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|June 15th, 2006, 03:30 PM||#11|
Join Date: Sep 2002
Location: S I N G A P O R E
Likes (Received): 6
haha! Its really just about putting a good spin on things! Feng Shui seems really open to all kinds of interpretation...and we tend to hear what we choose to hear
Habitats of humanity
13 Jun 06
Wunderkind architect Moshe Safdie, whose works are known for their social streak, thinks his Marina Bay Sands resort may just replace Orchard Road
THE current kerfuffle here over the fengshui aspects of Singapore's first integrated resort is apparently not fazing its creator Moshe Safdie one bit.
On the phone with Life! from his Boston office last Friday, Mr Safdie, 68, says lightly: 'Controversy is good because it means the people are engaged in the design.
'We will never get 100 per cent contentious views, just as we will never get 100 per cent agreement,' says the architect whose famous landmarks include his staggered Habitat high-density projects worldwide.
Last month, the Government announced that the Marina Bay integrated resort bid had been won by American casino-resort giant Las Vegas Sands.
Mr Safdie's winning design for Sands features three 50-storey towers linked by a skypark which overlooks three domes housing shopping and convention centres.
The $5 billion project has got some geomancers here in a tizzy. They say the towers are like ancestral tablets; the skypark is like a broken flyover, suggesting imperfection; and the towers' flat roof is like a blade, suggesting restricted growth. Some Singaporeans have also griped about how the three towers resemble joss sticks and glorified factories.
Asked to comment on the controversy last week, the Israeli-born Mr Safdie is careful to stress that he had consulted a Singaporean geomancer, Mr Chong Swan Lek, before his design for the Marina Bay Sands 'was fully cooked'.
Whether it was deciding where to put entrances or debating corners versus sides, he fielded fengshui issues all the way through to the winning design, he says.
So, for starters, how is it that he came to design a flat, blade-like top as the resort's 1ha skypark?
Look closer, he tells you, and the skypark is not actually flat. 'There is some modulation, with arcades, lookouts and projections up and down. These were very positively considered.'
He is fully aware of the fengshui uproar, having just come from a week of discussions with Las Vegas Sands.
As to critics' concern that the three towers look too much like ancestral tablets, he points out that all actually curve inwards.
Ask him why, and he clears his throat, then says: 'Because if the towers were straight up, that would be too pompous. It would be too much about power, and not enough about humanity.'
Ah, yes, humanity. With him, that word comes with a capital H, as it is the golden rod running through all he thinks and does.
As he puts it: 'Architecture is a social art. We have an agenda to meet in the kind of spaces for human interaction - how it fits into place with the climate and culture, whether it's buildings in Singapore, Jerusalem or India.'
It would follow, then, that he does not seem the sort to discount fengshui concerns willy-nilly.
Indeed, he says: 'It doesn't matter if I buy into all this or not. But I had to sense truly if this is what people could accept. I took it very seriously.'
As for the beach-level art and science museum which he has designed to look like a lotus, he says: 'Everyone was speaking from day one about icon, icon, icon.
'Someone said it should be the Sydney Opera House for Singapore.'
So he hit upon a blossom motif for the museum, which he says folks have since interpreted either as 'a palm signifying welcome' or a providential flower.
'Those people include our fengshui advisor,' he says, adding that what went down especially well with Mr Chong was his idea to collect rainwater on the museum's roof and channel it into a waterfall. 'All that lotus and water symbolism is considered good,' he points out.
Architecture is not art
STILL, there were limits to how far Mr Safdie would go along with this 'icon, icon, icon' predilection.
Even as he busied himself in his Boston office arranging and re-arranging his Lego-like blocks which represent the proposed buildings on the 6 million sq ft site, he kept asking himself how he could build tall buildings which would be 'sort of more humane, habitable and less overbearing'.
Noting that an earlier design by another architect for the site had skyscrapers hugging the coastline, thus cancelling out much of the resort's beachfront potential, he asserts: 'I'm opposed to making just a sculpture. Many buildings are just sculptures, all these twisted things.'
What's so wrong about that? He presses on: 'We cannot create faces for shapes, faces which are capricious. We need to create spaces.
'Architecture is not about art sculptures because artists are not answerable to anyone and can use whatever form they like without having to meet a demanding list of requirements.'
While all that makes him out to be hot and bothered, there is actually an old-world grace and polish about his expressions, which include words such as 'partook'.
Somehow, you can't see him designing something as crass as a casino. To be sure, industry insiders say that clients seek him out when they want landmarks of calm, not lightning rods for arguments.
So, you prod, what was so appealing about the Sands bid that had him taking it on even though he was not the immediate choice for the job?
Calling it an 'extraordinary opportunity', he says: 'I was so interested in this site because it is so integral to downtown Singapore. So the project could become a symbol which is not whimsical or capricious, but an icon of dignity and humanity.'
He glides through his sentences like one who is utterly sure why he does what he does, and how he is going to do it.
But glib he is not, because where fast-talkers tend to bamboozle their listeners with jargon, Mr Safdie - who taught urban design at Harvard Design School for 12 years - uses the simplest language to explain the biggest ideas.
Speaking of which, he says he and Singaporean planners 'speak the same language, speak of the same things'.
In fact, he avers: 'I could have written the Government's (brief) for the integrated resort myself.'
He adds: 'Singapore has always been extremely bold in planning; of course, there were mistakes as well along the way but everyone's heart is in the right place to make Singapore a liveable city.'
Humility above all
YOU ponder this apparent about-turn. In 1997, he had told an Israeli newspaper that Singapore's Housing and Development Board was not making the most of the design potential of high-density housing.
To date, he has designed three projects here, namely the Ardmore Habitat condominiums, The Edge On Cairnhill and Simpang New Town.
You tell him some Singaporean architects look at The Edge - his relatively staid freehold condo project for Sembawang Properties - and feel he has long ceased to be an iconoclast.
You brace yourself for his bristling (he is famously contemptuous of those who don't see things his way).
But he waits out the query patiently and says, coolly, that in his 40 years in the business, he has been creating projects 'that are very important for cultural life'.
Among his proudest milestones are the Vancouver Public Library - whose Colosseum-like design caused an outcry at first - the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington DC and the Khalsa/National Museum of the Sikhs in Punjab, India. 'I invite my critics to visit these places,' he says with what sounds like a snicker.
It may also be that he has weathered enough controversy throughout his career to be nonchalant about it.
He himself says he's quite happy to eat humble pie. 'In architecture, there is a tendency to lose one's humility, to be insensitive to the impact one's work has on humanity.
'It's a tragedy if you lose touch with the people you are designing buildings for.'
Big talk, yes, but he walks it. He is well-known for going to great lengths to make sure buildings live and breathe the rhythm of real life.
Take the seawall fronting the Sands resort site. Mr Safdie needs a seawall that is 'slightly curved' as that would work to turn the area into a promenade and arcade.
He recalls: 'I thought if I could integrate the promenade with the arcade, we could save some space and tuck the shops under the promenade. So I went back to the Urban Redevelopment Authority to get permission to rebuild the seawall so it curved a little, and it agreed.
'It was a breakthrough.'
Pearls and perils
IF THERE'S one thing this twice-married father of four is good at, it's breakthroughs.
After all, he smashed monolithic pretensions when he was only 23, designing Habitat 67, a housing project in Montreal, Canada, made up of biscuit-brown box-like concrete blocks in staggered stacks, and built into a hillside.
Today, Habitat 67 is still one of Montreal's most sought-after addresses. For a Singapore take on it, look no farther than Ardmore Habitat, which is a 1980s scaled-down version of Habitat 67 in white. It was also his first project here.
By 1971, the then 33-year-old had landed on the cover of Newsweek magazine, which reported that his rise 'is probably unequalled in architectural history'.
But, as so often happens in life, such early success brought him pearls as well as perils.
He muses: 'One of the things you learn since then is that with large projects, people are extremely demanding.
'A project you were known for ceases to be sufficient to sustain people's interest; how short-lived in some ways memories are.'
In fact, as The New Yorker noted in 2003, he built 'almost nothing' for 10 years after Habitat 67.
Of that, he recalls: 'I was successful, yes, yet several of my projects were not realised. There was difficulty in breaking through building codes; people found it difficult to accept the new things I was doing.'
That's so. He had New Yorkers up in arms with his 1980s design, Columbus Center, which they said would cast shadows over their beloved Central Park. It was never built.
And despite being a citizen of Canada, his country deigned to get him to design for its people only after his stint at Harvard Design School. That was so even though it had awarded him The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's coveted Gold Medal when he was 30.
So how did he stay the course?
'Keeping your head above water is basically a matter of not letting success go to your head,' he says, adding that he is 'indebted' to his parents, both Sephardic Jews, for having taught him humility.
It was his father, a textile importer rendered poor and disenchanted by socialism in Israel of the day who yanked his family out of the country and planted them in Montreal.
So, at 15, Mr Safdie found himself 'non- voluntarily' being frogmarched by his family, as it were, to the West.
Resentful of the move at first, he has since drawn on his experiences to be 'a bridge between East and West'.
As he says this, verve wells up in his voice again.
You ask him what his most satisfying achievement to date is. He parries, then predicts that the Marina Bay Sands will be 'one of my most significant projects ever'.
As he puts it: 'I think it's going to shift Singapore's centre of gravity. It will become a counterpoint to Orchard Road, and that will become very interesting.
'It may even replace Orchard Road, and I'm very excited about that.'
By Cheong Suk-Wai, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT