In his keynote speech closing the World Architecture Festival last week, Moshe Safdie called for a reevaluation of how we design our cities, Dezeen reported. The 76-year-old architect argued that his profession’s understanding of “what urban design is all about” needs a “reorientation.”
Safdi said that proliferating downtown high-rises — he called them “object buildings” — sitting atop retail spaces around the world are creating cities that are “disjointed and disconnected and not worthy of our civilization.” He said these buildings fail to nurture community spaces like the squares and piazzas of the past, so that the very idea of shared space is becoming extinct.
“These are private spaces, they are controlled privately,” explained the architect of Habitat 67, the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, and more recently the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “Secondly, they are introvert. They do not connect one to the other. It is rare, unless there’s intervention from a planning authority, that they connect with each other. They create a world, and another world, and another universe, each upon itself. Not as a connective city as it’s been historically. So this poses for us extraordinary questions.”
As someone who loves tall buildings, a more positive assessment of the skyscraper by writer John A. Kouwenhoeven inevitably comes to mind. “Each goes its own way, as it were, in a carnival of rugged architectural individualism,” he observed in a 1956 essay for Harper’s. “And yet — as witness the universal feeling of exaltation and aspiration which the skyline as a whole evokes — out of this irrational, unplanned, and often infuriating chaos, an unforeseen unity has evolved.” Kouwenhoeven called the Manhattan cityscape “one of the most exaltedly beautiful things man has ever made.”
But the troubled metropolis Safdie described in his speech sounds much less like New York than it does the psychologically isolating, socio-economically stratified, car-run sprawl of suburban America. That (for me, at least) is what makes his diagnosis truly disconcerting.