The failed dream of Montreal’s Habitat ‘67.
· Photos by Geoffrey James
If you drive past Montreal’s industrial waterfront to 2600 Avenue Pierre-Dupuy, you’ll confront one of the most fantastic experiments in twentieth-century architecture. At Habitat 67, raw concrete catwalks and cantilevered blocks hover above, overlapping and interlocking; forms jut and recede in and out of your visual field like a cubist painting come to life. But Habitat was never touted to be something as trivial as mere art: this ten-storey apartment complex once promised an architectural revolution that would bring housing to everyone. Its resounding failure on that count says less about the structure, though, than it does about our collective self-delusion.
Built as the crown jewel of Expo 67, Habitat was Canada’s first truly ideological government-sponsored architecture. Erected on an artificial peninsula extending from the island of Montreal, it was launched as a manifesto for universal, affordable urban housing. At that time, four decades ago, Canadians foresaw a technology-driven future of endless prosperity and social harmony. Civil engineers served as social engineers, constructing a huge new infrastructure of highways, subways, and skyscrapers to ensure this collective happiness. In a giddy full-page ad in its flagship publication, Maclean’s, Maclean-Hunter proclaimed, “The next 100 years in Canada,” wherein cities would explode into “vast megalopolitan clusters of 25 to 50 million people,” with a universal two-day workweek, free local transportation, no pollution, and a pleasant monoclimate supplied by a huge transparent plastic membrane overhead.
In our own millennium, when “Modernism” denotes the rarefied taste of stylish bon vivants, it’s hard to imagine its original socialist goals. But the pioneers of Modernism — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Adolf Loos, et al. — saw the movement as the salvation of the housing-starved underclass. The Modernists’ most naive conceit was that they thought they could design social equality into existence. Le Corbusier’s famous Marseilles Unité d’Habitation apartment complex was built in the hopeful aftermath of World War II, but by the 1960s was derided as a bleak, monotonous warehouse. Habitat, our own answer to the Unité, seemed as if it would be different. As futuristic as a dna model yet evocative of a Mediterranean villa, it looked like the perfect space age home. And it fit in perfectly with Expo’s faith in technology for creating a just, endlessly prosperous country.
This faith reached its zenith at the opening of Expo 67, which celebrated architecture, particularly the American pavilion’s geodesic dome, by Buckminster Fuller, and West Germany’s hyperbolically curved tent, by Frei Otto. But Habitat stole the show. When prime minister Lester Pearson rode the monorail through the fair, he could sweep one hand toward the array of architectural bravado and proclaim, as he did, “Anyone who says we are not a spectacular people only needs to see this.”
John Rae, executive vice-president of Power Corporation of Canada, like most of his fellow Habitat residents, recalls that era with a wistful fondness. “Expo was a time of hope, really, and innovation,” he says in a soft voice. “We are a very practical country, and this was a chance to become a little more daring. I don’t know of any other time Canada would have allowed this opportunity to a twenty-six-year-old with a vision.”
The visionary wunderkind was architect Moshe Safdie, who would eventually design showcase projects around the world, from the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv to the United States Institute of Peace headquarters now underway in Washington, DC. But in 1967, he was just another brilliant McGill graduate with a thesis in his backpack. Entitled “A Case for City Living: A Three-Dimensional Modular Building System,” Safdie’s architecture school thesis was even larger and more fantastical on paper, but under the real-world constraints of the actual commission he distilled it to its core tenets. The complex would be assembled from prefabricated modules made in factories; as much as possible would be entrusted to machines, from the steel-reinforced concrete modules to the moulded-plastic bathrooms. Each rectangular module would criss-cross over another, so the roof of the one underneath would bear the load of the one on top, with the non-overlapping areas generating patches of outdoor space. As Safdie memorably promised, “For everyone a garden.”
The government would build the pilot project, then Habitat in turn would proliferate around the world. At least that was the idea. But Habitat 67 ended up as one big white elephant — for its architect, who garnered fame abroad and exile at home; for Ottawa, which struggled to brake the skidding costs of this “low-cost” model; and for the public, who were promised affordable housing but offered sky-high rents — when they were offered anything at all. It’s been a long and twisted road from there, and the fact that Habitat has now evolved into an enclave for the affluent is the final irony.
It’s ironic to everyone, perhaps, except for the man who created it. “The message of Habitat was that there is a magic solution that will be affordable for everyone,” says Safdie now. “This was a deep misunderstanding. When we built the building, we didn’t say low income, middle income, whatever. We said, ‘a new model for urban living.’ As a concept, I was not differentiating in my mind the idea of low and middle income as having different needs.”
Habitat denizen Frank Motter fondly remembers Expo — “every drunken minute of it” — when he was in his early twenties. He also remembers Habitat, and the promise of affordable housing for everyone. “That was a la-la story,” says Motter with a smirk. He should know: he’s one of Habitat’s pioneer residents, and a builder and developer himself. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of construction or real estate could have foreseen that nothing with Habitat’s gardens and piazzas and catwalks could be anywhere near as affordable as a conventional construction. “Look, you’ve got a foot of outdoor space for every foot of indoor space,” says Motter. “Right there, that’s double the cost.”
Habitat construction sucked up more than $22 million — $135 million in today’s dollars — for fewer than 200 small apartments, even though parts of each unit were subsidized by suppliers. Safdie and others defended the stratospheric costs on the grounds that this was a pilot project. Producing, reinforcing, transporting, and placing each module cost a lot of money; the embedded and indirect costs of catwalks, plazas, and automatic garden-watering systems drove the budget through the roof. But it eventually became clear that all that stuff would always cost a lot of money. As a world fair spectacle or as architectural research, Habitat was terrific. As a pilot project, it was a bust.