MONTREAL – Surrounded by river and silhouetted against a blue sky, the futuristic stacked concrete cubes of Montreal’s Habitat 67 jut out of the landscape like a child’s building-block project brought to life.
More than 50 years after Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie built the 12-storey, 354-cube residential housing complex for the Expo 67 World’s Fair, it remains one of the city’s most recognizable, and divisive landmarks.
While some have criticized the brutalist concrete architecture and ballooning construction and maintenance costs that have left it out of reach for most Montrealers, others have praised Safdie’s vision, and his dream of creating livable urban communities at a time when many were fleeing to the suburbs.
In the early 1960s, Safdie was an ambitious McGill University architecture student in his mid-20s without a single construction project under his belt.
In a 2014 TED talk, he describes getting the urge to ”reinvent the apartment building” after taking a depressing tour of American public housing, which made him realize most North Americans’ choices were limited to either soulless highrises or sprawling suburbia.
”We can’t sustain suburbs, so let’s design a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit,” Safdie, now 80, described himself as thinking.
”Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors.”
Today, the inside of the Habitat complex displays the core elements of Safdie’s vision.
Visitors who take a tour can walk under and around the stacked offset modular units, and through the public spaces and walkways that Safdie designed as places for neighbours to meet. In many ways, the complex is a study in contrasts: vast expanses of bare concrete are juxtaposed with spectacular water views, thanks to the complex’s location on a man-made peninsula jutting into the St. Lawrence River.
There is no public art to break up the starkness of the building, but everywhere you look, little well-tended flower beds are integrated into the concrete.
”For him, there’s that balance,” said Julie Belanger, who created Habitat 67’s guided tours in 2017.
”Yes, there can be concrete and it’s rough and raw, but you also need greenery and flowers and plants and trees to counterbalance that effect and give a really livable sense to it.”
Belanger explains that there are now 148 units in the complex. A one-cube unit is just over 600 square feet, but some condos are made up of three or four cubes. Each cube has a private outdoor balcony of over 200 square feet, most of them located on the roof of another unit – a nod to Safdie’s motto, ”for everyone a garden.”
Safdie’s own unit, which is open for visitors, remains a testament to the 1960s, from the narrow brown-beige kitchen to the bathrooms, which are built out of a single piece of white fibreglass, ”like something out of the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,”’ Belanger says with a laugh.
But other elements seem to fit today’s modern aesthetic, including electrical boxes and heating systems hidden in the floorboards, and floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors that fully retract into the walls to better show off the stunning views – the St. Lawrence on one side and the skyline of Old Montreal on the other.
Some of the building’s features, which once seemed revolutionary, are now impractical. Custom-sized appliances and designer, black-and-white button light switches are expensive, if not impossible to replace. The building’s electrical and plumbing systems run under the flooring of each unit and through massive black tubes around the complex, which require specialized workers to service and contribute to the complex’s high operating costs.
The building’s narrow walkways and small elevator can also pose certain challenges.
”If you want a king-sized bed or a piano, you’re going to need a crane,” Belanger points out.
Belanger, who has an Expo 67 logo tattooed on her forearm, is an unequivocal fan of Safdie’s genius.
But she admits that not everyone loves Habitat 67’s brutalist aesthetic. Some have criticized its distance from transit and services (Safdie’s original vision called for schools, a community centre and shops to be included in future building phases). And with a price point for the condos that often tops $1 million it is not exactly the middle-class housing Safdie envisioned.
”You either like it, love it, think it’s absolutely amazing, or think it’s one of the ugliest buildings ever built,” Belanger said. “It doesn’t usually leave people in a neutral state of mind.”
IF YOU GO: Tours of Habitat 67 run five days a week until the end of October. To book a ticket, visit www.habitat67.org.