Moshe Safdie is returning to Canada. Or at least his archives are. The former Montrealer announced Tuesday he is donating to McGill University his full professional archive – more than 100,000 documents and other items from his architecture practice – plus his personal apartment in Habitat, the Montreal building that first made his reputation.
The architect announced the gift Tuesday in Montreal. The works – some of which are already held by McGill’s library – will become part of McGill’s John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection, with a dedicated storage space.
Safdie said in a recent interview that he feels a strong debt to McGill, where he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1961. “I think I got an amazingly good education,” the architect, 84, said on a video call from his Boston office. “And that made a difference, in that the values I received as an architecture student were meaningful. Now I know you can’t take that for granted.”
The gift “positions the McGill Library as a serious player among the world’s great architecture collections,” C. Colleen Cook, the dean of McGill’s libraries, said in a statement.
Safdie is among the world’s most prominent architects. His Canadian buildings include the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City, the National Gallery in Ottawa, Vancouver’s Library Square (1995) and his work on Terminal One at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
The McGill donation consists of more than 100,000 items, including drawings, models and correspondence spanning Safdie’s half-century in practice. These include the original model and document of his 1961 McGill undergraduate thesis, titled A Case for City Living. This design project imagined a system of prefabricated boxes that could be arranged into dense, mixed-use structure – breaking down the scale of a big building to provide the variety and the outdoor space that comes with smaller buildings.
After a few years in the U.S., Safdie returned to Montreal in 1964 to realize his vision for Habitat. Habitat 67, as it was known, was constructed by the federal government for Expo 67. It is now a municipal and provincial heritage site.
Safdie’s apartment at Habitat forms part of the donation to McGill. The university says it will be used for artist-in-residence programs, exhibitions and symposia, and will also be available to researchers. Fondation Habitat 67, a non-profit foundation, will collaborate with McGill on preserving the apartment.
Habitat “has formed a thread that goes through my career,” Safdie said. The early triumph of building the project was followed by “the deep disappointments of the Habitats that didn’t get built,” including in Israel, New York and Puerto Rico. These challenges sent him toward institutional buildings, including the Museum of Civilization (1987) and the National Gallery (1988). In 1987, his firm won a design competition for a joint ballet-opera house in downtown Toronto, which was cancelled in 1990. “I’m sad about this not being built,” Safdie said. “It would have been an amazing international institution.”
In 2005, Safdie’s office completed the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Israel, where he lives part time. (Safdie was born in Haifa.)
His later career has focused on large mixed-use buildings, most prominently the Marina Bay Sands resort complex in Singapore (2011), in which three towers are capped by an open space that bridges between their roofs. But Safdie points out that Habitat’s central ideas “have now become part of the mainstream.” Recent “derivatives of Habitat,” he said, include the Bjarke Ingels Group’s KING Toronto project, now under construction. Architect Ole Scheeren’s planned Fifteen Fifteen tower in downtown Vancouver also breaks down a tower into smaller masses, an idea that owes a debt to Safdie.
Safdie said McGill has pledged to make much of the collection available in “a very comprehensive website, that will make information available to people who want to understand the buildings in more detail.” A spokesperson said that McGill Library is working with Safdie Architects on this new digital exhibition.
Safdie now lives between the U.S. and Israel. However, “Canada has been extremely central for my work,” he said. “I came in as a young person – an immigrant – and had the opportunity to do Habitat, and later to do many public buildings. Canada has been very supportive, so this seemed like the right thing for me to do.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.