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
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.