Safdie hopes to blend East, West and Alaska

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005

Among the four finalists selected to design Alaska's capitol, Moshe Safdie might be the most well known outside the field of architecture.

Born in Israel, Safdie made his name at age 29 when he built "Habitat" - a housing system based on prefabricated modules stacked around prefabricated core - for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, Canada. His National Gallery of Canada, Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and Salt Lake City Public Library are textbook examples of modern architecture. One can even find his name in the Britannica Encyclopedia.

But Safdie said choosing an architect for the project isn't an issue of accomplishment.

It's about "choosing architects whose philosophy and sensibilities resonate with your aspirations and values," he said. And he believes he is the suitable fit.

"Architecture has its capacity in its forms and spaces to evoke powerful symbols. When successful, such symbols some to stand as familiar icons," Safdie, 67, said. "Our National Gallery of Canada, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the National Museum of the Sikhs in Punjab, have all become lasting symbols for their communities."

Safdie considers designing the capitol an opportunity of a lifetime.

"To build a seat for the state is significant," Safdie said. "I culturally married East and West. With Alaska, that will be the full circle around."

Safdie said he would design a capitol that responds to Alaska's climate, tradition and culture.

"A state capitol must feel authentic," he said. "This sense of authentic occurs when the forms and spaces express an extraordinary fit, in nature's sense, of their purpose, and when the language of architecture is expressive of the modes of construction and the building's system."

Safdie said the capitol must have a sense of history.

"It must deal with memory, with history as manifest in a particular region," Safdie said. "It must relate harmoniously to its particular urban setting. When all is said and done, the whole must be greater than the parts."

Safdie plans to achieve the goal with a civic plaza that connects surrounding streets and the waterfront. "The civic plaza will bring life to the street," he said. "When the capitol is built, all the streets should be enhanced and become inviting, too."

His past projects, such as the Vancouver Public Library and the Quebec Museum of Civilization, have transformed and improved their neighborhoods.

Safdie said he envisions a capitol that is flooded with daylight and glows at night. "Everything should be illuminated so people know the House is in session," Safdie said.

In the National Gallery of Canada, residents of Ottawa can see the prime minister entertain foreign guests through its crystal design. "They can feel they are part of it," Safdie said.

His use of light in the gallery has prompted a 9-year-old visitor asked his mother whether God lived in the dome of the Great Hall in the gallery, Safdie said.

Safdie said he wants to design a capitol that captures people's imagination and express a sense of serenity.

"Architecture can be deeply felt," Safdie said. "A state capitol should draw our most noble feelings."

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