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Habitat 2.0

Moshe Safdie’s iconic Canadian complex makes a comeback

One luminous June evening I wander drunkenly around Habitat ’67, the world-famous Montreal housing complex that, half a century ago, was going to change the world. I’m attending a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of Habitat, a piece of the momentous Expo ’67 World’s Fair that lured tens of millions of visitors to Montreal with its upbeat vision of the future. The city has been commemorating the fair this year with a whole slate of exhibitions and events, but this particular gathering is mainly for the residents of the complex, an instantly recognizable, somewhat haphazard-looking pile of 354 prefabricated concrete boxes. The highlight is an appearance by the development’s architect, Moshe Safdie, now 79, who is presented with a medal by a government minister and anointed an officer of the Quebec National Order.

Habitat ’67 was the Guggenheim Bilbao of its day, hugely famous and widely regarded as the shape of things to come. Located far from the center of Montreal on Cité du Havre, a man-made peninsula in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, and convenient only to the former Expo grounds, Habitat is a jumbo pile of concrete boxes stacked asymmetrically and held together by poured-in-place structural elements. Instead of a conventional lobby or landscaped grounds, Habitat has an underside, a long, windswept, concrete cavern that is, apparently, inhabited by thousands of birds. When I walk through it, on my way to the event, I feel as if I’m touring the remnants of a lost civilization. In a way, I am.

What we’ve lost is the idea that the future could be fun. Expo ’67, after all, was the world’s fair at which the United States was represented by a magnificent acrylic biosphere designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. Expo ’67 had a giant kaleidoscope intended to immerse visitors in color. The Canadian pavilion was an inverted pyramid with an observation deck up top.

Habitat, too, was an exhibition. It embodied Safdie’s vision of urban rejuvenation—and perhaps Canada’s—at the moment when North American cities were poised on the brink of decline.

The sunny worldview expounded by Expo ’67 didn’t last and, despite young Safdie’s best efforts, cities cratered economically in the late 1960s and 1970s. Now, curiously, with cities back in fashion, Habitat is also making a comeback. The iconic complex is inspiring, directly or indirectly, developments around the world.

Some in Asia are designed by Safdie himself, and others are being cooked up by much younger architects, most notably Bjarke Ingels of BIG, who thinks Habitat ’67 is “jaw dropping.” For a site in downtown Toronto, BIG has proposed a collection of rectilinear units arranged in jagged stacks, grouped around interior courtyards. The project, which is currently wending its way through the city’s approval process, is clad in stone instead of concrete, and it certainly won’t be prefabricated, but the family resemblance is obvious. Ingels has referred to this development as “Habitat 2.0.”

After Safdie receives his medal, I take off with his director of communications, Christa Mahar, and a ragtag group of architects including the director of the Centre de design at the University of Quebec at Montreal, which recently hosted an in-depth exhibition tracing the history of Habitat. Clutching wine glasses, we set out to visit Safdie’s own Habitat apartment, the interior of which has been designated, like the complex itself, a Canadian national heritage site.

The apartment is on an upper level, positioned like a castle turret, accessible by one of a number of stairways or elevator lobbies, all of which are locked. Using an intercom, Mahar finally persuades someone to buzz us through, and we clamber up to Safdie’s unit, composed of four prefabricated concrete modules, which he is in the midst of renovating. (Some of his proposed changes to the apartment—like new appliances—are putting Safdie, the creator of Habitat, in direct conflict with the heritage authorities who are dedicated to preserving his creation.)

At the time of our visit, it is stripped down to the studs. Navigating along exposed beams, we examine the deep subfloors and marvel at the contours of the fiberglass module standing in the middle of a naked room, the curved shell containing one of the prefab bathrooms that were developed specifically for Habitat.

After we exit Safdie’s personal construction site, we follow Habitat’s elevated walkways (residents think of them as “streets”) back toward the celebration. In the distance, Fuller’s Biosphere is glowing in the late-day sun. I begin to think that Habitat was, in fact, a revolution. It inspired everything, from the poured concrete dormitory complex at the college I attended, an experimental school built in the late 1960s, to the hamster Habitrails that I imagine are an appropriation of the long, curved Plexiglass awnings Safdie used to protect his pedestrian streets from the elements.

This fantasy is interrupted by a conversation with one of the architects, McGill associate professor David Theodore. He tells me that he first visited Habitat as a student and was disappointed to find “an enclave of rich condo owners, cut off from city life in the way the rich often do it—by making it very hard to get there by public transit.” Theodore has a point. Habitat, for all its architectural virtues, isn’t the most urban place. It has no stores or schools (although both were in the original plans).

And it does appeal to moneyed buyers. In Montreal, the average home price is $368,000 (Canadian), but prices for Habitat apartments start at around $600,000. Residents either drive into town or take a private shuttle. “Visiting Habitat was the first time I thought that good architecture doesn’t make a good society,” Theodore continues, “but not the last.”

That same evening, I sit down with Safdie, who was 28 at the time the complex was completed. His family had only arrived in Quebec from Israel in 1954, and he was just a couple of years out of McGill architecture school when he got lured away from his first job, in Louis Kahn’s office, to work on the master plan for Expo. His condition for saying yes was that the housing project he designed as his thesis would be part of the fair.

We’re sitting at the dining table of a borrowed Habitat apartment, a lavishly furnished, fussily decorated cluster of five modules on two levels with sun streaming in the distinctive corner windows and views of the St. Lawrence and the city from every possible angle.

I start by noting the affection the gathered Habitat residents displayed for their architect—his short speech and the dialogue with a radio host that followed was regularly interrupted by enthusiastic applause—and how unusual that is. Safdie points out that he also gets along well with the owners and tenants of his newer projects: “The project I designed in Singapore called Sky Habitat… we went there some months ago, and again tenants came out and sought me out. I was walking around the building. ‘Come in, see what I did with my terrace.’”

But I keep insisting that there is something special about his relationship with this building, with these people. As I’m speaking, a word comes to me: innocence.

“It’s a very innocent building,” Safdie replies. “That is true. I think there is an innocence about this building. We probably knew very little. If we knew more, probably we wouldn’t dare.”

The story of Habitat is dreamlike. The summer after his first year at McGill, Safdie was one of the architecture students selected by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation to go on a grand tour of North American housing. Safdie told me about the trip in a 2015 interview:

So we went wandering for an entire summer to housing projects, public housing high rises, Chicago, New York, all over the place, Levittown. We covered a lot of territory.

I came back and wrote my thesis proposal in which I said “people wanted to live in houses. We have to build denser cities. We’re building a lot of apartments. We need to reinvent the apartment to give every person the quality of life of a house in a high rise building.” That was the bottom line.

Safdie developed a list of amenities and qualities that apartments should have: gardens, a sense of community, privacy. He landed on the idea of stacking boxes, so that one unit’s roof was the next unit’s garden. Then he thought about how to make them.

“I believe if you could make a three-dimensional unit, a spatial unit, you could also pre-finish it in a factory so you could start doing the work in a factory rather than do it all up in the air,” he explained to me in 2015. “So I played with combinations of how you could take these modules and create the whole variety of house types and the combination of assembling these prefabricated modules, creating a building that has the morphology of a hill town…”

In essence, Habitat went from being an undergrad’s fantasy, the sort of utopian paper architecture that was all the rage in the hippie era, to a world-famous icon in the space of six years. It wasn’t a seamless process. Safdie’s published account, Beyond Habitat by 20 Years, is a 1987 repackaging of a series of interviews conducted with him not long after Habitat’s debut, and much of the book is a nuts-and-bolts account of young Safdie’s political maneuvering and feats of persuasion.

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Once at Expo, part of a team of eight inexperienced architects and planners, Safdie began to address the design and construction of Habitat. He approached his contacts at Central Mortgage, the organization that had funded his traveling scholarship, and lined up that agency’s support. Safdie and his architectural team (initially underwritten by a $20,000 grant from the cement industry) struggled with how to actually build the radical design.

Working closely with an engineer he’d met at Kahn’s office, August Komendant, Safdie rejected the idea of having lightweight boxes that would “plug in” to some sort of steel superstructure and instead chose to use heavy concrete modules in a concrete frame. “At that point we made a very important decision: The housing modules would be load-bearing as well as space-enclosing.”

The original proposal called for 950 units “in inclined rhomboidal planes leaning on each other” plus “a complete, commercial and cultural center below.” The price tag: $42 million. Eventually, the budget was cut to $11.5 million, nearly half of which went toward building the factory in which the modules were prefabricated, and the end result was 158 apartments (because units have since been combined, there are fewer now).

Habitat proposal area.
Courtesy Safdie Architects

The final project was more modest and less dense than the architect intended. But it was, and still is, a startlingly original work of architecture—one that spoke of a future that was technologically advanced but, at the same time, refreshingly human. The place possesses a sweetness that is now rare in modern architecture. While it is the result of an industrial process, it isn’t slick. Instead, it’s a little awkward, as befitting an undergrad’s dream of a garden for everyone.

What happened to Safdie after Expo was extraordinary, and also somewhat predictable: He became immensely famous. He was a starchitect at a time when the category, if it existed at all, was owned by Frank Lloyd Wright, who had been dead nearly a decade. He was asked to replicate Habitat in far-flung locations: San Juan, St. Thomas, Jerusalem, and New York City. Construction actually began on the Habitat in Puerto Rico, but it was never completed. (Bjarke Ingels, a longtime Habitat enthusiast, made a pilgrimage to the site in San Juan: “You stop by the side of the road and walk into the forest,” Ingels recalls. “You can see some of the original concrete structures standing there, turning into this jungle temple.”)

The New York iteration, initiated by a community-minded developer named Carol W. Haussamen, and encouraged by then-Mayor John Lindsay, never got off the ground. It would have been a magnificently strange triad of 50-story ziggurat-shaped heaps of modules, sited near the East River between the Fulton Fish Market and Wall Street. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s tensegrity structures, Safdie planned to suspend modules with cables from a vertical core.

Safdie explained the project’s unsurprising demise this way: “The board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange and their architect, Gordon Bunshaft, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who were planning a structure right next to us, were unhappy about their prospective neighbors.”

When I was a kid, Moshe Safdie was a hero in my house, mostly because he was Jewish. Jewish cultural figures, other than comedians, were rare back then. So, a couple of summers after Expo ended, I was able to talk my parents into taking me to a foreign country (Canada) because of my mother’s devotion to Habitat. We drove from New Jersey to Montreal to visit Expo, and we must have stopped to see Safdie’s building, although I have no memory of that visit.

Twenty years later, around the time I landed my first staff position at a design magazine and began to navigate the warring cultures of development and preservation in New York City, Safdie, Jewish saint of my childhood, re-emerged as a villain.

Moshe Safdie at Habitat ‘67 during construction.
Courtesy Safdie Architects

The catalyst was Safdie’s design for Columbus Center, a 63-story replacement for the New York Coliseum at 59th Street, facing Columbus Circle. Working with Boston Properties (a firm led by Mortimer Zuckerman, who, early on, made an unsuccessful bid to develop Habitat ’67) and Salomon Brothers, Safdie came up with a pair of aggressively angular towers that enraged New York’s critics and civic leaders.

Writing for the New York Times, Paul Goldberger decried the tower for its lack of deference to the “romantic and quasi-historical heritage of the New York skyscraper” and complained that it looked like “Buck Rogers.” The New Yorker’s Brendan Gill called it a “grotesquely convoluted twin-towered carved-iceberg of a skyscraper.” And the notion that the towers would cast a shadow over Central Park became the rallying cry for a broad coalition of opponents.

On Sunday, October 18, 1987, a protest was held in Central Park in which 800 participants opened large black umbrellas to symbolize the extent of the shadow. In New York City lore, this was the moment that Safdie’s disruptive tower was banished. The very next day, however, was Black Monday, when the Dow dropped 22 percent, a fact that likely did more than any number of umbrellas to stop the project.

Because of the Columbus Center controversy, I began my life as a design writer thinking of Safdie as a bad architect: not a revolutionary genius, but a pawn of voracious developers. In retrospect, I’m not so sure. What Goldberger accused Safdie of doing—casting aside the contextual restraints that have a way of retarding innovation in New York architecture—now strikes me as a brave act. And, in truth, I don’t know that the existing 750-foot-tall Time Warner Center designed by SOM’s David Childs casts any less of a shadow than Safdie’s proposed design. Childs’ version of the development is more decorous, but is it better architecture?

Today, when I look at renderings of Safdie’s Columbus Center, I’m fascinated by them. By now, the exact “Buck Rogers” quality that Goldberger detested might have endeared the project to us. Compare the angular approach to that of Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower. Eventually, Safdie’s building could have become the context.

That said, Safdie’s aesthetic sensibility is a strange one. It was informed by his childhood in Haifa, which was, in the 1950s, a hillside city of modest modernist buildings. In the 1960s, he dabbled in movements like the one led by the Japanese Metabolists, who understood the man-made world to be part of a “vital process—a continuous development from atom to nebula.” The Metabolists believed humans should build buildings as bees built hives. Their work was dense, angular, and odd, and most famously represented by Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower, which, like Habitat, was a distinctive assemblage of prefab concrete boxes.

When Safdie worked at Louis Kahn’s office, his colleague Anne Tyng introduced him to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 book, On Growth and Form, and Thompson’s belief that the man-made world should take its cues from living organisms. In “Beyond Habitat,” Safdie recalls Thompson pointing out that you can “achieve infinite variety within repetitive systems.” He was one of an endless number of 1960s architects absorbing big ideas and fantasizing a better world. The difference between Safdie and pretty much everyone else was that his dreamiest project actually got built. And, as a consequence, perhaps, he has never entirely shed his sci-fi inclinations.

Take, for example, the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore, designed by Safdie and completed in 2011. It’s a trio of 55-story hotel towers, topped by what appears to be a gargantuan surfboard. I never understood it as an architectural object until I visited Singapore and realized that Marina Bay Sands is in a part of the city rapidly filling up with oddities—the 150-foot-tall solar-powered Supertrees and shell-shaped domes containing forests and flowers—and that the jumbo surfboard is actually a platform holding a 2.5-acre SkyPark, much of which is taken up by a spectacular swimming pool cantilevered over the abyss.

Now, late in his career, after many decades of being most successful as an architect of museums and institutions—like Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, and Crystal Bridges in Arkansas—Safdie’s office is suddenly working on residential buildings again, some of which, one way or another, make reference to Habitat.

Communal gardens and greenery-filled terraces combine with angular forms that recall, but don’t imitate, the original. These are Habitat’s grandchildren, taller, richer, with more swagger. “In my dreams, I didn’t think of the densities that we’re building today,” Safdie told me.

And then there are works by other architects that can be read as Habitat revivals. Some appear to be Habitat cousins, like Italian architect Stefano Boeri’s “vertical forest” in Milan, where greenery sprouts from oversized balconies. More closely related is 56 Leonard, a luxury apartment tower in New York’s Tribeca by Herzog & de Meuron, in which the perimeters of individual units jut dramatically from the main tower. The architects have described it as “houses stacked in the sky.” (Civilians call it the Jenga building.)

When I asked whether Habitat was the inspiration for 56 Leonard, Jacques Herzog replied, “Habitat Montreal is a great work of architecture which was always on our mind. Did it inspire Leonard Street? Not consciously.” Herzog points out that he and de Meuron have been piling up houses in different ways for quite some time, most notably Vitra House in Weil am Rhein, Switzerland, where extra-long house-shaped volumes are stacked like fireplace logs.

Sky Habitat, Singapore by Safdie Architects
Joseph Meng Huat Goh/Alamy
56 Leonard, New York by Herzog & de Meuron
8 House, Copenhagen
Jens Lindhe
Vertical Forest, Milan by Stefano Boeri

Which brings us back to BIG’s Toronto “Habitat 2.0.” Asked why he might create an homage to Habitat, Bjarke Ingels explains that the site of his project doesn’t allow for much height and—no surprise—he wasn’t interested in doing something that looks like every other building in town. “We thought it would be nice if we could inject an alternative to the fat tower on a big podium,” he says. So the idea is that it “undulates… so even though it’s a rather compact volume it’s a quite lively presence on the skyline.”

When I first read about the BIG project, I assumed Ingels was being glib. But the tribute is sincere. For one thing, it bothers him—again, no surprise—that most architects play it safe. “I think often in architecture, it’s the typologies that are the least interesting that are repeated the most relentlessly,” he argues. “But it would be much more interesting if there were many variations of Habitat out there. Habitat 1.0, 2.3, 5.6…”

Ingels’s connection to Habitat goes deep. He learned about it as an architecture student, has visited it in person, and has spent time with Safdie. He’s a fan. “I think it really is a testament to Moshe Safdie’s vision and fearlessness and ability to actually deliver such a radical vision back at the apex of future optimism. Fifty years later, it feels as much a vision of the future as it did 50 years ago.”

Indeed, one can detect a trace of Habitat in many of BIG’s signature projects. Buildings like 8 House on the outskirts of Copenhagen, in a development called Ørestad, are dense, angular, unconventional arrangements of apartments and other uses (offices, parking, retail) that, like Habitat, offer residents some of the sensation of living in a private house. 8 House, for example, has a bike path that winds through the complex and allows residents to pedal to their front doors. BIG’s biggest Manhattan project, Via 57, with its unusual triangular shape and its orientation toward the river, also has a dash of Habitat’s DNA in it. None of this is entirely an accident.

“Do you know our project called the Mountain?” Ingels asks, referring to one of BIG’s earliest works. “It’s pretty much built on the same site and [using] a similar design as my thesis project from architecture school.” Ingels’s thesis involved a prototype for mixed-use development, something that was rare in Denmark at the time. And while he was working on it, he came upon a book by Safdie.

Ingels was taken with Safdie’s “tectonic” approach, but what really resonated was Habitat’s genesis story. “It was very inspiring because I realized that Habitat ’67 was basically a realization of Moshe Safdie’s thesis project from architecture school. And it was very eye-opening that something you’re doing in academia could be taken to real life.”

Motivated by Safdie’s example, Ingels took his thesis work to the developers of Ørestad, who eventually built the Mountain, 80 apartment units arranged in a tessellated array on the sloping backside of a parking garage, each with its own trellised roof deck. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of the Mountain as the real Habitat 2.0, although Ingels contends that the whole thing was primarily driven by the developer’s need for a place to put cars.

Safdie, meanwhile, is pleased that his youthful ideas are filtering back into the architectural profession. “Habitat was not in the center of thinking for so many years, through the ’80s and ’90s, through postmodernism… This building was ignored. To see it come back to center stage as an influence in the mainstream is kind of reaffirming.”

Safdie adds, “In the case of Ingels, he’s very generous about it. He’s always told me how much my work meant to him, so it’s nice to be a mentor.”

In my own wine-fueled exploration, I decided that what moves me about Habitat, and its ongoing existence as a place where people (albeit rich condo owners) live, is its creation story. An architecture student spends a summer studying housing types and arrives at a simple solution for urban woes: Make apartments more like houses. He then comes up with the most dramatic, technologically over-the-top way to generate apartments with privacy and gardens. And he wills it into being.

It’s the sort of thing that can’t happen twice. Not to one architect, anyway. While Safdie may continue to build things branded Habitat, he will never create something so unselfconsciously beautiful again.

But then along comes Ingels, possibly Safdie’s heir apparent, fiddling with Habitat’s kit of parts. I’m not sure he’s capable of building anything that exudes such innocence, but he gets what’s important about Safdie’s early thinking. Ingels sees Habitat as “a blatant engagement in the world, with a curiosity and a willingness to experiment that creates expressions that look so radically different from the status quo because they perform radically different, and because they are created radically different.” When Ingels describes the thing he loves about Habitat—that radical difference—he’s also talking about the thing he loves in his own work.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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