HABITAT AT 50
Five decades into its life, Moshe Safdie's attempt to bridge urban density with suburban space remains one of Canada's most monumental structures. But despite its rigid facade, Kristina Ljubanovic suggests Habitat 67 is a building that continues to be reinvented as residents remix its interiors. Photography by Alexi Hobbs
In 2017, as Canada's confederacy turns 150 years old, Montreal will be celebrating its own milestone – the city's 375 th anniversary. Plans are underway to mark its almost four-century-long history, including projects like the illumination of the Jacques Cartier Bridge. The party starts in December, affording Montrealers a full 375 days of arts, culture and entertainment.
But beyond the pomp of the three-digit celebrations, another big birthday is coming down the pike (or the St. Lawrence Seaway, as it were). Nearly fifty years ago, Montreal hosted the Universal and International Exposition, Expo '67. The six-month event was the crown jewel of Canada's centennial and, some claim, the most successful World's Fair of the 20 th century.
Habitat 67, the radical experiment in prefabricated, stacked city dwelling, is the city's most iconic built legacy from that heady time. The idea for the housing complex, which developed out of architect Moshe Safdie's thesis at McGill University, is as intriguing now as it was then: All the amenities of suburban life (openness, privacy, access to greenery) within a modular system of units set in an urban context. It was a prototype for a new way of living in cities, "but it did not proliferate," admitted Safdie in a talk at the 2014 TED conference. Still, visiting the complex today and seeing how its mix of design-savvy residents have both adapted and maintained its spaces, it's clear that Habitat continues to inspire new ways of living.
Perched on the edge of Parc de la Cité-du-Havre, with views to Montréal and the river, Habitat is a building that's all exterior. "Each house was an entity in itself, recognizable in space," said Safdie in his 1970 book Beyond Habitat. But deconstructing the housing block to reveal open-air pedestrian streets, communal plazas and private gardens proved an expensive enterprise that the dream of prefabrication could not offset. So the project was scaled back, from the originally planned 950 modules, or cubes, to 354, resulting in ten storeys and 158 apartments, some of which have since become conjoined, reducing the number to 148.
Resident François Leclair is thankful Habitat is the size that it is, claiming the original plan would have overwhelmed the site and views of the waterfront. Leclair purchased his first unit in 2001 and hasn't looked back. Since then, he's rented that original three-cube apartment, lived in others (including Safdie's own four-cube residence) and is in the process of renovating his latest.
"I'm playing monopoly," says Leclair. If you can imagine a three-dimensional game board, Park Place is Leclair's tenth-floor, two-cube unit with a "million-dollar view." (According to Leclair, this is how former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien described it to the flat's previous owner, Paul Marcel Gélinas).
Leclair is as full of insider anecdotes about the complex as he is asceticism for Safdie's scheme. That combination of enthusiasm and resolve make him Habitat's affable warden and he has served as president of the partnership committee that oversees the building's management. He balances fiercely defending the architect's original intent with making concessions for increased efficiency wherever possible.
There are structural reasons Habitat needs to be maintained as a fait accompli. As the rules and regulations issued to residents in 1987 explain emphatically: "Each unit is load-bearing. It not only carries the weight of the units above it, but through its torsional rigidity, is part of the whole structure. A modification of one unit can potentially affect not only its own structural integrity, but that of other units."
But if there are restrictions on the exterior, there's plenty of room for play in the interior of the cubes. Leclair, with architect John White of WZMH Architects, has stripped his newest purchase to its concrete shell. They've opted to flip the unit's floor plan on its head, reserving the lower cube for private functions like sleeping and bathing, and putting the more social spaces upstairs, with access to the aforementioned million-dollar view.
Maria Varvarikos and Dexter Peart have also adapted their unit, purchased in 2006, for a changing lifestyle and family structure. Their over 2,100-square-foot residence, straddling the sixth and seventh floors of the complex, is a living testament to the flexibility of Safdie's interior spaces. "They're just cubes – you need to reprogram them," says Peart.
Varvarikos, who founded the boutique PR agency ZOÏ, with offices in Montreal and New York, and Peart, who runs the accessories label Want Les Essentiels with twin brother Byron (who also lives in Habitat with husband Stefan Weisgerber), moved in prior to having their daughters Kaya and Sierra (aged six and three, respectively).
At times, they've considered a more conventional family home, but Varvarikos says "the lifestyle and everything they get out of Habitat is so much more valuable," including the important lesson, baked into Safdie's youthful experiment, that "there's still room for great ideas – and not all great ideas remain ideas, some get executed."
The recently remodelled kitchen, by Italian kitchen designer Pedini, expands into a spacious living and dining area. Custom built-in cabinetry in American walnut by Jason Burhop at Kastella opens up to reveal dolls and coloured pencils, while upstairs, the girls' room and adjacent den is a looser repository. The cubes are evidence of a work (and life) in progress.
Not more than a hundred steps from Varvarikos and Peart's unit, Kaya and Sierra can knock on the door of their uncles. The Peart-Weisgerber residence is a total environment, replete with pocket doors and uplighting (inspired by Safdie's original details), a newly added solarium and refined touches like Ralph Lauren wallpaper in the bedroom, porcelain tile for the outdoor deck (covering the well-worn concrete) and framed vintage Expo '67 postcards in the bathroom.
Byron Peart calls giving over an entire cube of their three-cube space to living and entertaining functions indulgent, but concedes that the unit, fitted out in collaboration with designer Maria Di Ioia (who is also responsible for the Want Les Essentiels stores), is a perfect amalgam of Peart's Swedish design leanings and Weisgerber's German functionalism.
"When you're able to build something from scratch, which we did with the interior of our place, you really have the opportunity to make it your space, to make it a home," says Weisgerber. "The outcome is an extremely personal result," agrees Peart, even though each apartment is a variation on a standard module.
It may not be perfect cohabitation, but that's what makes Habitat a real neighbourhood, along with the complexities that come when one's roof is another's garden, which is another's view.
"There are so many different people who bring their own culture, their own heirlooms, their own design sensibilities and aesthetics," says Byron Peart. "The building is static, but everyone's homes are unique and personalized."