The pilot project of Moshe Safdie’s mission to reinvent apartment living became mired in controversy – yet it remains a functioning icon of 1960s utopianism, and one of that period’s most important buildings.
Of the 90 pavilions built for Expo 67, Montreal’s 1967 “world’s fair”, only two still stand more-or-less intact. One is Buckminster Fuller’s famed geodesic dome: though the acrylic cover burned off in a fire in 1976, the former United States pavilion is now the Montreal Biosphere, a museum devoted to the environment. The other pavilion to live on is Habitat 67 – the young Israeli-Canadian architectMoshe Safdie’s wildly ambitious, government-sponsored attempt at reimagining apartment living, and one of the most important buildings of the 1960s.
Part of Canada’s centenary celebrations, Expo 67 was a point of pride for a city that was alive with newness – a new metro system, new downtown skyscrapers and a burgeoning Québécois nationalist movement (it was on a visit to Expo that Charles de Gaulle made his famous “Vive le Québec libre!” speech).
The event drew 50 million visitors (still an Expo world record) to what was then a country of 20 million and a city of under three million. And amid the various nations’ trumpeting and boasting, the snaking monorail system, the snack bars and souvenir stands, stood a modular jumble of prefabricated concrete housing cubes which have since drawn comparisons to everything from Lego to a Cubist painting or the pueblos built by native tribes in the southwestern US.
Habitat 67 echoes a little known post-war Japanese architectural movement called Metabolism, whose proponents believed buildings should be designed as living, organic, interconnected webs of prefabricated cells. Perhaps the most famous Metabolist incarnation is Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, another pile of concrete cubes dotted with porthole-like windows, erected in 1972. The influence of Le Corbusier, especially the French master’s love affair with concrete, on Habitat 67 is also clear. But Safdie set his own course, attempting to balance cold geometry against living, breathing nature.
It was while travelling across North America as a student that Safdie surveyed grim apartment high-rises and unsustainable suburban sprawl. He returned home to Montreal with a mission: to “reinvent the apartment building”. He longed to create, as he put it in a 2014 Ted Talk, “a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit – Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors” (each cube has access to a roof garden built atop an adjacent cube).
Habitat 67 was a pilot project, intended as just the first application of a salve for urban ills that would spread across the world. Only it didn’t quite work out that way. The Walrus, Canada’s answer to the Atlantic magazine, called Habitat 67 a “failed dream”.
From the beginning, the finances were a mess. The budget – it was funded by the federal government’s Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – spiralled out of control, despite the assembly line-style production, which was carried out at a specially built, on-site prefabrication plant. To recoup costs, the government set rents so high that no one could afford them. Then, as the 1960s began to fizzle out, modern utopian architecture did, too.
“By the early 70s you have a global economic downturn, the oil crisis, Nixon de-links the dollar from the gold standard, and the Vietnam war is raging … the money for these types of projects simply dries up,” says Indebir Singh Riar, assistant professor of architecture at Carlton University in Ottawa.
The concrete needed frequent repair. One former resident, who lived there more than a decade ago for three years (and stilll prefers to remain anonymous, lest he offend the building’s diehard cheerleaders), says he fled after developing asthma and finding his cat dead. “From an architectural point of view, it’s spectacular, but water got into that concrete, and mould seeped into the ventilation system. It blew the spores around.” By the mid-1980s, the building was in private hands.
Though there may be some truth in the pronouncement of Habitat 67’s failure, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Too much has been made of the socialist ideals the building supposedly embodied. Though Safdie has a history of kibbutz living, Habitat was never meant to be public housing; it was built for middle-class city-dwellers, the kind who flee to the green suburbs once they start a family.
Safdie himself still maintains a pied-à-terre in the 13-storey building, which stands on a narrow, man-made peninsula just south of the Old Port section of Montreal. Today Habitat apartments – many of them linking two or three cubes, luxuriously renovated and connected into sprawling residences with multiple terraces and views over the water – are often listed by Sotheby’s. Longtime resident Jeannie Saunders, whose home is a four-cube penthouse, says that Habitat will always be a “a community, where people have a feeling of friendship with neighbours, a special place to live”.
It may never have achieved affordability but the building, just two years shy of its 50th birthday, remains a potent symbol. In 2009, the Quebec government gave it heritage status, recognising that despite the controversies and maintenance issues, Habitat represents much more than a yuppified ghost of 1960s idealism.
“Safdie’s expression ‘For everyone a garden’ is still an incredible idea,” says Riar. “At such a young age, he realised that suburbs are not necessarily bad, but city living is important. He asked: if people had more space and light, would they stay in the city? It’s a very noble idea.”