The Designer of Jewel Changi Airport and Habitat 67 Talks Architecture and Urban Identity


Israeli–Canadian–American architect Moshe Safdie has designed some of Canada’s most iconic public institutions, from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to the Vancouver Public Library, and his work has shaped the identity of cities at home and abroad. (You may remember shots of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, one of the world’s most Instagrammed hotels, in Crazy Rich Asians – that’s his, too.) Fresh out of McGill University, Safdie designed Habitat 67, an experimental housing complex that offered a more humane alternative to highrise living, and arguably one of Canada’s most recognizable buildings. Fifty years later, he shows no signs of stopping. Designed by Safdie and unveiled in April, Jewel Changi Airport is a $1.3–billion, seven–storey addition to Singapore’s international airport, complete with gardens, walking nets and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. We asked Safdie to share his thoughts on how architecture and design help shape the identity of a place.

My identity and short life experience translated into Habitat 67.01 If I hadn’t gone and looked at housing across the United States just before that, if I hadn’t grown up in a modernistic city like Haifa02 and absorbed the Middle East culture and then transformed that to Canada, Habitat 67 was unlikely to emerge, particularly for a person of that age.03 Once I had the extraordinary public support of the federal and provincial governments and the City of Montreal,04 it transformed me as well. It gave me new opportunities and a deep understanding of the potential of architecture. I had imagined possibilities, but after Habitat 67, I knew they could be realized.

July 1, 2019
  1. The design was inspired by Mediterranean seaside villages.
  2. Nicknamed “Israel’s San Francisco,” Haifa is a beach town on the Mediterranean Sea and the country’s third largest city. It’s also a great place for newbie surfers to hone their skills.
Architect Moshe Safdie and a young girl standing in front of the Habitat 67 buildings as they are under construction in the 1960s. Black and white.
Habitat 67, Montreal.   Photo: courtesy of Safdie Architects
  1. Safdie, who was only 25 when Habitat 67 was built, said he used “all the Legos in Montreal” while testing designs.
  2. An architect’s guide to Montreal: Safdie’s picks for top buildings to visit.
  • Université de Montréal
  • Bonsecours Market
  • Notre–Dame Basilica

Habitat 6705 was premised on the idea that buildings affect much more than our identity: They affect our quality of life. They can either deprive us or be generous – give us contact with nature and light, the basic things that buildings can address or not address.

A realistic rendering of King Toronto, a new condominium development being built in Toronto.
King Toronto.   Photo: BIG Bjarke Ingels Group
  1. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels revisits the concepts of Habitat 67 in the upcoming King Toronto development. The $700–million project is set to open in 2023.
A photograph of Habitat 67, the building designed by architect Moshe Safdie and built in Montreal. Black and white.
Habitat 67, Montreal.   Photo: Timothy Hursley

Habitat of the Future06 is a series of experimental designs that we did a few years ago in which we reimagined how Habitat 67 would look today. In 1967,07 we had no clue how dense cities like Shanghai,08 Hong Kong and Jakarta would become. So, our first question was, can we do a Habitat at five or ten times the density? We did a number of studies that did just that and we’ve built mixed–use Habitats in Singapore and Qinhuangdao, China, based on the findings.

Moshe Safdie, an older white man with white hair and a bald spot, faces away from the camera and points at a circular object in a white room with pictures on the wall.
   Photo: Ike Edeani
Balcony view of the Habitat of the Future concept
A rendering of Moshe Safdie's plan for the Habitat of the Future, a futuristic development for people to live in. Three triangular structures connected to one another.
Habitat of the Future.   Photos: courtesy of Safdie Architects
  1. Habitat of the Future was part of the Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie exhibit, shown at the National Gallery of Canada in 2010.
  2. In 1967, Montreal hosted Expo 67 to celebrate the centennial of Canadian Confederation; Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood was a hub of hippie culture; and the Toronto Maple Leafs won their 13th Stanley Cup (and last to date).
  3. Every year, Shanghai’s population grows by up to 800,000. If this trend continues, it’s estimated that by 2025, the combined population of China’s cities will reach 1 billion.

Historic cities have very powerful identities: Venice, Rome, Paris09 and, to a lesser extent, London. Contemporary cities have powerful identities because of their settings. San Francisco has a more powerful identity than Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro has a more powerful identity than São Paulo. That doesn’t mean they are the most vital cities – São Paulo happens to be a very vital city, but it doesn’t have the physical identity10 that Rio has. Sometimes it’s also about what humanity invented. Venice is in the middle of a lagoon, but it has a strong identity because of the architecture and how the water system has been harnessed. The same is true of Amsterdam.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
Notre–Dame Cathedral.     Photo: Paris Tourist Office / Amélie Dupont
Aerial view of False Creek, British Columbia
Vancouver.     Photo: Tourism Vancouver / Albert Normandin
  1. In a day and a half following the April 15, 2019 fire that destroyed the roof and spire of Paris’ Notre–Dame Cathedral, the public pledged nearly $1–billion to restore the 850–year–old church.
  2. According to Safdie, the Canadian city with the most powerful identity is Vancouver, thanks to the surrounding ocean and mountains.

Institutions can shape the image of a city, and that includes buildings like city halls, courthouses, museums and libraries. The very design, if it touches the public, if it gives the public the kind of spaces where civic and cultural life can be celebrated, becomes part of the identity of the city. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa11 and my library in Salt Lake City, Utah, are buildings that kind of become bigger than themselves – they become identified with where they are.12 Since the National Gallery is across from Parliament, I thought it should resonate with that Gothic architecture. I also realized that this is a civic building where the events of state and civic ritual could occur, so it was designed not just as an art museum, but as a place for national events. Many important receptions and dinners of the heads of state occur there because the building provides the opportunity and the setting for it.

A shot of the interior of the National Gallery of Canada with many windows and sculptural elements in the ceiling, and many people gathered together.
National Gallery of Canada.   Photo: Timothy Hursley
  1. Although it now houses more than 75,000 works of art, when the National Gallery of Canada was established in 1880, its collection consisted of a single 19th century landscape painting.
  2. The overachieving Sydney Opera House symbolizes more than its city: It has become synonymous with the entire country of Australia.

Airports13 also have character. In the three I’ve done, what I felt was uncompromisable is that they should be easy to navigate, filled with daylight and architecturally calming. I’ve never understood why some airports become such aggressively busy places that cause stress or confusion. For Terminal 1 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto,14 I was thinking of light. It’s a big airport, but I wanted to make it feel as cozy as one could.

  1. A total of 16 international airports will be upgraded or redeveloped in 2019, including Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai and Beijing Daxing International Airport, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.
  2. While working on the project, Safdie championed to have a pool in (or nearby) Terminal 1. Unfortunately, he was swimming solo on that vision.

Jewel Changi Airport is the talk of the industry. The airport has always had great shopping and amenities, like gyms, a butterfly garden15 and a swimming pool, and they realized they could up the whole thing if they created a place with more attractions that can be visited by passengers,16 but also airport employees and Singaporeans. When you create airport amenities for these three populations you can compete with downtown. We shied away from dinosaurs and theme parks and created an extraordinary garden that’s like nothing you have ever been to, with a waterfall,17 walking nets and beautiful vegetation. This was a dream project because it gave me an opportunity to do architecturally what nobody has ever done in an airport.

A group of trees and bushes contained inside a curved glass wall in Singapore's Jewel Changi airport.
A very tall artificial waterfall pouring from a multi-panelled glass ceiling inside Jewel Changi airport in Singapore.
The butterfly garden, Changi International.    Photo: Yvette Cardozo / Alamy
Jewel, Changi International.    Photo: Daniel Lim
  1. Changi is the only airport in the world with a butterfly garden and is home to 1,000 tropical butterflies.
  2. One in 50 airplane passengers meet “the one” at 30,000 feet.
  3. Jewel’s Rain Vortex, at 40 metres, won’t be the world's tallest indoor waterfall for long: A 50–metre–tall waterfall will overtake it when Eden Qingdao, a water–themed ecological park, opens in China in 2020.