Article - Autumn 2022

Rooms With a View

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A childhood in Haifa—before Israel attained statehood and just after—helped form an architect’s vision of what an ideal home should be

By Moshe Safdie | September 1, 2022
The author at age 13. During this time, the early 1950s, he “was part of a high-spirited group, verging on wild, and a frequent source of trouble.” (From If Walls Could Speak)
The author at age 13. During this time, the early 1950s, he “was part of a high-spirited group, verging on wild, and a frequent source of trouble.” (From If Walls Could Speak)

As I reach further into my 80s, traveling around the planet several times a year, I think of the long journey that brought me improbably from Haifa—the city of my birth—to the adventure in architecture I have pursued for six decades.

During my childhood, Haifa was administered by the British under the Mandate for Palestine. It lies at the southern end of a long crescent bay, and on the waterfront was the port, built and controlled by the British. It extended eastward toward the bay, where the Iraq-Mediterranean pipeline had its terminus. Along the port was the main downtown boulevard, then known as Kingsway, now Independence Road. Immediately behind this was the lower city, or the Old Town, as it was known, its architecture mostly Arab-Mediterranean vernacular, with narrow streets and crowded markets. A wafting aroma of spices and meat roasting on wood fires filled the air. The architecture was stone—warm and Mediterranean, vaulted and domed. Since childhood, I have loved domes. There is a spiritual element, I am sure—circularity symbolizes unity—but a practical, evolutionary aspect, as well: in desert regions without many trees to provide wood, domes built of brick or stone are the only means to span a large room.

Upward from the Old Town, then as now, the city changed color and character as it rose in elevation along Mount Carmel. Midway up the slopes was a neighborhood, Hadar HaCarmel, of white Bauhaus-style buildings. At the center of Hadar HaCarmel was the campus of the Technion—today, Israel’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In contrast to the stark, modern simplicity of the Bauhaus style, the Technion was a domed, symmetrical, winged structure built with buff stone arcades—a European attempt at Romantic Orientalist architecture. Farther up the hill were the Bahá’í Gardens, the holiest place for the Bahá’í religion, where its founder is buried. I thought of these gardens in my youth as the most beautiful place in the world—the embodiment of paradise. Finally, at the crest, with extraordinary views over the harbor and the city, stood a precinct of landscaped villas and low apartment buildings that was thick with pine trees. To this day, every time I smell pine, I think of Haifa. It remains a beautiful city.

My father, Leon Safdie, had come from his hometown of Aleppo, in Syria, in 1936. He imported textiles, quality woolens, and cottons from England and fabrics from Japan and India for the local markets. My mother, Rachel Safdie, née Esses, was English. She too came from a Jewish family with roots in Aleppo, but hers had emigrated to England at the turn of the century, settling in Manchester. My mother was born in that city and had a strong Mancunian accent all her life.

In 1937, my mother, age 23, traveled from Manchester to Jerusalem, where her sister Gladys lived. Disembarking at the port of Haifa, she almost immediately met a young man who had an office near the docks. She married him a month later, and I was born the following year, on Bastille Day 1938. My father spoke Arabic and a poor Hebrew, though he was fluent in French; aside from English, my mother knew a little French. They did not at first even have a strong common language.

The Jews of Aleppo were broadly known as Mizrahi, or Eastern Jews, but most of them also claimed to be Sephardic—that is, descended from the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century. (Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain.) But Aleppo’s population also included many Jews whose ancestors had never left the Middle East. The Sephardim spoke Ladino, a Spanish dialect, though in time the old Middle Easterners took on Ladino as well, making the distinction between the two groups difficult to ascertain. In the world of Jewry, strongly divided into Ashkenazi (European) and Eastern Jews, the Jews of Aleppo, no matter what their actual origin, belonged to the Eastern group. My own family came originally from the town of Safed, in Galilee—hence the surname Safdie, variants of which (Safdié, Safadi, Safdi) can also be found among Muslim, Christian, and Druze families. Sometime during the 16th or 17th century, driven by the economic decline of Safed, many Jews had moved north from Galilee to Aleppo.

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