Habitat 67, Montreal (Canada), 1967 / Hospital, Celebration (United States), 1998
Moshe Safdie (Haifa, 1938) and Robert Stern (New York, 1939) are almost the same age, come from middle-class Jewish families that originated in Europe, and run major practices on the U.S. East Coast, but no modern Plutarch would describe their professional trajectories as ‘parallel lives.’ Intellectuals and professors both, their simultaneous autobiographies show how markedly unalike they are in work and life, and each of the books is an extraordinary document on contemporary architecture. Safdie’s Sephardic roots in the Syrian city of Aleppo, his childhood in the Middle East, and his youth in Canada gave him a cosmopolitan education, and both his training as an architect at McGill University in Montreal and his experience working under Louis Kahn nourished a foundation of solid modern convictions that he managed to express spectacularly in the modular apartments of Habitat 67, a very popular project that showcased his precocious talent for structures and geometry.
As for Stern, despite his Russian-German provenance he describes himself as “a Jewish boy from Brooklyn” averse to religious liturgies and determined to be all-American, an identity reinforced by his education at Yale University and his return to New York to be part of the city’s cultural life, cultivate a friendship with Philip Johnson, publish his first book – New Directions in American Architecture – in 1969, and that same year set up an office which would end up representing postmodernity.
While the Montreal Expo was being held, the Six-Day War was a turning point in the history of Israel and in the life of Safdie, who traveled back to his country for the first time since he had left it in 1953, initiating a professional relationship with the city of Jerusalem that would stretch a half-century, and leaving there a bunch of works as emotive as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, an exemplary piece of architecture of memory which is perhaps his best work, even though his large-scale realizations in Canada, the United States, India, China, and Singapore – where the spectacular towers of Marina Bay Sands have recently been joined by the ‘tropical’ Jewel Changi Airport – may have garnered more public attention.
In contrast with this international activity – directed from Safdie’s office in Cambridge, whereto he moved from Montreal in 1978 to start teaching at Harvard – the prolific career of Stern has remained concentrated in the United States, especially in New York, whose architectural history he has written in several volumes, and where he has succeeded Johnson as cultural arbiter. But his legacy will be marked by two other significant stages of his journey: his key role as principal architect of Disney, which highlights the populist component of the postmodern language, and his eighteen years as dean of the Yale School of Architecture, where he showed the balanced versatility of his talent and the generosity of his academic, social, and political gifts.
These two paths crossed in 1985 at New York’s Columbus Circle, where Safdie won the competition to build two skyscrapers with a design of refined structural abstraction – canceled in the wake of public protests – and where Stern subsequently wanted to make true his dream to be present in the Manhattan skyline with a historicist tower which would have had Trump as developer. In the end it was David Childs of SOM who raised two anonymous glass prisms on the site, but the clash between these two 20th-century architects figures prominently in their respective autobiographies, and invites comparison of their conflicting ambitions. Their lives crossed, but only like trains passing one another in opposite directions in the dead of night.