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SITE LINES | ROBERT CAMPBELL

Safdie on exhibit: Oh, the audacity

Timothy Hursley

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel.

By Robert Campbell Globe Correspondent 

Moshe Safdie is undoubtedly the most famous architect in the Boston area. His reputation is worldwide, and his major buildings, dozens of them, stand in cities from Singapore to Ottawa, Jerusalem to Salt Lake City.

Last year Safdie won the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, this country’s highest prize for lifetime achievement in architecture. Yet he’s never been a favorite of the academic tastemakers who run most of the schools of architecture and urban design here.

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Safdie’s buildings are bold, they’re audacious, they seek (OMG!) to be popular. Detractors say they’re more George Lucas than serious architecture. Even one of Safdie’s biggest fans has written that, to his critics, “Safdie’s grand forms seem bombastic, his contextual references ersatz, his metaphors too facile.”

That same fan, Donald Albrecht, is a noted art curator who’s put together a major retrospective exhibit of Safdie’s work — the first 50 years of it anyway — that’s now on view at the Boston Society of Architects Space gallery on the downtown waterfront. Whatever one thinks of Safdie, this is an astonishing body of work over the career of the 77-year-old architect.

I’m not going to tell you what to think. A show like this is a chance to make up your own mind.

It’s a grandma’s attic, the kind of place you love to wander in. There’s a wealth of elegantly crafted scale models of Safdie’s architecture, models that are works of art in themselves while making the point that architecture, among other things, is about construction. And there are photos and drawings of all kinds, including some lovely color sketches in pastel by Safdie himself.

The variety of material on display reminds you that what we usually call architecture includes the planning of cities and the design of landscapes. I’d think this exhibit would be fun for any young person flirting with an interest in those fields.

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A couple of Safdie’s best chunks of architecture are in Massachusetts, both of them quite modest. One is the popular entry wing at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, with a glass-roofed atrium and a row of five superb skylit galleries. Another is a federal courthouse in Springfield that seems to pose like a white-clad mime among the green trees of its wooded site. Even smaller is Safdie’s open-air chapel at the Harvard Business School, where hidden prisms flash the walls with colors that move and change with the sun.

I’ll mention briefly just three major works visitors to the exhibit might want to check out:

Habitat 67. Safdie was still in his 20s when in 1967 he somehow persuaded the sponsors of Montreal’s Expo 67 world’s fair to build a radical apartment complex. Looking like a mountain made of Lego blocks, Habitat is an experiment in modular prefabrication that provides a private rooftop garden for each of its 158 residences. It’s one of the significant buildings of the 20th century.

Yad Vashem. A Holocaust museum slices like a railroad tunnel through the top of a mountain in Israel. You absorb the horrors of the Nazi era as you pass along its length. Then when you reach the far end, it widens to a panoramic view of the sunlit Israeli countryside, a metaphor for a better future.

Marina Bay Sands. This resort in Singapore is the kind of building Safdie gets slammed for. Three 55-story hotel towers stand in a row. Unbelievably, a green park leaps like a flying snake through the high air, connecting the towers at their tops. This is architecture that’s dramatic in the sense of crazy, or maybe the word is Disney, but it’s also an architectural emblem that, or so Safdie says, has now become a logo for Singapore.

Like most critical barbs, those aimed at Safdie are half-truths. Sadie has created masterpieces like Habitat and Yad Vashem. And he can also do things that are, well, bombastic and facile. Recently I happened to visit an art museum he’s done in Savannah, Ga., that looks like a state capitol designed by Scarlett O’Hara (it’s not included in this exhibit). Its white-columned facade and spectacular white interior staircase explode with bright daylight and remind you of the plantation mansions of the past. These grand public spaces command all the attention, leaving the art to be tucked away in galleries that can feel dim by comparison. Maybe Safdie intends to be ironic here, but whether so or not, in Savannah he seems more interested in his own artistic talents than those of the building’s users.

One of the reasons Safdie’s never been beloved in the academic world is that he refuses to join whatever intellectual or aesthetic cult happens to be dominant at the moment. He’s bored with the pseudo-intellectualism that periodically infests schools of architecture. It’s well to remember that a greater architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was once held in contempt by academia. Perhaps even Marina Bay will come to be thought beautiful, as happened, Safdie notes, to the once ugly Eiffel Tower (I don’t believe it, but who can predict tastes).

Anti-academic Safdie may sometimes be, but he’s still very much an intellectual. When he recently threw himself a small party at his Cambridge home, the entertainment was provided by his pal Yo-Yo Ma, who performed a Bach cello suite. And when Safdie’s flying off to one of his faraway job sites — as I write, it’s Brazil — he’s likely to settle back and listen to CDs (in English) of Marcel Proust.

Global Citizen: the Architecture of Moshe Safdie

At the Boston Society of Architects Space gallery, 290 Congress St., Boston, through May 22. www.architects.org/bsaspace/visit


Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.