Moshe Safdie, now 78, hadn’t even turned 30 when his first building, Habitat 67, was built.
The housing complex, a striking, 12-story massing of concrete cubes in Montreal, was based on his thesis project at McGill University. There he wrestled with the world of modern apartment design, which had mostly been reduced to austere, brick “Towers In The Park” and luxurious, minimalist glass boxes. Safdie wanted to create something that could be prefabricated and deliver open spaces, good views, and access to greenery in an urban environment for people of all incomes.
Affordability, however, never became a part of Habitat. Built in conjunction with Expo 67, the federally owned project saw its construction costs soar. To recoup costs, unit prices ended up substantially exceeding the cost of a typical middle-class Montreal apartment. Safdie has emphasized since that he didn’t promise affordability, only a “new model for urban living.” Instead of providing an affordable utopia, Habitat instead became a status address for the city’s elite. In a 2008 article for The Walrus, Adele Weder wrote, “As a world’s fair spectacle or as architectural research, Habitat was terrific. As a pilot project, it was a bust.”
The building was sold and then flipped to a tenants collective in 1985. It endures as a stunning design from a period in Montreal during the ‘60s and ‘70s which saw dynamic, modern architecture spread above and underground. It was designated as a heritage site by the Quebec government in 2009. Habitat also spawned a long and prosperous career for Safdie, building off of and expanding on the ideas from his university thesis and spreading them around the world.
Habitat turns 50 this year. To celebrate, the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) is hosting Habitat 67: The Shape of Things to Come, an exhibit that connects one of the city’s most unforgettable buildings with Safdie’s more recent projects. CityLab recently caught up with Safdie to talk about Habitat, some unrealized projects, and how to tackle density while still delivering good design in today’s real estate climate:
How did the idea to revisit Habitat ‘67 in a show come about?
Well, not only is it the 50th anniversary of the project, it’s also Montreal’s 375th anniversary, Canada’s 150th, and Expo 67’s 50th. So it’s a big year in Montreal. We had a traveling exhibit, Global Citizen, that had just been to Boston and New York and a good third of it was Habitat, post-Habitat, and current residential projects. We proposed an exhibit on Habitat to the 375th committee and they agreed to sponsor it while UQAM’s architecture school would host it. So, the show is adding to Global Citizen while focusing on Habitat’s influence and evolution.