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Trees and gardens, not just buildings, play an integral role in the projects of celebrated architect and urban planner Moshe Safdie.

In his upcoming memoir, If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture and a short video, For Everyone a Garden, Moshe Safdie, the renowned Israel-born architect and Order of Canada Companion, reflects on the role of nature in his designs. Prepared for a global art platform called Shifting Vision, the video is to be released online this weekend to mark Earth Day and environmental sustainability.

Here, Mr. Safdie, 83 – whose work includes the National Gallery of Canada (1988), Vancouver Library Square (1995) and award-winning international projects such as the spectacular Jewel Changi Airport (2019) and Marina Bay Sands Resort (2011), both in Singapore – talks about why gardens and greenery are integral elements of institutional and commercial buildings.

You are committed to bringing architecture and the garden together, yet nature and the built environment seem to be opposing forces. What’s your starting point for reconciling these?

The idea of the garden as a central feature in architecture has evolved. It’s the desire of people to have an outdoor space where they can look at the sky.

Programs like LEED are important but they’re not enough. You could design a school to the top LEED standards, for example, but you could still have tiny windows that don’t let in light

Moshe Safdie, Israeli Canadian American architect, urban planner and theorist

When I was young, I went on a travelling fellowship and saw that, given a choice, most families would pick a house with a garden. I realized how central that was in most cultures, whether it’s small space outside or an atrium or terrace in a big building.

Is there an ideal proportion of greenspace-to-built space in a commercial or institutional building?

The idea has broadened for me as my work evolved. When I designed Habitat 67 [one of Mr. Safdie’s first prominent works, modular housing at Expo 67 in Montreal], the idea was simple: for everyone, a garden. Later, I designed the Skirball [Cultural Centre near Los Angeles, which opened in 2013]. Californians live a combined indoor-outdoor life, so I created an outdoor space for each function of the program that takes place inside. There is artwork indoors and a sculpture garden outside, for example.

What do you consider some of your most successful work in bringing the garden to a commercial or institutional site?

Jewel [in Singapore] takes the idea of the garden a step further. There was an international competition, and some of the consultants came up with Disney-like themes, mechanical dinosaurs and so on. Why would anybody fly to Singapore to see a mechanical dinosaur? I said, let’s do a magical garden instead – an intense marketplace for airport shoppers that cohabits with a park. Now I think the public realm should always be a combination where commercial activity cohabits with open space.

Isn’t this hard to do in a cold country like Canada?

It’s harder, but it can be done. You can have terraces that open and close with the seasons. In cities like Toronto and Montreal people crave those months when they can be outdoors.

Everybody likes to sit on the grass to eat lunch, let’s say, but how important are trees to an urban project? What is their role?

Trees are critical. If all buildings had them, our environment would be in better shape. I’ve learned that you can plant really significant trees in just a few metres of soil if you take care of them.

Tim Hursley

Greenspace and light should be integrated into urban structures, says Safdie, as exemplified in the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore (above) and the Albert Einstein Research Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil (top).

There is increasing interest in vertical and built-environment farming, but these projects are mostly industrial-looking now. Is there a way make them look and feel more like gardens?

A lot of them are makeshift and unimaginative, but there are ways. I think agriculture should be integrated into urban structures – the food yield might not be huge, but it would be good culturally and psychologically. It would be good for kids to see the food they will eat grow.

Your influences are eclectic – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the movie Avatar, for example. How do you translate these influences into ideas that can be designed while still respecting the laws of physics?

We’re stuck with gravity, although I’m fascinated with designing for the moon. Here on Earth, we can still design with a sense of lightness. You can make a building look massive, but you have some control over the space. Certainly, we can emulate the Hanging Gardens – Avatar, maybe not yet.

Is greenspace a luxury or a necessity to a public building?

It’s a necessity. It’s a question of values. I’m working on a number of headquarters and office buildings for different corporations right now, and all of them have gardens. The idea is that you work inside, you should be able to get some fresh air and daylight. The leading high-tech companies are all creating gardens in their offices – it gives them an edge. It’s a question of well-being and it contributes to dealing with the climate issue.

You mention the shortcomings of environmental architectural programs like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification, yet they’re also necessary, aren’t they?

Programs like LEED are important but they’re not enough. You could design a school to the top LEED standards, for example, but you could still have tiny windows that don’t let in light. It might be environmentally friendly, but it would be miserable. LEED does not say that you need a view, or that you should be careful about the inside light because everybody is working on screens. You have to go beyond the environmental values to ideas that are more difficult to quantify.

Do your ideas all come back to Habitat 67?

We’ve done many projects that embrace the idea of Habitat in other contexts such as commercial buildings. In the early years after Habitat the idea got a lot of criticism as irrelevant, but now I’m pleased that there’s a generation of architects who are embracing the principle of the garden.

Do think peoples’ views about greenspace in buildings have changed since COVID-19?

Very much so. I’m finding enormous appreciation of greenspace. I remember when the pandemic began, and a friend called from a luxurious building in New York and complained that she couldn’t open the window and didn’t have a balcony. People just crave the outdoors, and there’s an expanded sense of its value.

What do you want people to feel when they come into one of your buildings?

A sense of uplift. Well-being. I want them to breathe deeper. If you walk into an airport that has daylight, you feel better than if it’s dark. If there’s a garden, you feel better still.

When I travel, some of the most beautiful landscapes I see are those that have both greenspace and human action. There’s nothing more beautiful, for example, than a terraced rice plantation in southeast Asia or a tea in Darjeeling. It makes me realize the pleasure we get from the combination of nature and human intervention. I think that’s why we have always marvelled at gardens – that’s what we need in the 21st century.

Moshe Safdie designed the iconic Habitat 67 in Montreal.