Book review: If Walls Could Speak—My Life in Architecture
Annmarie Adams reviews Moshe Safdie's new memoir.
Architect Moshe Safdie listens to Yo-Yo Ma play the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major on an open deck by the sea, seated alongside King Hussein and Queen Noor. He attends dinner parties for the Clintons at Yitzhak Rabin’s home. Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress, sends her private plane to fetch him for a meeting. He calls art historian Oleg Grabar when he needs to design a mosque. These are just a few of the celebrity-studded scenes that shape Safdie’s new autobiography, If Walls Could Speak, a look back at the well-known architect’s prolific life.
The story goes beyond his famous friends. We learn of Safdie’s parents, childhood, his two marriages and four children, his recent home renovations, his penchant for white collarless shirts, and even of the raccoon who lives outside his office window—all alongside his lifelong dreams, sporadic disappointments, and ongoing aspirations. Little sketches and photos, sometimes in the margins, give the book the feeling of an intimate photo album. It’s a very human story.
For all these reasons plus two more, If Walls Could Speak is a great pleasure to read. First, I have worked at the McGill University School of Architecture since 1990 and Safdie is arguably our school’s most famous living graduate. He recently made headlines by donating his archives and Habitat ’67 condo to McGill. So I thought I sort of knew his story. But the book answers many of the questions that I simply had never considered: why exactly did he leave Montreal? How does he look back on Habitat ’67 after all these years? Where does he most feel at home?
Second, If Walls Could Speak gives real insight into a worldwide architectural practice since the 1960s. Twice in the book he offers a glimpse of his daily life—a mix of exhausting global travel, leading four or five design teams at once, and spending time with his beloved wife, the photographer Michal Ronnen. “Our lives and our work,” he divulges in the Prologue, “are totally intertwined.” Especially good for students is Chapter 9, Megascale, where he explains the ways that big architectural projects typically evolve, starting from a sketch (sometimes done on an airplane) through concept stage and design development.
The megaproject in Megascale is Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, commissioned in 2005. It is a massive, mixed-use development with three towers, linked by a sky park, which Safdie says, somewhat implausibly to this reader, harkens back to Habitat ’67. Even more strange, though, is his suggestion that the shopping spine was inspired by the cardo maximus of ancient Roman cities. It’s not an obvious association—Marina Bay Sands was a filmset for Crazy Rich Asians, not Spartacus—but it is a window into how this guy thinks big. The story of Marina Bay Sands actually reads like a Hollywood screenplay, complete with men’s room deals, angry emails, gilded airplane interiors, a contentious lawsuit that accused Safdie of replicating the SkyPark design in a subsequent project, and—spoiler alert—an eventual reconciliation.
Such snapshots of the joys and risks of contemporary practice—and an urge to explain projects in one’s own words—overlap nicely with other autobiographies recently written by famous architects born in the interwar period. I think of Safdie’s friend (the families met up regularly in Mexico) Richard Rogers, who wrote A Place for All People: Life, Architecture and the Fair Society in 2017. Canadian examples of this genre would include Eb Zeidler’s two-volume Buildings Cities Life: An Autobiography in Architecture, which came out in 2013, and Jack Diamond’s Context and Content: The Memoir of a Fortunate Architect, published last year. In these books, and Safdie’s, you get a real sense that the authors want to give something back for all their successes.
A memoir is also an opportunity to say what one thinks might define good architecture. Safdie believes deeply in what he calls “the power of place.” He devotes an entire chapter to this idea about how to unlock the secrets of a site, citing examples including Machu Picchu and medieval Italian hill towns. He insists that good buildings have a magical quality, beyond simply satisfying the program. “We need to insist on magic,” he reminds readers, alongside numerous references to the transformative power of music. His favourite buildings include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, and Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Safdie still loves to sketch, and the model shop in his office seems to be the octogenarian’s most magical place. “Architects who forgo the painstaking supervision and review of shop drawings never get the building they think they’re getting,” he warns.
How does Canada figure in Safdie’s story? We are big. In 1953, Safdie’s family emigrated from Haifa, where he was born, to Montreal. He studied architecture at McGill University, where his thesis became Habitat ’67, the iconic housing project whose impact ripples throughout the decades and the book. Additionally, many Montrealers appear in the narrative as significant allies. Stuart Wilson and Sandy van Ginkel stand out as teachers. From Wilson, Safdie learned “the idea that architecture needs to be built, not just drawn.” Dutch-born van Ginkel was Safdie’s first employer and a huge influence. “To know Sandy van Ginkel was to become more sophisticated,” remembers Safdie. A letter from Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Sandy’s partner, introduced the 22-year-old to Louis Kahn, who would soon after employ him.
The Canadian architecture scene is simultaneously something of an enigma in Safie’s memoir. “Ever since Habitat ’67, Canada had for some reason been tough to crack. To this day, I can’t quite explain why this should have been so,” he writes. Even so, Safdie designed landmark Canadian buildings such as the National Gallery of Canada and Vancouver’s Library Square. He blames the rise of Quebec nationalism and his own criticism of postmodernism for a hiatus of Canadian projects just after Expo. A handy list of Safdie’s projects appears at the end of the book, listing the names, dates, and locations of 53 projects he considers significant since 1967: nine are in Canada.
When I teach students about Safdie in undergraduate architectural history courses, I often use the analogy of a chameleon. Holding Canadian, American, and Israeli passports, and with homes and work around the world, he seems to fit everywhere. What the book reveals, however, is that he has often felt out of sync. He resigned an endowed chair at Harvard’s GSD, for example, because he felt isolated from other faculty members. The multiple references to not getting jobs in Quebec and Canada, too, suggest that Safdie’s extraordinary mobility may have come at some professional cost.
Safdie clearly sees himself not as a chameleon, but as a mediator. He views architecture as a way to bridge differences. Like me, however, some Canadian readers may be slightly annoyed by the ways in which If Walls Could Speak is so clearly pitched at American readers. Safdie calls Douglas Cardinal, for example, a native Canadian (rather than Indigenous) architect, and there are other more subtle but equally jarring Americanisms throughout the book. Another minor disappointment is that one of my favourite Safdie moments gets no mention whatsoever. In 2007, he made headlines by walking away from the billion-dollar McGill University Health Centre project because it was slated to be built as a P3. That is chutzpah that deserves loud applause.
Speaking of health care, If Walls Could Speak might even be counted among the silver linings of Covid-19. It took a global pandemic to slow down Safdie’s schedule enough to focus on this long-running memoir. For that, we can be grateful.
Annmarie Adams is Professor and former Director of the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University.