Moshe Safdie agreed with Mayor David Bieter on at least one key element for a new main library in Boise: Safdie’s design should reflect the importance of the Boise River, whose banks run just south of the library.
Bieter hadn’t come to this conclusion alone. The importance of the river emerged in a series of workshops the city hosted last spring and was confirmed in subsequent neighborhood meetings and stakeholder meetings, library spokeswoman Holly Funk said.
And so Safdie’s preliminary design calls for a bank of windows providing a view south toward the river. He wanted the rooms behind those windows to be “so much part of the river that you are in the river when you are in the building,” he said. To accomplish this illusion, he said, the south wall has to be so near the trees lining the riverbanks that the rooms inside feel something like a treehouse.
Safdie, who visited Boise this week, sat down with the Idaho Statesman on Friday afternoon for a brief interview. He also spoke to a crowd of a few hundred Friday night about his philosophy for public buildings and his hope that the Boise library can become a hub of activity for all kinds of people, not just bookworms.
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The architect’s firm, along with local company CSHQA, submitted the winning bid to design the library. He said he also agreed with city leaders that the library should be “not just a routine building,” and that it should do more than house books.
“I want it to be a very seductive building. I want it to be a setting for all kinds of community activities and events,” Safdie said Friday. “You add food, which we’re obsessed with, and good coffee, which we’re obsessed with, and just a general sense of well-being, and people will come. They’ll come because they want to be there.”
The city hopes to break ground on the library next year and finish it by 2021. Its budget is more than $80 million. That money would come from a combination of tax collections, private donations and, possibly, grants.
From Israel to Montreal to Boston
Safdie was born in Haifa, on the coast of what is now Israel, in 1938. He thought he would be a farmer. Life intervened. In 1953, his family moved to Montreal.
“I wasn’t going to be a farmer in Canada,” he said.
When he graduated from high school a couple of years later, he said, an aptitude test identified him as “suitable for architecture.”
“So, somehow, architecture descended on me — not that I knew anything about it,” Safdie said. “But that was really love at first sight, because as soon as I started studying it, I knew that it was good for me.”
In 1961, he graduated from McGill University in Montreal. He was chosen to design a key exhibit structure for the 1967 Montreal world’s fair. That launched his career.
Safdie established his first practice in Montreal. In 1978, he moved to the Boston area to work in the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He still lives in Boston, though he said he’s rarely home because he travels so much for work.
‘What kind of place uplifts your spirit?’
Safdie has designed famous buildings all over the world, including the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City; the Eling Residences in Chongquing, China; and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
His designs for libraries in Salt Lake City and Vancouver, British Columbia, are more relevant to his work in Boise. As with those projects, he plans open-air gardens on top of the Boise building. Here, they would overlook Capitol Boulevard and Julia Davis Park to the west.
These open areas can be venues for public activities ranging from book readings to musical performances, or just spaces to relax and enjoy the outdoors. They would be open to the public. In Salt Lake City and Vancouver, they have become essential to the downtown experience.
The Boise library project wasn’t the reason for Safdie’s first visit here. That came at least a decade ago, he said, when the Simplot family asked him to collaborate on a tractor museum that later became part of JUMP in Downtown Boise. Safdie did not design JUMP.
He said the library project got his attention when CSHQA contacted him. The City Council hired his team in February, picking it from a field of seven applicants.
Safdie’s first hope for the library is that it gets built. It will make use of daylight, he said, offer contact with nature and have a physical presence that doesn’t dominate humans.
“These are elements on the menu, but the particular mix is a mystery,” he said. “What kind of place uplifts your spirit, what is it ... that gives you a sense of well-being?”
What about The Cabin?
Some Boiseans recoiled when they saw that Safdie didn’t include The Cabin in his initial plan. The Cabin is a writing academy housed in a nearly 80-year-old, city-owned log cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps to honor Idaho’s 50th year of statehood.
Historic preservationists say that even if the building is saved, moving it will forfeit its historic context.
Safdie has a different point of view.
“Certainly, when The Cabin was built, nobody thought that this would become the site for a major institution,” he said. “As an outsider, I asked myself, would The Cabin and its users in the community lose anything if we picked The Cabin up, which we know we can do, carefully and responsibly, and moved it to another park setting with similar attributes? And my conclusion was, no, it would be fine, and nobody would know the difference after one year.”