A sit-down with the lauded modernist architect to discuss growing up in a kibbutz and why breaking bread is a thing of beauty.
“I don’t have a favourite cuisine but I really love Italian food, in northern Italy particularly. There’s a certain down-to-earth simplicity about the way they prepare it; it’s not complex like over-presented nouvelle cuisine in France. The taste of the ingredients is dominant. In the US the waiter comes and tells you that it’s got this ingredient and that ingredient and a little bit of this and a little bit of citrus and it’s garnished with foam. I have no idea where I’m going.
I spent a lot of time in the kibbutz when I was young and living in Israel. In the old days, breakfast, lunch and dinner were all eaten [when we were] together. There were 12 diners at the table and in the middle a big bowl called a kolboynik, where you dump all the stuff that you don’t eat, like bones and peel. In a kibbutz, members take turns serving the food and putting bowls on the table. One bowl might be full of salad; one might be full of cooked meat. It was very indelicate, basic stuff but it was always fresh and healthy. They served whatever was in season. The emphasis on communal living has affected my practice: Habitat 67 [Safdie’s 1967 housing project in Montréal] is about community living.
My mother was brought up in England; she visited her sister in Haifa, met my father and never left. In the first year of their marriage, my grandmother from my father’s side came to live with them, which my mother wasn’t very happy about but she learned the whole tradition of Jewish-Aleppo cooking. So I grew up with wonderful food at home from the Syrian tradition; things like stuffed zucchini with meat-rice cooked in dried apricots, and all kinds of wonderful meat dishes with beans and spices. My mother lived to 96 in Canada. In the last few years of her life she gave some of her grandchildren, including my daughters, all of her recipes and they wrote them up and videoed her cooking them. So some of it carries on – you pass this love for food on to the next generation.
I think many architects love cooking because it’s so fundamental to culture. People are touched by beauty and when they’re in it they know it. They may have become a bit cynical and blasé because they are surrounded by cacophony but my purpose as an architect is to say, ‘Yes, we can still achieve beauty.’
I have no idea where I’d have my last meal. Will I be celebrating it? If I were to be executed I would have indigestion. So let’s frame it as a very special meal. We had a wonderful meal here [at Tetsuya’s] at the opening night of the Marina Bay Sands building [the Safdie-designed space opened in 2011]. The chef personally served us the whole meal, pairing it with Australian wines that he was fond of. It was like he was expressing his gratitude for the building and us being here. It was very moving.
When I turned 70, my wife asked me what I’d like to do. I said I wanted to be surrounded by my best friends and my family, so we chartered a boat. We spent 10 days on the Nile. There was great food, most of it traditional Egyptian-Mediterranean. We told them from the outset: ‘We’re not American tourists – I come from the Middle East, we want the genuine stuff.’ It was like one big feast in terms of food, company, conversation and sightseeing and history. For that combination of reasons it was maybe the greatest sequence of meals I’ve had in my life.”
Born in 1938 in Haifa, Israel, to a Syrian-Jewish family, architect Moshe Safdie moved to Montréal in the early 1950s. His career has included envelope-pushing modernist buildings from the US to Israel, India to Singapore. Having moved to Boston to teach at Havard and never left, he says, “One of the tragedies of Boston is that it’s a seafood capital yet it’s a place where lobster is constantly overcooked.”
Run by Shizuoka–born chef Tetsuya Wakuda, the Waku Ghin restaurant in the Safdie-designed Marina Bay Sands building is Japanese dining at its finest. It seats 25 at a time along two counters wrapped around a stainless-steel teppanyaki grill. The freshest seafood and other ingredients are flown in – we’re in Singapore after all – and the bounty is presented live (and twitching) to diners before the meal starts.