From Thesis to Icon; Visiting Moshe Safdie’s “Habitat 67”

A few weeks ago I attended the incredible C2 Conference in Montreal; a unique conference in the sense that the aim is to blend “commerce, culture, and creativity,” in several days of high-quality presentations, masterclasses, brain dates, and labs that provoke as well as inspire. Having arrived a bit early due to the lengthy flight time, I spent the night before the conference wandering the city.  After being charmed by the European feel of the friendly and sophisticated city, I found myself strolling along Montreal’s Historic District’s waterfront.

Across a slender body of water the long, modular composition of stacked boxes unfolded before me.  Scanning my mental index of architectural precedents and projects, I quickly identified the project as the iconic Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie.

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View of Habitat 67 from Montreal’s Vieux Port, photo credit: Mosenthal

Conceived and presented as Safdie’s Master’s Thesis Project at McGill University in 1961 (coined “A Case for City Living,”) the project was selected to be built for the Canadian Pavilion at the World Exposition of  1967 in Montreal.  At that time, Safdie was interning in Louis Kahn’s studio and was only 23 years of age.

Given the green light to develop his thesis idea, as explained in ArchDaily, Safdie applied his original theories regarding a “three-dimensional modular building system” (a highly novel idea at the time, pre-3d-modeling software and proposed amidst the adoption of North American suburban sprawl.) The result was an ambitious masterplan/microcosm comprised of “shopping centers, a school, and 1000 housing units” (ArchDaily 2013.)

Ultimately Safdie’s visionary proposal was approved, albeit cut down in scope.  The final built project consisted of 158 residential units constructed from 340+ prefabricated modules.  The modules were arranged in varied combinations and connected by steel cables.  Units were designed to be accessible via pedestrian bridges and streets as well as three cores with elevators for the top floors.

As described by Gili Merin for ArchDaily, “the prefabrication process of the 90-ton boxes took place on-site. The basic modular shape was molded in a reinforced steel cage, which measured 38 x 17 feet. Once cured, the concrete box was transferred to an assembly line for the insertion of electrical and mechanical systems, as well as insulation and windows. To finalize the production, modular kitchens and bathrooms were installed, and finally a crane lifted each unit to its designated position.”

Several days later, my former architecture professor (currently a Professor at McGill) and I found ourselves quickly and quietly scuttling around the grounds of Habitat 67 at early dusk.

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View of the complex up-close at dusk, photo credit: Mosenthal 2016

A still-thriving residential community that values privacy and the almost utopian vision of a hybridized garden home in the sky (that is also, subsequently, on a narrow island surrounded by beautiful vistas of water, dense forest, and urbanity) we were discrete in our quick tour of the grounds.  Similar to Falling Water, some of the concrete had begun to crack and the stamp of time added a vintage patina that was admittedly pleasing in its acknowledgement of an idea distilled but also alive in a continuum of history and time.

Somewhat brutalist in its overall presentation, what won me over about the development was the lush greenery and individual gardens flanking the various sides and roofs of the extruded boxes.  Due to the unique stacking and configuration of the boxes, each unit is located a step back from its neighbor, creating an opportunity for “a roof garden, fresh air, and natural light” (Merin 2013.)

While today’s multi-family housing provides narrow balconies at a premium, Habitat 67’s simple juxtaposition of elemental form (the concrete box,) nature (an individual garden per unit,) and glass (a visual connection between the outside to the inside) creates a simple-but-elegant dialogue that remains desirable to any prospective housing tenant.

We stayed only a brief time, but my first impression and visit to Habitat 67 reminded me of why visiting historically significant architecture buildings is so worthwhile.  I left thinking about our current housing typologies, and was reminded how important it is to challenge existing assumptions in order to explore different models for living and building.

I’ve also thought a lot about what it means to be given a chance at the age of 23; Safdie was encouraged to submit his project for consideration by his thesis advisor, Sandy Van Ginkel.  Without a mentor or someone that believed in Safdie, his career may have taken a very different trajectory.  How do we inspire young architects to take risks, and for worthwhile ideas that rise to the surface, how do we facilitate these ideas and ambitions to be realized?  The Canadian Government ultimately took a huge chance on Safdie.  While the project wasn’t without high cost (in part due to its reduced scope,) ultimately many would consider the project a now integral part of Montreal’s built environment.

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