A Humble Architect

Moshe Safdie has designed buildings around the world for almost fifty years but doesn’t have an identifiable style. His latest work, an Arkansas art museum funded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, illustrates why it doesn’t matter

Moshe Safdie has designed buildings around the world for almost fifty years but doesn’t have an identifiable style. His latest work, an Arkansas art museum funded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, illustrates why it doesn’t matter
Photograph by Timothy Hurley/courtesy of Safdie ArchitectsTimothy Hurley/courtesy of Safdie ArchitectsCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Montreal’s Expo 67 was the last world’s fair where architects were treated as stars. The two most impressive national pavilions were Frei Otto’s tentlike West German pavilion and Buckminster Fuller’s US pavilion, a large geodesic dome. Arthur Erickson’s delicate wooden pyramid, Man in the Community, made up for the rather lacklustre Canadian pavilion. But the brightest star at Expo was a newcomer, Moshe Safdie, a twenty-eight-year-old Canadian born in Haifa who, according to legend, had turned his 1961 McGill thesis into the fair’s most striking attraction. The British magazine The Architects’ Journal called Habitat “one of the most advanced housing projects ever conceived and certainly the boldest exercise in industrialized building methods attempted to date.”

Safdie did not manage to build a second Habitat (for various practical and political reasons, the bold exercise proved difficult to replicate), and after a dry decade in the ’70s he reinvented himself as an architect of striking public buildings—a very successful architect. In the past five years alone, he has completed an art museum, a performing arts centre, a peace institute, a government building, and a federal courthouse. And that is just in the United States. His Boston firm practises globally: airport terminals in Toronto and Tel Aviv, the Yitzhak Rabin Center (also in Tel Aviv), a vast Sikh heritage memorial complex in Punjab, India, and the spectacular Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore. He is currently building a Habitat-style housing complex in Qinhuangdao, China.

His most talked-about recent project is an art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. The driving force behind Crystal Bridges is sixty-two-year-old Alice L. Walton, the daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, which is headquartered nearby. Decades ago, she started acquiring paintings by American artists, and she has reportedly spent $1.2 billion (US) on a collection that now numbers more than a thousand works: John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis—they’re all here. Alice Walton’s unsuccessful bid (together with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC) to buy Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic from a Philadelphia medical school made headlines. The Eakins she finally did acquire, from the same medical school, is hardly shabby; Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand is considered one of the artist’s great works, wherein the medical teacher sits at a crowded desk, intent on his reading and absent-mindedly stroking his cat, which stares out intently at the viewer.

Roberta Smith, an art critic with the New York Times, called Crystal Bridges “an exceptional if idiosyncratic picture gallery assembled by someone with a discerning and independent eye for paintings.” How does a collector with a discerning eye, who also happens to be among the richest women in the world, choose an architect? Walton is not without personal experience of modern architecture, having grown up in a house (which still belongs to the family) designed by the renowned local architect Fay Jones. In a recent public lecture, before a packed audience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Safdie recounted how he had been contacted by Walton and invited to Bentonville, where the museum was to be located. “I had never met her before. She had visited some of my buildings incognito,” he said, referring to Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center, a complex of galleries and arts facilities he has been enlarging over the past twenty-five years. He and Walton walked over her family estate, a large tract near the centre of town, looking at various sites and discussing the project: “At the end of the day, I said, ‘I guess you’re starting your architecture selection process. How are you going to go about it?’ And she said, ‘Well, I ended it tonight.’ And that was it. So it was a wonderful way to start.”

I can’t get to Singapore or Punjab, but I have been invited to a literary festival in Little Rock, not far from Crystal Bridges. We drive west on Interstate 40, then up through the Ozark Mountains to Bentonville, a small town in the northwestern corner of the state. The museum site is a densely forested valley with a stream running through it. Sites are important to Safdie. “For me, the particular is central to the making of architecture,” he says. “The particular is about the secrets embedded in the site, and how from an understanding of the site a concept emerges.” After examining various options, he decided to build close to the stream, damming it to create two pools that form the focus of a ring of connected pavilions. The concept—insinuating the galleries between the water and the forest—gives primacy to the natural surroundings. The general strategy reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Wisconsin, although Safdie’s architecture is hardly Wrightian. Or maybe it is. Wright’s early buildings are characterized by large, sheltering roofs whose shape often defines the chief theme for his architecture. Crystal Bridges is likewise a building of striking, sheltering roofs, curved copper shells that suggest the carapaces of great crabs or turtles.

The roofs are the first feature visitors notice, since the museum is located at the bottom of the valley, twenty metres below the arrival area. I, too, gaze down at the pavilions clustered around the pools, but I am more struck by the lineup for the elevator. It is a motley mixture of young families with babies in strollers, a busload of retirees in colourful print dresses and plaid shorts, groups of tattooed teens, beer-bellied men in T-shirts and baseball caps. This is definitely not the usual art museum crowd.

Northwestern Arkansas was once the home of a theme park called Dogpatch, USA, and the region is associated in the popular imagination more with hillbillies and possum stew than with John Singer Sargent. Alice Walton’s seemingly eccentric decision to locate her museum here was prompted by a desire to give people in her hometown an opportunity to experience art. Of course, Crystal Bridges also hopes to attract art pilgrims from farther afield. The evidence so far suggests that her gamble is paying off. While the museum initially anticipated an annual attendance of 250,000, in its first nine months of operation it has already attracted 450,000, a great many from out of state. Crystal Bridges’ future seems secure; it already has an endowment four times larger than that of the Whitney Museum in New York.

The elevator—a slightly jarring note—carries visitors down to an entry courtyard that leads through a lobby to the picture galleries. The inaugural exhibition is arranged chronologically, but it also reflects Alice Walton’s tastes: for American history, in the earliest painting in the collection, James Wooldridge’s Indians of Virginia (c. 1675); for landscapes, such as Asher Brown Durand’s iconic Kindred Spirits and other examples of the numinous Hudson River School; and for paintings of and by women. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are splendidly represented, although the late twentieth-century works in the collection are less impressive, seemingly added just to close a chronological gap.

The galleries themselves are large spaces, spanned by curved wooden beams. The only troubling notes are rather boxy, free-standing walls that seem like clumsy intruders in this barnlike space—a very dark barnlike space. The original design specified skylights in all of the galleries, but a year before the opening, while construction was under way, a new museum director was appointed and, as Safdie wryly told an interviewer, “There were different views, and the skylights were removed.” Modern curators are highly sensitive to gallery light levels, especially when works on paper are involved, and natural light is notoriously difficult to control. Unfortunately, this turns some of the Crystal Bridges galleries into black boxes, which, especially in such an Arcadian setting, is a shame. The dark galleries are offset by brightly lit rooms in between, many equipped with comfortable seating and low tables piled with art books, where one can relax, read, and admire the surrounding landscape.

Of the eight pavilions, the most dramatic are a gallery and a museum café, which both span the pool; and the Great Hall, which juts out over the water. Their shell-like roofs are formed by curved, laminated wooden beams that are supported not on columns, but on cables draped from abutments at either end, as for a suspension bridge. Safdie claims to have been inspired by the traditional suspended footbridges he saw while trekking in Bhutan. Working with the engineers of Buro Happold, he created dramatic spaces whose all-glass walls provide views of the water on both sides, while alternating bands of wood and glass in the roofs admit light from above. It feels like being under a giant, upturned timber hull. There is a lot of wood in the building, as well as stone floors and smooth concrete walls, whose coldness is relieved by inlaid horizontal strips of cedar, a nice detail on the interior, although on the exterior the strips have begun to stain and weather unevenly.

Details, whether slick or rough, complicated or simple, prominent or discreet, rich or austere, indicate an architect’s intentions. Renzo Piano’s exquisite construction details are like perfect little engineering sculptures; Norman Foster’s minimalist elements, by comparison, manage to appear at once severe and luxurious. Safdie’s attitude is more casual. Although he does not hide how things are made, his details don’t attract attention, and they often express a spartan simplicity. There are a few places where the details in Crystal Bridges strike me as a little too casual, although it is unclear whether the poorly finished concrete and awkward junctions are due to inattention by the architect or the contractor. But on the whole, Safdie’s approach seems right for Crystal Bridges, where overly refined touches would be out of place. He avoids the bread-and-water asceticism that drives many people away from modern design, and it is one of the charms of this friendly building that despite its structural virtuosity it is never intimidating. Colourful shorts and baseball caps fit in just fine.

Safdie has designed an unusual museum for Alice Walton. It is not an idiosyncratic sculpture, like the Experience Music Project that Frank Gehry built in Seattle for Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Nor does it resemble the coolly sophisticated “machine for looking at art in” that Renzo Piano devised near Basel for collectors Hildy and Ernst Beyeler. Like Richard Meier, Safdie has created a campus, but unlike Meier’s Getty Center in Los Angeles, Crystal Bridges is not designed to be a heroic acropolis. Instead, it snuggles into the hillside, close to the ground, among the trees, over the water. The proximity to the surrounding landscape and the loose arrangement of pavilions were influenced by a museum Safdie and Walton visited during a European tour. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, near Copenhagen, houses the private collection of Knud W. Jensen. In 1958, he commissioned two young architects, Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert, to transform his nineteenth-century country house into a museum. Well into the ’90s, it was expanded several more times, until it became a loose series of pavilions connected by glazed corridors. Unlike with Louisiana, the Crystal Bridges pavilions were built all at once, but they give a similar impression of a casual grouping rather than a studied composition.

Not many architects would have the self-confidence to adopt such a low-key approach, especially for a client with pockets as deep as Alice Walton’s. But after a career that has spanned almost fifty years and scores of projects, Safdie no longer needs to prove himself—or at least that is the feeling I got during an onstage conversation with the architect, following his talk at Penn. At one point, we spoke about Frank Lloyd Wright, who has a popular reputation for arrogance. Safdie took a different view. “I think Wright is an architect with humility,” he said. “When he comes to a site, when he’s using materials, when he’s creating a space for people, there is a deep humility, because he is—it sounds a bit corny to say—at the service of what he’s doing.”

Safdie might have been talking of himself, for his designs tend to be at the service of their sites, materials, and programs. This has produced a rather diverse body of work; unlike Gehry, Piano, and Meier, he does not have an immediately identifiable style. Perhaps this helps explain why, unlike them, he has not been awarded a Pritzker Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of architecture. Another reason is less obvious: despite his fame and the prominent projects, Safdie remains something of an outsider in the architectural world. Modernist architects, who have dispensed with figural and decorative ornament, have favoured abstract designs that have tended to result in rather spare, austere environments, with space, light, materials, and details combining to create a subtle interplay. Such buildings often reveal themselves slowly; some require interpretation and are not immediately appreciated by the layperson. Safdie, although a confirmed modernist, designs buildings whose literal meaning is easily grasped. His United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, DC, for example, has an undulating glass and steel roof that resembles a dove. The Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem is a single long prismatic structure that peels open at one end, revealing a view of the city. Marina Bay Sands consists of three hotel towers that support a dramatic sky park, as big as an aircraft carrier, 200 metres off the ground.

This is not subtle stuff. With Safdie, what you see is what you get. In that regard, he resembles mid-twentieth-century modernist Eero Saarinen, whose range of work likewise made his contemporaries nervous—and jealous. For Saarinen, the projects came hard and fast, each different, each an opportunity to explore new materials, new structural techniques, new shapes. Like Safdie, he achieved broad popularity among clients and the public, even as critics and academics deplored his “stylish packaging of forms,” in Yale historian Vincent Scully’s words. Scully preferred more cerebral architects, such as Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, but he later admitted, “At the time, I did not like Saarinen’s buildings very much, but I respect and admire them now. They have surprisingly worn rather well.”

Time, not a juried prize, is the ultimate judge of a building’s worth. Habitat, now almost fifty years old, has worn very well indeed. It looks as visionary as ever, it has grown on Montrealers, and it is much appreciated by its occupants. I am not sure what people will think of Crystal Bridges in the year 2060. Buildings are not static. Functions change, tastes change, people change. I hope that the blocked-up skylights will be reopened, and that some happier solution can be found for those boxy partitions in the galleries. Eventually, someone may add a new pavilion. But Safdie’s design will accommodate all of these changes. If his concept is sound, and I think it is, Crystal Bridges will likely grow on people, too—although the noisy and excited crowds I saw during my visit seemed to like it just fine as it is.

This appeared in the October 2012 issue.

Witold Rybczynski
Witold Rybczynski is professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He will publish his eighteenth book, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, in October.