Moshe Safdie on His 30-Year Design of L.A.'s Skirball Cultural Center

An axial night view of the Skirball Cultural Center's Taper Courtyard.
(Photo by Timothy Hursley)

Over the course of his storied career, architect Moshe Safdie has designed a breadth of building typologies, museums among them, that call upon his talent for integrating local architectural form with a distinctly modernist visual language. The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is Safdie’s most comprehensive museum project — one for which he designed and built the masterplan and structures over a 30-year span — and will finally be coming to completion this fall, with the finalization of its four-phase construction program next month. The Center is celebrating this with an exhibition opening October 22, “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie” that surveys the architect's full career. ARTINFO sat down with Safdie as well as Skirball director Uri Herscher to discuss museum architecture, site specificity, and the cultural responsibilities of architecture and urbanism.

How did the function of the Skirball Center dictate the form? And how did the surrounding landscape determine the layout of the masterplan?

Moshe Safdie: When I first came to Los Angeles [to work on the Skirball] in the mid-70s, there was only a site — one which was very particular. The most powerful generator of the form is the site, which is governed by the contours of the valleys and ravines that back up into the hill behind the Skirball.

Uri talked more about activities than the spatial organization of the site — the nature of the institution, the kind of spaces they wanted for exhibits, conferences, and events. He didn’t know how to apply that, or whether he wanted one building or six. Through looking at the site and drawing on my own experience, I immediately locked in on the idea that this should be a cluster of pavilions that coalesce into a village or a campus. The California part of it was also decided early on: That for every space we create for indoor activity, we should create an equivalent space for outdoor activity.

Uri Herscher: The collaboration began with my good fortune of having a teacher, mentor, and friend in Moshe. I had never done anything like this before, and there’s no way that I would have been able to conceive of what form the Skirball would take. Moshe sat with the Skirball staff as we attempted to program the building. The museum’s function helped to form the buildings, and the buildings became envelopes to contain our programs. There’s no conflict between the letter and the envelope, as we often say. Lectures, conferences, exhibitions all contained within spaces that feel like a second home.

How did you develop the aesthetic program of the Skirball buildings? Did you take the local tradition of Californian mid-century modernism into account as part of the design process?

MS: I don’t think I was conscious in art historical terms. I was thinking in terms of “What are we going to build this with?” And I thought: “Concrete architecture in Los Angeles? That’s going to be a hell of a thing to achieve, since there’s no tradition of architecture in concrete here.” Later, we hired the guy who built the Salk Institute to be our contractor. And then I thought, “If we’re going to do concrete, we need to really combine it with another material to soften it…” And so it became stone-inlaid concrete — we would cast the concrete and fill in some of the recesses in stone.

We had long discussions about the roof forms. I wanted roof forms that reached up to get light, with clerestories and skylights… I decided to go for stainless steel on the roofs, which I’d never used before, to reflect the clouds and the blue of the sky in California.

Do you have a specific approach to designing museums?

MS: I design many museums but the differences between them impress me more than the fact that they’re all museums. I’ve done the Khalsa Heritage Center, a museum of the Sikhs; I’ve done Yad Vashem, about the Holocaust; I’ve done the Skirball, which is about the American-Jewish experience and also a cultural center; Crystal Bridges is a dream of American art and also a cultural and community center; I’ve done the National Gallery of Canada. They all hold very different places in their societies. To me, the interesting thing about a museum project is its unique program, its unique site, and how to find an expression for these two subjects.

There are certain themes that connect all my museums. I believe that museums need to be extremely inviting and transparent. They are all about experiencing subject matter, and to me that’s always about light. How do you bring to bear the many varieties of light? There’s mysterious light, there’s soft light, there’s brilliant sunlight, which you might want for certain kinds of rooms. There are common denominators to my museum architecture, but projects take on their own lives depending on the kind of museum I’m working on.

Does vernacular architecture influence the museums you build for the purpose of exhibiting a specific cultural tradition?

MS: At Skirball I’ve been asked, “Is this Jewish architecture? Did you try to make it Jewish?” To which I respond by asking if there is even a specifically Jewish architectural tradition. Ancient Jewish architecture was first Phoenician and later Roman; as the Jews traveled, it became Polish and Russian and Moroccan. Skirball is an American building, but at the same time it espouses certain Jewish values.

In a sense, the difficulty of differentiating the particular from the universal is true for my architecture. If I think about what in my own experience affected the design of the Skirball, I think of the good fortune that I grew up in the Mediterranean, in the East. I absorbed Mediterranean culture and architecture, whether Arab villages, or Persian cities, or Ottoman urban traditions. And then I was transferred to the West, where I was educated, so I absorbed many things about the West that are quite different. At the Skirball, it all comes together in the way of the architectural language, the values — for example, both buildings and landscape have continuity. That’s basically a Mediterranean, Eastern concept of building, not necessarily Jewish. These are universal elements.

Do you think that national architecture exists according to political boundaries?

MS: I don’t think there are national architectures. There are moments in which national styles evolve. I think sometimes vernaculars evolve that are associated with a place, but I think that style is more universal and certain traits are amplified in certain moments by certain nations. I don’t think, truly, that you can talk about ‘French architecture’ or ‘English architecture.’ Even if you think of French and English architecture, they share the Gothic and they share the Romanesque.

So in that sense, architecture is a fundamentally unifying force?

MS: I think that style transcends nations — luckily! Because language doesn’t, language remains much more local. I believe passionately in the power of architecture and urbanism to unite people.

To see a slideshow of highlights from Moshe Safdies museum architecture, click here.