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 that 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 the host city of Montreal entered the initial planning stages for the 1967 World’s Fair, 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.
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The Brain Behind Habitat 67
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.
Israeli Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie, designed the building as part of his thesis project at McGill University. And surprisingly, his professors were not too keen on the idea. In fact, they thought it was too ambitious and even outrageous.
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. And this is where it all started.
From Thesis to Reality
When Safdie first presented his project, it was nothing more than 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 that were struggling with housing costs. However, the cost of construction 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 in 1985 from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
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A Building for the People
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 an entire 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 set back 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 an abundance of natural light. External walkways allow all residents direct access to their own homes.
But to minimize construction costs, the modular units were mass-produced in an on-site concrete factory. By pouring it over a reinforcing wire skeleton, the concrete was cured to produce a cube.
Cubes were then transported to an assembly line where electricals and sub-floors were installed, followed by insulation and windows, and finally prefabricated bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Then each completed unit was lifted by crane and positioned in place.
Located on its peninsula, la “Cité du Havre” on the Saint Lawrence River, Habitat 67 provides spectacular views of the city across the river. 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 showed the world that it was possible for dense urban living to include both privacy and green spaces. However, construction costs were not nearly as low as Safdie initially envisioned. Additionally, the structure’s notoriety made a 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.
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. He’s also been recognized as a master of contemporary architecture.
View more of Safdie’s work courtesy of Tablet magazine online.
Habitat 67 Architecture Design Inspiration
When you look 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 a variety of living spaces.
The building was to be a solution to the housing crisis of the 1960s, and it somewhat succeeded in its goal of 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 was a movement used mainly 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 have the courage to think of them as living organisms, metabolic units possessing their rhythms and flows.”
Later, the term was adopted by other architects such as Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki. 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. Additionally, Habitat 67 also draws inspiration from Le Corbusier, the modernist architect, Brutalism 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 own garden. Also, each unit connects directly to the streets, a common feature in the Brutalism concept.
Planning and Design
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 of the units, Safdie included a terrace and a roof garden, accessible by an internal staircase. And 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.
Also, each prefabricated module would guarantee sufficient airflow and sunlight. And the units also come in 15 varying sizes. They range from one-bedroom units, around 600 sq. ft, to four-bedroom units, 1800 sq. ft.
However, there was a slight challenge with accessing the units. For instance, units couldn’t use one vertical elevator due to the structure’s geometrical design. Therefore, Moshe envisioned the use of three elevator cores, plus 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.
Generally, this was a pretty ambitious project, and it’s no surprise that construction costs spiraled out of control. In the end, the project’s total cost was about double what Safdie had initially estimated.
Habitat 67 Challenges and Controversies
Even though Habitat 67 was to be a solution for the housing crisis, it somewhat ended up becoming a real estate nightmare.
For starters, it was quite costly. While the project ended up constructing only 158 of the 1,000 proposed units, its cost was far higher than other projects. This fact even made architect Moshe Safdie decide to 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 from the Canadian government. It also meant that the rental charges would be high to help recover the high construction cost of the building. And this was a big blow – considering the initial intention of the project; to create affordable housing.
Finances were not the only challenge with Habitat 67. For instance, it was pretty hard to do maintenance on the units. Since each unit had its terrace, it was challenging to access the upper floors.
The building also started to show wear and tear pretty quickly. In just a few years, the beautiful white exterior of the structure had turned into a dull gray. And this was largely due to the use of prefabricated materials that were not meant to last long but were utilized to minimize spiraling costs.
All these problems saw the Modern Utopianism idea somehow drift back into the shadows. It was not the ideal architectural design that everyone admired anymore. It is only in the last decade that the idea has seen a resurgence.
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Habitat 67 Heritage
Despite all these challenges and drawbacks, Habitat 67 is still standing today and is undoubtedly an architectural marvel. In fact, those who live in these units today enjoy city living differently. Each resident has access to a roof garden and a terrace that offers a gorgeous river view.
Over time, some of the 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
When a thesis project from a 23-year-old student from McGill University was picked 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 went on to design 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.
All in all, most people still remember him for his very first thesis project, Habitat 67. A building meant to be a solution for the housing crisis but somehow became one of the most controversial buildings of its time.
Habitat 67 is an iconic building that has been 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 the Sweet Trip’s Velocity: Design: Comfort 2003 album cover. In 2012, it again appeared on Stars’ album cover, “The North.”
And that’s not all. Habitat 67’s exterior and walkways also appear in multiple scenes in the movie “The Disappearance.” In 2017, the building was featured in a commemorative stamp offered by Canada Post for the Expo 67 50th anniversary.