Montreal

How Montreal's Habitat 67 is inspiring a new generation of apartments in Asia

Montreal's Habitat 67 showed that high-density urban housing could be built without making people feel like they're been crammed into a concrete shoebox. That kind of building is now in high demand in countries such as China and Singapore.

52 years ago, Habitat heralded a new way to build urban housing. The style is now catching on internationally

Architect Moshe Safdie poses at Habitat 67 during the unveiling of a stamp depicting his famous stacked housing complex. More than 50 years after it was built, the Habitat style of construction is experiencing a renaissance. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Habitat 67, a seemingly bizarre and innovative collection of modular apartments overlooking the St. Lawrence River, has been around for more than 50 years. Moshe Safdie still can't believe it exists.

"It's like a fairy tale. How did I ever get it built?" said Safdie, 81. The Israeli-Canadian architect designed the project, and was in his 20s when it opened in 1967.

Built for Expo 67 in Montreal's Cité du Havre neighbourhood, not far from the Old Port, its cubist design, floor-to-ceiling windows and rooftop gardens were heralded as a new way to build urban housing. 

"The objective was to rethink the apartment building," said Safdie.  

Habitat turned Safdie into an overnight success. He made the cover of Newsweek — a photo of him and his chef-d'oeuvre appeared below a headline that read: "The shape of things to come."

Architect Moshe Safdie sits in front of Habitat 67 in 1967. (File photo/The Canadian Press)

There were plans to build similar buildings in New York City, Jerusalem and Puerto Rico, but they were never built, mostly because of the cost. Habitat was built as a one-off for Expo 67 with government money, unlike regular apartment towers which are usually paid for by private investors looking to turn a profit.  

Now, five decades later, Safdie is building versions of his iconic buildings once again — in Asia. 

Habitat, the late bloomer

Hans Ibelings, an architecture historian at the University of Toronto, said it's not unusual for ideas in architecture to take decades to take hold. 

"I believe that when something is new in architecture, it's seen as a novelty," he explained.

"When it's 30, 40 years old, and if it managed to survive … then it can become a classic and you can see this clearly with Habitat."

To understand why the Habitat style is experiencing a renaissance, it's worth looking at what made it a unique building in the first place.

Safdie's breakthrough was that he realized by adding large terraces and wide laneways between units, an apartment complex could feel like a neighbourhood in the suburbs. 

Habitat 67 showed that high-density urban housing could be built without making people feel like they're been crammed into a concrete shoebox. 

 
Guided tours of Habitat 67, including Safdie's apartment, are now being offered. (Safdie Architects)

"Habitat tries to give to the individual … what he wants in a suburb, but goes a step further and gives them the positive things a city has to offer," Safdie told CBC Television in 1966.

Sky-high costs

Habitat cost about $17 million to build, which today works out to $128 million — a high price tag for an apartment building with 158 units. 

A reason for the cost was that Safdie didn't just want to build his iconic modular units. He wanted to create a factory to build them in.

Safdie envisioned Habitats being mass produced, with the component parts being built in factories not unlike how cars are built and assembled. He hoped the process would drive down construction costs.

However, according to Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture at McGill University, the money needed to create his apartment factory never materialized.  

He says while there are examples of prefabricated buildings made out other materials such as wood, the investment needed concrete building factory is enormous.  

"We are talking about many millions, perhaps tens of millions," said Friedman. 

And, he added, real estate development is cyclical, so it's unlikely there would ever be enough orders to make a concrete apartment factory profitable.  

The architect for Habitat 67 explains his work as we tour the building. 2:27

Moving on, and coming back

After Habitat 67, Safdie built other types of buildings. He created the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Terminal 1 at Toronto's Pearson International Airport and the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. 

"He moved into a completely different direction," said Ibelings.

While Safdie did build a few Habitat-inspired buildings, such as Boston's Esplanade Condominiums, they didn't come close to the grand scale he had envisioned.

But in recent years, Asia's growing cities have created a demand for Safdie's design.

His reputation for building high-density housing with large balconies, shared gardens and open spaces is resonating with Asian real estate developers looking to create something other than a regular apartment tower. 

Habitat Qinhuangdao is located in the beach front city of Qinhuangdao and faces the Bohai Sea. (Safdie Architects )

Some Asian developers are approaching Safdie's architecture firm because they're fans of his style. In other cases, Safdie's firm will submit a proposal for a Habitat-style building that fits with a developer's call for pitches.

"The increased density of today's cities requires us to rethink building types to maintain a sense of community," said Safdie.

Habitat Qinhuangdao, located about 300 kilometres from Beijing in the city of Qinhuangdao, is a massive complex of 30-storey apartment towers that gives its residents the terraces and wide pathways found in Habitat 67.
Habitat Qinhuangdao features the square balconies found in Montreal's Habitat 67. (Safdie Architects)

Then in Singapore, there's Sky Habitat. The building is a 38-storey apartment complex with similar large balconies and outdoor terraces. 

Sky Habitat has three bridges connecting the two towers that provide green spaces resembling the outdoor terraces in Habitat 67. (Safdie Architects )

In Colombo, Safdie has designed what will be the largest residential building in Sri Lanka. Its leaning tower will give apartments a terrace with a view of the sky above. 

Safdie is happy to finally see his vision spread internationally. But even with the proliferation of Habitat-style buildings on the other side of the world, he still has a soft spot for the one that started it all.

"It's still the most radical building I ever built, and that's after 55 years of practising architecture," he said. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Moshe Safdie designed the Esplanade Condominiums in Toronto. The condominiums are in Boston.
    Sep 03, 2019 5:54 PM ET

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