Habitat 67' & the habit of successful dwelling

B y S i n g u l a r N e w m a n

This article is about a very successful building. It is not only written about building technology, it is also about the need of humans to thrive, not to simply exist. It is about successful dwelling and coexisting with nature, in the midst of it, with each-other and with the hopes, dreams and aspirations we all hold dear.

Through the eyes of Architect Moshe Safdie1), to dwell is to dwell successfully. The Webster’s New Explorer College Dictionary2), (man they sure are running out of pompous titles) defines dwell, the root of dwelling as: to remain for a time, to reside, to linger.

I suppose we all dwell for a time here or there, more successfully or not, yet although we’re transient beings we need to rest, we need to lay down and sleep, we need shelter, one of the essential human needs. Therefore we have the following word, habitat. The same dictionary defines it as: the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows. Henceforth one becomes a habitual inhabitant, a resident which struck me as odd that the definition of habitat comes from: a French settler or a farmer of French origin in Canada. How very fitting indeed, to name the project Habitat 67’3).

I am not sure if Moshe looked into the real definition of the word habitat, but the coincidence seems rather funny to me. Even if Israel was his natal place, Moshe’s adopted country is Canada. Montreal4), the city that would birth Habitat, is the place where Moshe went to school and became an architect. Montreal is after all a city shared between two languages and cultures, French and English. Until the European Union, Canada seemed the only place where a French man and an Englishman could share a coffee and a cup of tea and agree to disagree on peaceful terms.

Habitat 67’ was an experimental housing project financed by the Canadian government, built to showcase Canada’s modern image to the rest of the world at the 1967 World’s Fair5), held in Montreal. Although barely out of grad school, Moshe Safdie’s genius was quite evident, having already worked with luminaries of the design world such as Louis Kahn6), he was quickly selected as the head architect on the project. It was only fair in my opinion since the project was his idea in the first place. The project closely mirrored his own Master’s Thesis. As all greats have found, changing the perception of those around you is very hard, to a point where you ask yourself if it is even worth to be a non conformist.

The system functions the way it functions and doesn't like change or challenge. The natural born fighter, Moshe Safaid didn't take no for an answer. He had a very hard time convincing his professors to accept housing as a thesis project. He wanted to design a housing system rather than a singular building. He was searching for a design that could be implemented across the world, from Africa to Siberia, from the steep slopes of Rio to the beaches of Puerto Rico. Reluctantly the University agreed and the rest id his story as they say.

Moshe's ideas were largely influenced by his travels through America, taking a wide lens approach as he experienced the slums, the projects, the high rise neighborhoods of Chicago, the garbage dumps of societal disasters that turn humans into criminals. Overcrowded human zoos, experiments in mass housing, like chicken coops, the capitalist ghettos or just simply “the ghetto”7). Recent studies seem to suggest that at least when it comes to rats; they become highly violent, stressed and eventually turn cannibalistic if housed in overcrowded conditions, even if adequate food is provided.

As he moved further Midwest, through the vast landscape of the American continent, he was particularly taken back by the ancient ruins of the Taxco pueblos8). I am sure they must have reminded him of similar houses in Israel, the stacked terraced hill top neighborhoods. “The pueblos and Taxco were immediately more meaningful to me than any work of an individual architect. I can’t think of very many buildings that have moved me as the little hill town of Taxco did. I find that I have shut off to many contemporary buildings, although there have been the grand exceptions: the breathless feeling I had entering the great space of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson’s Wax building9), or approaching “Fallingwater“10) through the woods, or a few years later walking through Le Corbusier’s11) buildings in Chandigarh.” Page 58, Beyond Habitat.

The Thesis project consisted of a systemized way, to build dense urban housing that afforded the dwellers the amenities, and comforts of a residential suburban home. In other words, what makes a home welcoming? Is it the interior, the exterior, the materials, the location? It is as a matter of fact, in my humble opinion the successful combination of all. Location is very important but the need for being close to work and shops does not outweigh the need for comfort and privacy. What constitutes a welcoming house experience, moving beyond a comfortable chair or bed? It is welcoming neighbors, a community of people that share the same interests as you. What else constitutes a welcoming environment? Well to use a recent study conducted by NASA12), it is nature.

The study looked at depression and psychic problems experienced by astronauts, working on long space missions, such as those on the space station, some lasting longer than six months at a time, many times alone, in complete isolation drifting around in zero gravity, separated from fellow humans by the vast cold outer reaches of space. The study found that the only thing that helped with depression, anxiety and loneliness was gardening. Nearly all space missions contain small experimental gardens aboard. As seen from the data, in his spare time the crewman always found himself being drawn towards the plants. As the missions got longer, he would spend more and more time with the plants, sometimes even talking and caressing the leaves of the particular specimen. From the daily logs it is shown that spending time with the plants helped alleviate stress and anxiety better than medication or counseling.

This research project and many other studies completed over the years show that successful habitation involves nature. What better way to habituate on an island of concrete, as most modern Western skyscraper infested cities are, than to be surrounded by lush, green foliage. Moshe’s big idea of Habitat 67 was that of providing everyone, every inhabitant of his structure with a garden space. This idea naturally necessitated light and so the structure copied the pueblos and became stacked and offset upon each other, each roof of the previous, forming the garden of the following and so on, like a stack of stairs.

The next logical conclusion, since these were to be affordable, mass housing projects, able to be replicated all over the world, was to create a building system that would bring costs down to a minimum. The 60’s were a good place to experiment with factory housing technologies. After all, it was the space age. Buckminster Fuller13) had long blazed a trail of un-orthodox possibilities and the 60’s had an energy that allowed the experimentation of things like this. The idea that an entire housing community could be factory built, shipped and assembled onsite was however quite revolutionary for the time.

The basic unit was pre manufactured in a large mold at the factory. The reinforced concrete unit was to be structural and able to withstand quite a considerable amount of pressure and weight. The rectangle units were to be stacked on top of each other, and then post tensioned with steel cables, that ran inside each unit. Once the cable tensioning took place the whole building would function as one structure. Think of a Rubix cube14) where the individual colored square that make up the cube are housing units making up the larger cube. The units are tied together forming a very rigid system. As a matter of fact the system was designed to be 20 some stories tall, so at the current, budgetary cut height of ten floors, the structure is twice as strong as it needs to be.

In the end, after all the political hassles, the project barely got built. Downgraded from a cost of 45 million dollars for over one thousand units, to the allotted sum of eleven and a half million dollars, its present form is comprised of 158 homes. Given the budget constraints the price per unit quadrupled, kicking the affordability right out the window. Naturally each home has a garden and a view, in this case because the project was commissioned on a narrow strip of land, actually a man-made island reaching out in the Saint Lawrence River, the views are splendid, to the west the panorama of the Montreal high rises and to the East, the rest of the city which by now I am sure includes many high rises as well. Not only the city but the river as well as the passing ships and the surfing next door, contribute to make this location one of the most desirable in Montreal today, some units renting for six thousand dollars a month.

Overall the project has been hugely successful in my opinion, helping to skyrocket Moshe Safaid to rock star status and making him into one of today’s premiere Starchitect. Withstanding the crucial test of time, some 45 years later Architecture students such as myself, are still studying his work and finding out how successful dwelling is realized within the urban context.

I chose to ignore some obvious issues with this building, because I chose to cut Moshe some slack, this project being his first out of school, and with him being so young and the time, 24, and also the many hassles and tribulations, budget cuts and thieving executives trying to rip off his design, the loss of a child, the 16 hour days, the seemingly never ending problems he encountered, in order to get this project built. Reading about all the hurdles, it makes me think that the very fact that this project ever got built, is an act of Divine Interference.


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