Beyond brutalism: back to Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s built utopia

Caught in between the fireworks of the Montreal Expo and the ice of Canadian winters, the history of the housing complex through the pages of Domus archive, and the photography by Roberto Conte.   

“Habitat ’67 is an urban housing complex of 354 box-like units, piled 120 feet high along the edge of Mackay Pier on the St. Lawrence; it will form a community of 160 apartments. The prefabricated prestressed concrete cubes are equipped with kitchen, bathrooms, wiring, plumbing, insulation and windows made in an assembly-line plant on the site. Crane-hoisted into position, they are held together by cables. The designer, young Israelian architect Moshe Safdie, hopes Habitat will grow into a sort of multilevel village, with shops and schools”.

It is January 1967 in Montréal, Québec, and the World’s Fair (Expo 67) is about to arrive, an event that will leave the city covered in worldwide fame, in a debt worthy of some sovereign state’s bankruptcy, and in some of the most iconic architectures of an era, embodying a new way of thinking space, charged with the political instances of responding to the increasing globalisation and urbanisation of the world, as well as of associating form and language to such response. 

domus - habitat 67 Montreal
Domus 446, January 1967

One of these architectures is Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and the other is Habitat 67, the housing cluster rising 40 metres above Mackay Pier, in three pyramids aligned to the Saint Laurent River, an instant icon from the very moment the first site photos were out. It was designed by a young Israeli architect, Moshe Safdie – actually a local hero, having studied at McGill University before practising with Louis Kahn – and immediately aroused attention, easily polarising it into a “hate it or love it” dichotomy.

domus - habitat 67 Montreal  - roberto conte
Photo Roberto Conte

 “I think buildings take on lives of their own, in the way they’re used and how people relate to them. They do change. Take Habitat: even its meaning changes. For one thing, it’s gentrified more than I ever thought it could. But I’ve seen articles about Habitat lately that talk about its formal iconic qualities, not things I talked about 50 years ago. Things come in and out of consideration”. This is how Safdie told Domus, decades later. Indeed, in the 55 years of its subsequent life, the prototype housing complex did not incrementally expand, as it had been planned in order to respond to the expected explosion of urban centres. It does, however, consolidate its value as a manifesto building, always there on the banks of the Saint Laurent to remind that another way of living is possible. 

domus - habitat 67 Montreal  - roberto conte
Photo Roberto Conte

Its 50th birthday was celebrated in 2017, and Safdie himself restored his personal unit and donated it to the public the following year. At the beginning of 2022, Roberto Conte has returned for an exploration of Habitat 67 tested by the glacial rigours of the Canadian winter, unveiling the character of the season in contrast, or perhaps more correctly in harmony, with the visual landscape of Safdie’s shapes and interiors that despite claiming to be a “built utopia”, turn out to be deeply rooted into reality and its evolution.

“When I’m at Habitat” Safdie has also told, “I feel almost as if somebody else designed it. It’s like history. It’s lived in. It’s 50 years old. I walk around the place and say: not bad for a 50-year-old lady. But elements of Habitat are still in everything I’m doing now. Even a Habitat of the Future (a later project, ed.) draws on the original to take it further”.

domus - habitat 67 Montreal  - roberto conte
Photo Roberto Conte

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