary between the western and the eastern city. The museum’s goal - to bridge between Jews and Arabs - obliged the architects to beware of arousing opposition, whether on aesthetic grounds (the building is not too innovative) or on political grounds (it is not conspicuous in the area). Contrary to the practice in this country at that time, Saf die mobilized the technology and the principles of modernism as means, not as an end. He tried to avoid formal eclecticism or modernism for its own sake, in an attempt to achieve a condensed expression of form and material while creating a harmony with th e surroundings. In planning the building as a cluster of terraces that follow the slope of the mountain, Safdie took care to incorporate local stone with modern materials such as concrete, steel and glass.
After this Safdie designed the Skirball Museum, which is located on the campus of the Hebrew Union College, which he designed as well (1976-1989). The entire complex constitutes a turning point in Safdie’s work, and marks the cry stallization of his architectural syntax in the future. The cluster of buildings that he designed - along open arcades that make up intermediate spaces - integrates well with the existing building designed by Heinz Rau in 1963. The complex, which is closed off from the street, is not alienated to the site. It exploits the natural slope and creates a maze-like promenade of arcades and bridges, a sort of perfect microcosmic city. The orientation in the complex reflects an urban principle that Safdie adopted from the inspiration of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The various passages serve to separate the academic activities from the visitors to the College (the upper arcades are for visitors and courtyards are for academic activities). The exhibition spaces themselves are highly modernistic. Concrete columns define the interior spaces, which are designed with a minimalism of straigh t lines, white walls and bare concrete, while large windows create the sense of an open, flowing space. The selection of building materials on the campus represents a harmonious blend between technology (aluminum and concrete) and local stone and natural materials such as wood. The green vegetation, on the yellowish desert background, and the three-dimensional play of light and shade, evoke a Mediterranean atmosphere.
However, Safdie’s design work in Jerusalem exhibits not even the slightest gesture aimed to curry favor with the populistic postmodern trend or the futurist-deconstructionist restlessness that maintains an intellectual and elitis t distance from the public. There is a discernible will to connect the universal to the local in reverse order, to once more integrate the local into the urban-social dynamic between center and periphery, in a move from the village to the city and from th e local city to the universal city and to continue this cycle further.