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Habitat 67 in Montreal: World’s Most Incredible Thesis Project

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Habitat 67; the revolution of city living. How did this building become such a monument? And what made this architectural design idea fade over time?

At the age of 23, Moshe Safdie was a student at the McGill School of Architecture — a student with a vision. Safdie believed contemporary architecture should address the urban dilemmas of poverty, overcrowding, and blight. His master’s thesis project did just this. He called it “Habitat.”

As Montreal, the host city for the 1967 World’s Fair, entered the initial planning stages, Safdie submitted his thesis project as one of the proposed pavilions at the fair.

Unbelievably, this unknown neophyte’s proposal was accepted — Habitat 67 was built and became an iconic symbol of the modern aesthetic at the fair and a signature Montreal landmark.

Who Created Habitat 67 in Montreal?

Habitat 67

Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie designed the building as part of his thesis project at McGill University. Surprisingly, his professors were not too keen on the idea. They thought it was too ambitious and even outrageous.

When most people think of Habitat 67, the first thing that comes to mind is its strange and unique design. However, many people don’t know that this building was the brainchild of a 23-year-old student.

But this didn’t stop Safdie from trying to make his vision a reality. In 1967, he presented his project at the World’s Fair in Montreal, where it all started.

Over the years, Habitat 67 has become an iconic symbol of modernist architecture, attracting visitors from all over the world.

From Thesis to Reality

Habitat 67 Montreal Iconic Architecture by River
Tenley / Adobe Stock

When Safdie first presented his project, it was an ambitious idea. However, with the help of the Canadian government, he was able to turn it into a reality.

The original plan was to build 1,000 units for families struggling with housing costs. However, the construction cost turned out to be much higher than anticipated. This resulted in the project being scaled down to just 158 units.

The Canadian federal government financed the project, but the residents bought the building from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1985.

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A Building for the People

Habitat 67

From its unusual prefabricated construction to its unique cubist design, Habitat 67 was to be both affordable and comfortable.

As mentioned, Safdie’s original plans called for a model community of 1,000 modular housing units, shops, green spaces, and a school. However, his vision was realized in a scaled-down version and contained only 158 residential units.

The structure’s distinctive form, a series of setbacks and stacked cubes, makes it possible for each apartment to have its garden (on a neighbor’s roof), free-flowing fresh air from the outdoors, and abundant natural light. External walkways allow all residents direct access to their own homes.

Habitat 67

However, the modular units were mass-produced in an on-site concrete factory to minimize construction costs. The concrete was poured over a reinforcing wire skeleton and cured to produce a cube.

The cubes were then transported to an assembly line, where electricals, subfloors, insulation, windows, and prefabricated bathroom and kitchen fixtures were installed. Then, each completed unit was lifted by a crane and positioned in place.

Habitat 67

Located on its peninsula, la “Cité du Havre” on the Saint Lawrence River, Habitat 67 provides spectacular views of the city across the river. This housing complex comprises 354 prefabricated concrete cubes arranged in various configurations to create individual living spaces.

And despite the regularity of the prefabricated cubes, Habitat 67 consists of fifteen different housing types designed to accommodate singles and families of various sizes. In the ensuing years, residents have added their changes as well. There are now 146 residences in Habitat.

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A Building for the Future

Habitat 67

Habitat 67 showed the world that dense urban living could include both privacy and green spaces. However, construction costs were not nearly as low as Safdie initially envisioned. Additionally, the structure’s notoriety made living there a somewhat exclusive proposition, and the price tag for apartments soared.

But the structure’s open spaces, stunning views, skylights, and suspended terraces are as futuristic-looking today as they were in 1967. Montreal residents still enjoy the best of urban living within its concrete walls.

Habitat 67
Photos: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Built for a more comfortable, more efficient future, Habitat 67 also guaranteed the fame and future of its architect, Moshe Safdie. His thoughtful, innovative designs are now scattered across the world, and he’s also been recognized as a master of contemporary architecture. View more of Safdie’s work courtesy of Tablet magazine online.

Architecture Design Inspiration

Habitat 67 Montreal Modernist Architecture Design
Vincent Jiang / Adobe Stock

Looking at Habitat 67, it’s easy to see the inspiration for Safdie’s work. The design is based on several modular hexagonal units that can be combined in different ways to create various living spaces.

The building was intended to solve the housing crisis of the 1960s, and it somewhat succeeded in providing affordable, efficient, and comfortable homes for families.

But what exactly inspired Safdie? The structure’s architecture derives inspiration from the “Metabolism” architectural movement. This movement was mainly used in Japan.

After the Second World War, cities needed rebuilding in Japan. As a result, this prompted new architectural ideas, such as the Metabolist movement. The word “Metabolism” was first used by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange at an architectural conference in 1960. He said:

“We must free ourselves from the tendency to think of cities as static…and dare to think of them as living organisms, metabolic units possessing their rhythms and flows.”

Later, other architects, such as Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki, adopted the term. These architects had one common goal: to build structures that could grow and change with time. They wanted their buildings to be able to “metabolize.”

And that is what Safdie precisely did with Habitat 67. Habitat 67 also draws inspiration from Le Corbusier, the modernist architect, and the brutalist approach. However, Safdie’s design was more optimistic and humanistic.

Safdie wanted to create a comfortable and efficient space for people to live in. His apartment designs included a terrace and his garden. Also, each unit connects directly to the streets, a common feature in the concept of brutality.

Planning and Design

Habitat 67 Montreal

Standing on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, Habitat 67 is a stunning project that uses 365 prefabricated modules. The resultant product was an amazing structure with a whopping 158 residential units.

For each unit, Safdie included a terrace and a roof garden accessible by an internal staircase. The terraces were not just for decoration, but they also served an important purpose. They helped to keep the building cooler in the summer months.

Each prefabricated module guarantees sufficient airflow and sunlight. The units also come in 15 varying sizes, ranging from one-bedroom units around 600 sq. ft. to four-bedroom units around 1800 sq. ft.

However, accessing the units was a slight challenge. For instance, due to the structure’s geometric design, units couldn’t use one vertical elevator. Therefore, Moshe envisioned using three elevator cores and giving each unit access from the external pedestrian streets.

But, to reduce energy consumption from these elevators, Moshe Safdie envisioned that the elevators make stops on every fourth floor. This way, there would be less interruption than when the elevator stops on every floor.

Overall, this was a pretty ambitious project, and it’s no surprise that construction costs spiraled out of control. Ultimately, the project’s total cost was about double what Safdie had initially estimated.

Challenges and Controversies

Habitat 67 Montreal, Quebec

Even though Habitat 67 was to solve the housing crisis, it became a real estate nightmare. For starters, it was quite costly. While the project constructed only 158 of the 1,000 proposed units, its cost was far higher than that of other projects. This fact even made architect Moshe Safdie establish an on-site prefabrication plant to help curb the cost.

However, this didn’t help much. The whole project would require CAD$22 million. This meant that each home would cost CAD$140,000 to build. Not a small amount of money for a small home!

Subsequently, this made it extremely hard for Safdie to gain the necessary trust of the Canadian government. It also meant that the rental charges would be high to help recover the high construction cost of the building. Considering the project’s initial intention was to create affordable housing, this was a big blow.

Finances were not the only challenge with Habitat 67. For instance, it was pretty hard to maintain the units. Since each unit had a terrace, accessing the upper floors was challenging.

The building also started to show wear and tear pretty quickly. The beautiful white exterior had turned into a dull gray in just a few years. This was largely due to prefabricated materials that were not meant to last long but were utilized to minimize spiraling costs.

All these problems saw the idea of modern utopianism drift back into the shadows. It was not the ideal architectural design that everyone admired anymore. The idea has only seen a resurgence in the last decade.

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Habitat 67 Heritage

Aerial view of Habitat 67 in Montreal
Firefighter Montreal / Adobe Stock

Despite all these challenges and drawbacks, Habitat 67 is still standing today and is undoubtedly an architectural marvel. Those who live in these units today enjoy city living differently.

Each resident has access to a roof garden and terrace with a gorgeous river view. With its breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence River, approximately 95% of the units offer residents stunning waterfront panoramas.

Over time, some smaller modules were merged to create larger houses, while other smaller ones act as luxury apartments. This means that the project was not completely a failure.

It might not have been embraced as it was thought it would, but it brought a completely new architectural approach to urban housing.

Talk of the Town

Habitat 67 architecture

When a 23-year-old McGill University student’s thesis project was chosen for the 1967 expo, everyone talked, and the architectural circles were even outraged.

However, this thesis started a career journey for the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. In a career that spans more than 50 years, he designed several other iconic buildings, including the Marina Bay Sands and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem.

He was also the brain behind the National Gallery of Canada,  Vancouver Library Square, and the Quebec Museum of Civilization. In other words, he is one of the most accomplished figures of his time in the architectural field.

Most still remember him for his first thesis project, Habitat 67. It was a building meant to solve the housing crisis but somehow became one of the most controversial buildings of its time.

Legacy

Habitat 67 is an iconic building featured in numerous books and articles. It’s also one of the most photographed buildings in Montreal.

Despite its rocky start, Habitat 67 has stood the test of time and is still a popular choice for housing today. It also appears in several album covers, such as Sweet Trip’s Velocity: Design: Comfort 2003. In 2012, it again appeared on Stars’ album cover, “The North.”

And that’s not all. Habitat 67’s exterior and walkways appear in multiple scenes in The Disappearance. In 2017, Canada Post featured the building in a commemorative stamp for the Expo 67 50th anniversary.

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