Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. View overlooking Jerusalem, Israel, 2005. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.

Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. View overlooking Jerusalem, Israel, 2005. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is an art and history museum dedicated to connecting Jewish heritage to America’s civic and cultural past. The campus was designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. Tomorrow the museum opens its latest show, devoted to Safdie’s career.

From left: Uri Herscher, Jack Skirball and Moshe Safdie stand on the future site of the Skirball Cultural Center in summer 1985. Photo by Bill Aron.

From left: Uri Herscher, Jack Skirball and Moshe Safdie stand on the future site of the Skirball Cultural Center in summer 1985. Photo by Bill Aron.

The Skirball is nestled in the Sepulveda Pass, between Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. It’s a complex of gallery spaces, terraces, gardens and courtyards. But thirty years ago, it was little more than a garbage dump. Safety officials warned of the risks of mud slides, forest fires and earthquakes. But Moshe Safdie saw something else in it.

“I thought it should be kind of an oasis,” Safdie said. “This is a city of freeways… and I thought it should be a place where you come to which is calm and serene and green, and a paradise garden, so that you escape the hustle-bustle of the city to be here.”

Habitat ‘67, Montreal, Quebec, 1992. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.
Habitat ‘67, Montreal, Quebec, 1992. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.

Habitat ’67 in Montreal, Safdie’s first project, was the one that launched his career. It was meant to be an affordable solution to housing low-income workers, and landed him on the cover of Newsweek. And it’s the starting point of the exhibit “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie.” The show was organized by the Skirball and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, another of Safdie’s major cultural projects.

Salt Lake City Public Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2003. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.

Salt Lake City Public Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2003. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.

Safdie is not without his critics. The show’s curator, Donald Albrecht, says Safdie’s design for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem was labeled as too theatrical and too optimistic, suggesting there was a positive ending to the Holocaust. He said critics also panned the extreme metaphoric dimension of the architecture: “that the walls you’d been encased in literally open up, was seen by some people as being a populist gesture, and somewhat corny,” Albrecht said. “And sometimes with Moshe’s work there is a feeling that in the attempt to be meaningful and to reach the public, that there’s a too populist approach that is not good with architecture, that architecture should pull back.”

Skirball Cultural Center, Courtyard view, Los Angeles, California, 2005. Image by Timothy Hursley.

Skirball Cultural Center, Courtyard view, Los Angeles, California, 2005. Image by Timothy Hursley.

Despite the critics, the Skirball has embraced Safdie, crediting him and Skirball founder and president Uri Herscher with the vision that brought the center to life. Herscher called that collaboration the greatest of his career.

“I think the key is that so many buildings are often built, and then the programming is fit into the building,” Herscher said. “In this case it was the reverse, and the fact that Moshe sat with the programming team, together at the same table, understood what we wanted.”

This week marks the fourth and final expansion of the campus, with a new pavilion and entertainment space. It’s a rare example of one architect remaining on board for each stage of an initial design.

“You come here now, and you see kids getting off the buses, and people coming in for classes, and people going through exhibits, and it’s just amazing to see it so alive and vital,” Safdie said. “And you sort of pinch yourself and ask, ‘how did all that happen?’”

“Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie” opens Tuesday, October 22 at the Skirball Cultural Center. It runs until March 2, 2014.

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