Fifty-one years have gone since Habitat 67 was built for Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada, designed and built by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. At that time his building had a huge success and now become a national symbol of Canada. Habitat was Sadie’s first ever built project and innovative residential solution for high-density cities. But did he actually achieves the true purpose of these condominiums or it’s just a beautiful idea? Can we actually built an excellent structure with a beautiful design and still be affordable for everyone?
Moshe Safdie as all young architects and as a beginner was the idealist, romantic of his time. He believes that everyone deserves to have his own private space and still be in a community. Place where everyone can be together and at the same time be alone with themselves.
His idea was revolutionary at that time, prefabricated building, which can be ready in a couple weeks, modular house, your own big house with private garden on the tenth floor of a multistory residential building. Everything you can dream of in suburbia is now in a middle of a city of Montreal. He tried to create a Utopian world with a building that has everything u need, shops, schools, houses, garden, and terraces, walking alias and airspace walking bridges.
It’s all started with Meadowvale, continued with theoretical work on the master plan for Tel Aviv and replace city of Giza.
The original design had two parts, a ten-story section and a twenty-two story section where the commercial center was. But because of the budget cut was decided to 12 story building at the northern end of the pier. And this place was chosen on purpose by Moshe Safdie, he thought was that this place had the most beautiful views on town and river.
The building is made up of box-like modules of identical sizes. The modules are factory produced, which was built nearby to a construction site, which was grouped an intricate three- dimensional structure. Each module should be a complete one-bedroom house, or one half, one third or one-quarter of a large house. That meant a module of about six hundred square meters.
After considerable trial and error were established a three feet 6-inch grid as the dimensioning matrix for the entire system.
Habitat was a product of mass prefabrication, even this word can be a training of like a capitalism in Russia where everyone had the same buildings, hundreds of identical apartments and houses, even city plans for new city were the same. But habitat is completely different, all units maybe look the same, but they created completely different feelings, not similarity, but rather spaceship landed on an earth from a different planet.
To build this structure was a challenge for the whole team of architects and engineers, but in a financial way also. The initial concept of Moshe Safdie was to build it in two section which is in money equivalent was about 26 million dollars. Choice of material was also a very important theme of discussion and confrontation.
Habitat braked the housing industry rules and conventions at the very beginning, even before it was built. Every aspect of the process of thinking seemed to require rethinking.
But you will never get that feeling of it’s to live in Moshe Safdie dream if you never with it’s I decided to live there for couple days during expo 67.
Everyone was very excited about this building and for me, which time was a great honor to be one of the first volunteers to move in one of the modules with my family and a dog.
From the first point of view when saw on pictures of this build it reminds of a very harsh replica of Lego cubes, stacked on each other, but instead of plastic pieces, you see massive heavy concrete boxes. And at the second you start to hate it because this grey, cold unpleasant look almost repels you. But you still give it a chance. And you get inside this massive complex and in front of you appears almost cosmic spectacle. Concrete blocks become grayish pleasant material. Seemed that child used his play cubes to create this very organized and at the same time chaotic beehive.
Then you see all these levels of stacked boxes and concrete roads, with bridges and aerial streets and cannot imagine how this boxes can create that feeling of the individual house. How it can give the feeling of living in suburbia and still be in a community. And it intrigues you, arisen of strong feeling inside to explore more and more about this place. You climbing up by this connected alleys with plastic screens to protect you from rain and wind. While you going up to your unit peaceful view on rare views of both downtown Montreal in front and the St. Lawrence River out back.
All the housing modules have load-bearing structure, same for the space-enclosing. When entered into our new home first thing was completely silent, no outside or neighbored noise. The smell of the just made house, hardwood flooring, concrete walls and ceiling, new furniture, but a stranger feeling of home, our home, that was made especially for us and for our taste. House seemed large enough for three people and a dog. It actually feels very private, you know that you surrounded by other boxes, where lives a lot of other people, with their families and don’t have that feeling that someone is looking or watching at you.
Moshe Safdie spends many ours to place each box that way to give you as much privacy as you need. And it doesn’t affect windows. Doubled space gives you a lot of opportunities and one of them is the feeling of space, airiness which of course you will never get in our typical apartments. Every flat at this time was small and definitely doesn’t feel like a suburban house.
You go outside and in front of you appears beautiful and spacious terrace with pre-planted botanical elements and a small playground for a child. Moshe managed pretty much all benefits of suburban life. The small garden where children can play and still be in your field of vision. Everything was made to protect your privacy, even handrailing was made this way to protect you from falling down. And if its rain or cold outside you use a glazed terrace stay warm and enjoying the weather.
Since we moved in during outside time we heard a lot of music and dances from our neighbors, but it felt natural like a part of the community, but when you going back home silent comes. Soundproofing of each unit was remarkably good.
Sometimes the ship docks right in front of us and the river sounds gave an illusion of house on a boat, and definitely not in a busy and high-density city. This atmosphere creates a peaceful harmony between human and nature.
Every detail seems right and well planned.
On first floor of our house was kitchen with a dining room, and fiberglass bathroom module, which was already prepared and inserted in concrete box. Stairs attached to a wall and lead us to the second floor with two bedrooms, master bedroom and the small bedroom for our child. Each room provided with a different size of the glass, which can be seemed as a choices placement, but it it was creates using systematic which provides us with a lot of daylight.
Many aspects of this house were pleasant for me. By creating this project Moshe Safdie looked in future in the world where to live in the city become impossible because of the fast-growing population. He created a new type of residential housing and combined all great aspects of suburban life in one apartment. It without a doubt building of future. We had a very wonderful couple weeks of peace and enjoy every moment there.
A lot of years have gone since that visit and I can admit it still looks very modern and in our days. The population growing problem feels acute than ever. And we still a good example of how to resolve this problem and habitat can be a solution. It was a prototype, experiment, and successful one.
All critiques at this time and architects said it was a disaster, complete failure, lack of privacy, the construction is so badly made that residence will have to spend a lot of money to hit their apartments. But people who lived there had a different opinion, many of them said that’s it works, this idea is successful, all the elements in a great relationship, in all seasons.
Every safety was provided in gardens and the public place, each element was well designed and carefully thoughtful. To avoid danger was provided one face of the garden with a kind of window railing so children can sit and look out and still be safe. The top of the railing designed this way so when you stand behind it, you can’t look down into neighbors garden.
And it’s not the only one example of well-designed elements in the whole complex and in the house itself.
Over the years Safdie tried to replicate and improve his habitat idea and it over the world, but all this was left on the drawings. Many architects tried to borrow his idea of a human beehive which can be found in Ricardo Boffil’s Kafka castle (1968; of course, whether Bofill influenced Safdie or visa versa is a cause for controversial debate); Habitat’s prefabrication technique was applied in Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in 1972; and, more recently, one might even suggest that BIG’s Mountain Dwelling draws direct inspiration from Safdie’s design strategy.
Habitat tries to show that it impossible to have an environment that is not monotonous, one that has the possibility of identity and of variety, choice, and spatial richness and yet at some time us of repetitive mass-produced systems. And it where Habitat has been most successful as a project and a prototype. It’s much more than prefabrication, its reorganization of relationships.
Even the original idea was to create an affordable place with a suburban accent in our days and even after expo 67 finished this place become a fashion. All rich people spend a lot of money to get an apartment.