Bringing Communities Together

World-renowned architect Moshe Safdie shapes Singapore’s suburban residential landscape with Sky Habitat’s pyramid-stepping form and community-centric design philosophy

Issue: Sep 2015

Sky Habitat, rising 38 storeys in popular city-fringe estate Bishan, is designed to bring communities together with its many communal spaces
The visionary and his creation: Sky Habitat, rising 38 storeys in popular city-fringe estate Bishan, is designed to bring communities together with its many communal spaces

In the nearly 50 years that he has been honing his craft, Israeli-born, Canadian-raised, and American-based architect, Moshe Safdie, has designed well over 70 projects, many of which he was specially commissioned to work on. Museums, educational facilities, civic buildings, performing art centres, airports, libraries, integrated developments, and apartment complexes – Safdie’s works are known for their deep respect for the history and heritage of the sites, and its abiding aim to draw communities together. For his lasting influence on the architectural world, he earned the 2015 American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, widely considered to be one of the highest honours for architects. He also received the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Emirates Glass LEAF Awards for his enduring contribution to the built environment.

Yet, there is no work this urban planner, educator, theorist, and author is more associated with than his seminal project, Habitat ‘67. The icon of utopian urban living was his Master’s thesis. Safdie was just 24 when his design was selected to be constructed as part of World Expo 1967. Although only 158 units of the proposed 1,000 apartments were eventually constructed, his vision of a complex of prefabricated cubes well ahead of his time thrust him onto the world stage and became a milestone in architectural history. Today, the Montreal condominium has been designated a heritage site by the Quebec government.

At 77, this world citizen – Safdie holds citizenships in Israel, Canada, and America - is still working at breakneck pace. Asia, in particular, is keeping him remarkably busy. Among his many projects in the region are the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore, as well as Raffles City Chongqing and LuOne in China. He was in Singapore recently to conduct a walkabout of his latest completed work in the garden city – Sky Habitat. The two tiered towers standing at 38 storeys and linked by sky bridges is an ode to Habitat 67. The stunning masterpiece embodies all that Safdie is known for – geometric patterns and strategic placement of open and green spaces.

Inside: What makes a good residential property?

SAFDIE: The key to a good residential complex is the balance between community and privacy. So, you have your own world - your residence. It should have privacy and outdoor space, and you should be able to live with your family life within this spatial definition. At the same time, people also want an opportunity for community life, where their children can play with other children, and people can get to know one another, maybe even borrow things from their neighbours, or help to take care of each other’s things. That’s what community life is all about. This is an important ideology. As long as you provide this balance – the choice of community and privacy – that is an ideal housing project.

Inside: Can you share with us how Sky Habitat creates this balance of the individual’s need for privacy and the desire to bridge communities?

SAFDIE: I see Sky Habitat as a culmination of community and privacy. Like Habitat 67, I tried to make every apartment as much like a house as possible to create privacy. Instead of glass barriers for the balcony that leaves you a bit more exposed, I provided enclosures that allow for privacy yet let the wind to go through.

I also created a balance between outdoor living and indoor living. All the windows are glass and go from the floor all the way to the ceiling but come with sunshades so that you can leave them uncovered. The larger units have roof terraces or gardens in the sky, and every residence has at least one balcony. The underlying idea is that you are fractalising (creating the appearance of cascading terraces) the surface of the building so you create many opportunities for outdoor living as well as indoor living. The balance of outdoor and indoor living - makes you feel like you are living in a house, not sealed up like in a hotel.

For the community aspect, I created infrastructure that invites community life. You can’t force community life but you can create a setting for it. On the ground floor, for example, we have a swimming pool, gardens, and tennis courts. At the street level, there are playgrounds, parks, swimming pools, and gyms. The sky bridges are the heart of the community. Here, you can look down from your apartment and watch your children play.

Inside: How did the idea of the pyramid-like stepping structure come about?

SAFDIE: Sky Habitat was not designed as a preconceived shape where you have a form then you see how the apartments can be arranged within that form. Sky Habitat was designed with the aim of building community life. The pyramid stepping structure comes from the idea of the gardens. I believe that the apartments should open to the sky so the structure has to ‘step back’ to allow for that. The two towers are placed against each other to maximise the view and air flow.

I do passionately believe that architectural forms should grow from the spatial requirements of the building. In the next decade, we are going to see a revolution in residential architecture as people accept urban living but want more than cookie cutter solutions. We as architects need to show them where quality of life can be impacted positively by humane and responsive designs.

Inside: Why do you return to the Habitat 67 design time and again?

SAFDIE: The principles I believed in the past 50 years about what constitutes good housing and good community have not changed at all. I believe in outdoor space and indoor space. I believe in gardens. I believe buildings should connect with Nature. I am as passionate about these ideas today as I was back then. The only thing that has changed is the context within which the building is constructed. Each design calls for a particular response that is site and culture specific. What works in Tokyo will not work in New York because the lifestyles are different. So, I have not seen any evidence to change except to try harder to realise my beliefs.

Watch CapitaLand YouTube video on Moshe Safdie’s thoughts about Sky Habitat.

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