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October 07, 2008

Habitat 67 Today

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

On our recent trip to Canada we allotted two full days for Montreal. Since Nancy had never been there, I largely let her determine what we would visit. Had we spent another day or two in town, a site I might have gotten around to seeing would have been Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67, built in conjunction with Expo 67, Montreal's world's fair of 1967. Or maybe not: it would depend on if I could be free to wander around it above ground level.

As it was, the closest I got to it was the edge of the old town Montreal where I snapped the following picture. About all it proves is that Habitat still exists.


For more on Habitat '67, the Wikipedia entry is here. A web page with lots of photos, some links and other information is here.

Habitat '67 was the subject of a lot of attention when it was built. I know it intrigued me because my take was that it featured orthodox modernism in the form of rectangular modules that were combined in what appeared to be an organic manner.

Lazy me, I haven't followed up on the fate of Habitat nor have I paid much attention to Safdie's later career (I will write a post on his Ottawa National Gallery soon, however).

No doubt Habitat inspired other architects to try out some of Safdie's concepts. Even so, I haven't noticed many (or any) Habitats were I live or travel.

Can any readers bring me and the rest of us up to speed? How is the original Habitat doing? Since it's not a publicly subsidized and operated project, presumably residents chose to move there and would be predisposed to like it -- but do they, once the novelty has worn off? And how well does the place function? For instance, is it easy for residents to haul groceries or new pieces of furniture up to their apartments? Why havn't we seen lot of Habitat-like structures?



posted by Donald at October 7, 2008


I have been asking similar questions of Montrealeans (ers?) myself; haven't got clear answers. I have only indirect anecdote to offer on the subject:
once I happen to talk to a PR officer of one of the boroughs (districts? municipalities?) of Montreal, Caroline. She said Habitat apartments are very desirable, sort of like coops and condos on Rousevelt Island in Manhattan, and prices are high; she attributed it to the fact that every apartment, i.e. combination of living quarters/cubes is different from the others; thus the uniformity is not complete. It's ahappy balance of compact urban living and avoidance cookie-cutter similarity. Opportunity to have a small garden that is uniquely yours is also a big plus.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 7, 2008 6:04 PM

You might want to take a look at this website: The site will give you lots of information about the complex, buying or renting units, the fact that Safdie stays in touch with them, that restorations and renovations are ongoing. And many very nice images. At least it's a start.

Posted by: NextCity on October 7, 2008 6:47 PM

I've heard roughly the same thing as Tatyana. I believe the main reason no more Habitats were built was because the original was hugely expensive - as ostensibly a model for social housing, it was a blind alley. Safdie believed that new techniques would lower the cost of Habitat-like structures, but it never happened.

I remember Habitat well from my childhood visit to Expo 67. I still think it's mega-cool.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on October 7, 2008 8:35 PM

They look like someone poured out a huge pile of mobile homes and sort of half-ass sorted them out. Presumably these apartments are more aesthetically pleasing on the inside. I think it's a good idea that no one has tried to duplicate these things. They may fit the environment they are in there, but I have a feeling that copies of this structure (like most modern architecture) would not fit the locales where they might have been built. God forbid that this type of thing may have become ubiquitous. I can't imagine looking out my "habitat" window and seeing...another group of habitats across the street.

Does anyone remember Arcosanti, the utopian architectural "laboratory" out in the Arizona desert? I once visited while in grad school out there, but haven't heard of it's activities in over 25 years. They now have their own website...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 7, 2008 11:42 PM

I'm relying on a failing memory here ... Anyway, once upon a time I looked into Safdie and Habitat quite a lot. Some random things I think I remember:

* He was amazingly young at the time of Expo '67 -- architects rarely get something as ambitious as Habitat made when that young.

* It was meant to be a vision that could be replicated at reasonable cost all over the world. It went wildly overbudget. I'm pretty sure a few more Habitats were built -- they were expensive too. Safdie got discouraged (I believe he even took some of the blame on himself), and moved on to have a large practice in Israel.

(An aside: the ideal of a manufactured prefab -- in approved modernist style, natch -- has been a dream of modernism for decades and decades. They just love the notion. If you follow the architecture press, there it is, every other year: some brilliant new scheme for a boxy prefab that's going to solve all our problems. Hard to explain the hold this dream has on the architecture-school crowd. Hard to explain how little respect they hold the mobile-home business in too, isn't it? I mean ... Prefabs for the masses, no?)

* To many people's surprise, Habitat '67 became quite desirable and even chichi an address. The spare cube-i-ness, the semi-random placing, the location out on an island ... A certain kind of person evidently likes the packagae. As modernism goes, it does strike me as more humane than most, but it's not like I've lived there. And though it does look like, as Charlton said, something dumped off the back of a truck.

Trying to remember here if I actually visited Habitat, or saw a film about it, or only read some really vivid books ... Lordy, what time and age do to a memory.

Anyway, Safdie's rep was as one of the men who wanted to humanize modernism. Then he got into doing modernism in Israel much influenced by "Jewish" forms. Then he started getting a lot of commissions back in North America. My old nearby home-city of Rochester NY seems to have commissioned him to do an ambitious attempt at downtown revival.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 8, 2008 12:17 AM

Looks pretty cool as modernist places go. I remember these seeming pretty Jetsons when I was a kid.

Having lived in a few modernist places myself, I would say the devil is in the details. They are invariably kind of drab/deppo on the outside - even these Safdi units, which have an awesome location, cool asymmetry and nice gardens, have a kind of brutal cookie-cutter grayness that doesn't say "home".

Buildings from the mid-sixties and earlier - at least where I live, which is Stockholm - often have good ceiling heights; nicely proportioned, well built doors and windows; and well designed interiors with beautiful details.

Modernist places don't welcome you from outside the way a nice Georgian does; their industrial, squared-off lines say "fuck off". But many of the ones we have lived in have felt cozy and even luxurious inside - a hidden oasis disguised as a bunker. Maybe keeping a low profile seemed like a good idea in the early to mid twentieth century, with great wars following on each other and socialist ideology gaining legitimacy.

Posted by: robert61 on October 8, 2008 3:53 AM

Tatyana: I have been asking similar questions of Montrealeans (ers?)

It's Montrealites, Torontassians and Ottawoons. We sound like Belgian aliens on Star Trek.

Ahem. "..ers", actually.

Habitat is apparently very livable, with a nice kind of porch/veranda/commons effect caused by the way the interlocking units create shared spaces. All this while preserving privacy quite nicely. The gardens are nice too. From what I've seen of Habitat, its resemblance to Middle Eastern old quarters is deliberate. And the views are internally oriented: you look out into this nicely unpredictable organic-feeling soukish kinda neighbourhood.

As for arcosanti, a friend visited Arizona recently, and spent time there. He said it was an eerie experience. The place was a shell of its former self, not very busy, almost uninhabitated, with the buildings rain-streaked and ugly. His time there was marred, however, by unusually wet, overcast weather for Arizona. But he did say the place had a "depressing vibe, almost like a high-tech ghost town".

Posted by: PatrickH on October 8, 2008 9:02 AM

So acrosanti was not cool (or rather was, in literate sense), huh?
I'm glad I didn't find a traveling companion in April, then.
I was planning a visit, but my boss (whose wife went there for a month 15 yrs ago) discouraged me - he said he doesn't approve of the notion of paying for the priviledge of working for someone - and on top of that, to live in a sort of monastic hippie quarters? Funny side: he's always foaming at the mouth about severance packages for Wall St guys...

Posted by: Tatyana on October 8, 2008 10:11 AM

I recall a comedy show in my youth (almost 30 years ago), that had a skit where they showed the Habitat 67 complex from the outside, and a voice over said something like: "I wonder what types of people live in apartments that look like this?" And then they showed the inside of an apartment, and then showed a family with "square" heads!

Posted by: Wade Nichols on October 8, 2008 10:07 PM

Tel Aviv has a lot of buildings that are as strange as Habitat 67. They're just not even as noticeable in that strange city.

Posted by: Omri on October 8, 2008 10:22 PM

Oh, I forgot to respond to the mention of Arcosanti.

The Wife and I made the pilgramage maybe 15 years ago, on a trip when we also hit Taliesen West and that Biodome place, what was it called? Anyway, Arcosanti ... For a place that's as cultishly legendary as it is it's really nothing -- PatrickH's "high-tech ghost town" is pretty nice, though it wasn't very high-tech, really. It was more like a half-built-then-abandoned, smallish progressive school from 1970, with maybe a few more swoops and oddnesses than most.

A few hippies here and there, puttering away ineffectually ... Vague memories of grand visions fluttering about in the air ... That whole annoying thing '60s people were keen on of reinventing the wheel all over again ...

I guess it's kinda cool someone went to the all the trouble to draw up a few plans and pour a little cement. But the size of the dream so massively exceeds what has been realized in fact that it is all a little depressing, like the day after an acid trip. (I say all this as someone who likes a lot of zany architecture, btw.)

All that said, Paolo Soleri strikes me as a very talented designer -- the ceramic bells that the place sells to raise a little cash are awfully nice.

Here's the Arocanti website, which makes the place look a lot more substantial than it is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 9, 2008 12:24 AM

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