Habitat ’67

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Montreal, Quebec
Moshe Safdie

My journey to Habitat was a bit of a trek because I missed my stop at Pierre Dupuy. The bus took me all the way to Nun’s Island, but after long waits and far walks I finally made it to Habitat.

Moshe Safdie had just finished his masters thesis and was interning for Louis Kahn when he was asked to bring his masters thesis into fruition at the World Expo ’67 in Montreal. The theme of the World Exposition was Man and his World, exhibiting the relationship humans have with their built and natural environments. Aesthetically, it sought to distinguish itself from the trending skyscrapers and towers that were exhibited in the previous years. Safdie’s proposal was to create modular and affordable housing units that gave families the comfort and freedom of a suburban home in an urban, apartment-style housing.

Its initial goal of affordability was shot due to the fact that precast concrete was at a very experimental stage and the construction had to go through a series of trial and error. However, according to Moshe Safdie’s “Beyond Habitat”, Safdie’s own narrative of the life cycle of the project, the price of the apartments should have been much cheaper because it was funded by a government research grant. Despite the funding, the property was claimed by a private company after the Expo had ended, and was priced much higher than Safdie had intended.
The price was not the only reason for Habitat’s alienation from the rest of the city. It is located in Cite du Havre, a peninsula off of Montreal that was the site for the Expo.

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Habitat is commemorated for being one of the first attempts at the “garden for every family”, idea. It’s intention is quite well realized, as each cubic units face outwards with a great view. One half looks over to the East past the waterfall and the river, and the opposite side faces downtown beyond a highway and a small body of water, which has become an industrial boat docking area. The entrance is located at the back of the house, from the public corridor. The views on either sides may be great, but the corridor in between becomes a horrible, dead space.

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(? Don’t know what this is but the grotesqueness seemed fitting for the setting)

Habitat is a housing complex composed of modular precast concerted cubes. The cubes rest on each other, and the resting and cantilevering of units create open garden spaces for every unit. However, this means that each unit must be attached to itself. This creates a very dense cluster of concrete boxes, and the corridor in between doesn’t get much variation in light. This is problematic because concrete is beautiful only when combined with light and shadows. Concrete in dark spaces, like underground bridges, look very cold and rough and dirty. One of the underground spaces that I really enjoy are the subway stations in Washington but even those spaces couldn’t be so amazing if it weren’t for the interplay between the uplights and the deep shadows cast by the openings in the concrete blocks.

I think that given the lack of connection Habitat has with the city and its gearing towards families, the corridor had opportunity to be and the responsibility to be something more than just a dead corridor. I found this surprising because Moshe Safdie designed Habitat for families with children, and I had pictured a more welcoming and engaging common space. The concrete didn’t age well, which didn’t help the matter.

After I’d had a good look around, I was kicked out of the property by a man yelling, “public property, no visitors, please, on to the street!” I tried to explain myself but he wouldn’t budge. My Frank LLoyd Wright trip has made me quite immune to things like this, but I don’t really see the appeal in Habitat. I was told that Habitat’s charm can only be understood when you go inside one of the units, but the inconvenient distance from the city and its lack of appropriate public space would make me reluctant to cash out thousands of dollars for a small apartment with a nice view.

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