Safdie Conjures $5 Billion Casino

April 17, 2009
A park runs like a magic carpet across the top of three 56-story towers in the Marina Bay Sands project in Singapore.

Architect Moshe Safdie, 70, designed the towers to backdrop a soaring art and science museum in the shape of an unfurling blossom.

Billionaire Sheldon Adelson's debt-burdened Las Vegas Sands Corp. halted major projects in Macau to ensure completion of Safdie's design for Marina Bay Sands -- a 40-acre development costing a staggering $5 billion that will open next year.

Despite the anxiety of recent months, Safdie looked relaxed when we spoke at Bloomberg's New York headquarters. The constantly traveling Safdie, who was born in Haifa, sported a tan and his trademark brush of mustache.

Past projects include the history museum at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which tunnels through a mountain, then bursts into sunlight. His firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has designed the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas for Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, and the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Missouri, a concert hall and theater fronted by a glass lobby supported by a weave of cables. Both projects are under construction.

An age of garishly extravagant architecture has ended, yet sculptural bravura has marked Safdie's work since he sprang on the scene at 29 with Habitat, a stack of prefabricated apartments that was the hit of Montreal's 1967 World's Fair.

Singapore Icon

Safdie doesn't think the Sands spectacle is out of step with the times.

"The Singapore redevelopment authority wanted the museum to be an icon for Singapore," he said. It occupies a promontory along a planted and arcaded walkway that extends a city promenade around the bay. Half of the roofs of this hotel, mall, convention center, shopping mall and casino complex are planted with trees and gardens. Generous pedestrian streets open to tropical plantings and water views.

And the jaw-dropping sky park?

"When you build 9 million square feet, it's an effective strategy to create a resort-like outdoor place that combines gardens and swimming pools and jogging paths," he said.

"You are investing to cantilever over space but gaining a 2.5-acre park with the most extraordinary views in the world. That's a formidable resource in a dense city like Singapore."

A cash shortage in November put the entire Sands company at risk.

"The financing is in place," said Safdie, describing a site filled with cranes and swarming with 8,000 workers. "The government of Singapore is solidly behind it. It will open in January 2010 as planned."

Rising Costs

Safdie's daring Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City got caught in the commodities bubble that preceded the housing crash. The cost has risen to $405 million from $304 million in 2005, and the center's fundraising is now $60 million short of its goal.

"We're very proud to be building two halls for almost the price of one," Safdie said. "We've designed a dedicated concert hall and proscenium theater on a great site, an escarpment overlooking the entire city."

"Certainly in terms of cost versus benefits, it's really impressive," he says. "It took a lot of doing to get there."

Are the high arching walls of the building to blame, or the grand glass lobby?

"We're using materials in innovative yet efficient ways. I'm not saying that building a big public lobby with glass and cables can't be done less expensively. But the design is very efficient in its use of materials and energy without losing the transparency. It's important to be judiciously innovative."

He fears more austere times will return us to enervating, expedient architecture.
"It's appropriate to celebrate important public institutions. Their meaning transcends the day to day."

Floating Roof

For the 2005 Yad Vashem museum, Safdie sunk a long triangular tunnel into the mountain site.

Some visitors have told him that moving from the dark tunnel to sun-drenched landscape panoramas "was the most significant experience they have ever had in a building."

Another design fraught with symbolism is the Institute of Peace under way on the Mall in Washington. Though he sticks to the Mall's scale in two wings facing the Lincoln Memorial, he says he "didn't want to create another classical building," adding, "The roof is made of curved, translucent white elements that almost float.

"I have been asked, is it meant to be a flight of doves? Not really, but the roof is about lightness and whiteness and transparency. I hope it achieves the same goal."

Safdie Conjures $5 Billion Casino, Tunnels Mountains: Interview
Interview by James S. Russell - Bloomberg News