A warm wind sweeps through a cavernous grey concrete courtyard at Habitat 67, the iconic complex of stacked, interlocking modular residential units located on an artificial peninsula across from Montreal’s Old Port.
We are a group of about 20 people on a 90-minute guided tour of the internationally famous building that is one of the few remaining structures still left standing from the days of Expo 67, the 1967 international world’s fair that put the spotlight on Montreal as a future-forward, design-savvy city.
We have been warned about the wind. “It’s always more windy at Habitat 67 than in the city,” the organization that stages the tours says on its website. Usually, that means it’s colder; on this particular summer’s day of wilting, humid heat, however, the wind factor doesn’t make much of a difference.
Near the main entrance, a worker stands in a cherry picker performing noisy repair work on a patch of concrete. As you take in the massive brutalist expanse of jutting and interposed blocks, elevator columns and elevated pedestrian corridors, you notice traces of previous repairs and patching, discolouration from water seepage or small areas of rust from rebar corrosion peeking through.
“You can see that, in some areas, the concrete needs a little love,” one of the visitors gently pointed out to our guide, Kathleen Gudmundsson.
Actually, the blemishes and signs of weathering add a certain character and charm to the raw, unadorned surfaces. Habitat has, on the whole, aged well. Nonetheless, there is a certain windswept bleakness to some of the common areas that no amount of concrete planters filled with greenery can offset.
Such observations are mere quibbles to those who love architect Moshe Safdie’s daring design aimed at reinventing the traditional, boxy apartment building – an elaboration of his master’s thesis at McGill University when he was still in his 20s, no less.
Among the residents of the 148 units are design mavens who cherish the futuristic – circa 1960s – look of Habitat and have kept as much of the original interior design details as possible, right down to the nifty colour-coded push-button light switches (white/on, black/off).
Ms. Gudmundsson flips through a binder with pictures of some of the influences on Mr. Safdie’s utopian design ideas, which included – in the case of Habitat – the notion of a “garden in the sky” of terraces built on the tops of the building blocks. She shows us examples of the Pueblo Indian houses in the Southwestern United States that influenced him and talks about his formative years on kibbutzim in Israel before his parents moved the family to Montreal.
There was a strong urban-planning and community-housing element to the concept of Habitat, which was built with government funding as a pilot project. Mr. Safdie’s thesis at McGill was titled A Case for City Living: A Study of Three Urban High Density Housing Systems for Community Development. But his vision of a global revolution in quality, low-cost urban density housing for the masses never really took off in the years following Expo 67.
Some critics have levelled the charge that Habitat today is a nothing more than a cozy private enclave for the well-off. The listing price for a unit is well above the average for a condo in Montreal. Sotheby’s International Realty Quebec currently has a Habitat property listed at $970,000.
“It’s a very desirable place to live in,” Mr. Safdie – now 80 – said in a TED talk four years ago.
He still owns a unit – made up of four combined modules – on the 10th floor, complete with stunning views of Montreal and Mount Royal on one side and the St. Lawrence River on the other.
Ms. Gudmundsson take us up in the elevator for a peek.
The furnitureless apartment has been restored to its original sleek, minimalist 1967 look, complete with space-age, one-piece moulded fibreglass bathroom; the kitchen’s original stainless-steel drop-in range sports anachronistically thick electric burner coils. Back then, the refrigerators provided to Habitat by Frigidaire Canada were fitted with patented “Ride-Aire” pads that lifted the appliance with air blown from the vacuum cleaner. “The space-age refrigerator that glides on AIR to let you clean behind it!,” the 1960s-era ad copy gleefully proclaimed.
Mr. Safdie, whose firm is Boston-based, has promised to donate his Habitat abode as a permanent site open to the public, Safdie Architects spokeswoman Christa Mahar said. One potential partner in such a plan is McGill University. McGill spokesman Christopher Chipello said “talks are still ongoing” between the institution and Mr. Safdie. Asked about the talks with McGill, Ms. Mahar replied: “Nothing has been confirmed.”
Habitat has enjoyed heritage status since 2009 and any changes or additions to its exterior are strictly controlled, much to the relief of fans.
For Cyril Moussard of Toulouse, France, the visit he’s making today on this guided tour is akin to a pilgrimage, he says. A specialist in modular construction, Mr. Moussard views Habitat as “the benchmark in modular construction.
“Housing today is looking to return to the values, like urban density, green space and lots of light, that Habitat represents.”
Out front, across the street, Lou Mignardi from Richmond, Va., his wife, Nadine, and two daughters are snapping pictures of the imposing edifice. “I understand it was supposed to be affordable housing,” Mr. Mignardi – a landscape architect who studied Habitat at school – says, pointing out the many “private property” signs and security staff patrolling the perimeter in golf carts.
Still, he and the other family members are impressed. “It works as a whole, and there’s a good balance between the human and the natural,” Nadine said in reference to the rooftop gardens and extensive landscaping.
Anne Darche and her husband, Gaétan Bouchard, are living in their third Habitat unit. Their first one, in 1985, was a rental. The current 2,500-square-foot residence and the previous one were bought after Habitat was sold to private interests by the federal government in 1986 and transformed from rental into ownership structures. “It’s like living in a house,” Ms. Darche – a former graphic designer who consults on consumer trends – tells this reporter on a post-tour visit to her apartment. The handsomely appointed rooms – just below Mr. Safdie’s – occupy two levels.
There are three bedrooms, four bathrooms and three – yes, three – terraces.
Habitat’s iconic status has proved to be attractive to design aficionados, Ms. Darche said. “Among the residents are architects, engineers, artists.”
And she is pleased that aspects of the special building she lives and works in can be shared with the public.
This is the second year in a row for the guided-tour program, set up and run by Julie Bélanger, a self-described “Expo 67 geek.” She was able to persuade the Habitat residents to allow small groups of visitors during the week in the daytime, from May to October. The first year, 2017 – which marked the 50th anniversary of Expo and Habitat – was a success, with more than 4,000 visitors taking the tour in its English and French versions, she said. This year should see a strong turnout as well, she adds. “I’m anticipating that the 2018 season, now that we have included the Moshe Safdie unit (the only one with a heritage classification) in our visits, will also be a very good year,” she said in an e-mail.