Nota bene: Habitat 67

I had two indelibly memorable experiences the last time I traveled to Montreal, just over a year ago. One was a truly spectacular meal at Joe Beef; the other was a pilgrimage to Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s brutalist residential masterpiece.

I’ve written a bit about my own love of brutalism, but I’ve never attempted a piece on a single building. The fact is that smart and interesting journalism on the subject of individual buildings is very rare, and trying to find good writing on non-new buildings is, well, good luck with that.

Do, then, please tell me about any such writing you know and love. It’s a genre I’m a complete sucker for, alongside any and all book reviews of translations of much-translated works. I can certainly recommend Christopher Hawthorne’s amazing evaluation of Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, and now I can also, happily, point you to an insightful essay from Tim Abrahams on Habitat 67.

Abrahams doesn’t really nail the feeling of walking and living in Habitat 67; for that you really need to just go there yourself. But he does give some hugely valuable context, including the fact (which I never really appreciated) that the complex looks completely different when viewed from the east, looking towards the city. This is the honest view of Habitat 67, the one which, in good brutalist style, truly reveals how the madcap jumble of prefabricated concrete boxes has been assembled.

Abrahams also locates Habitat 67 in its proper suburban context. It’s a long way from Montreal proper, as I can attest after having made the desolate walk there from the city; we ended up taking an Uber back, and even that took a long while to arrive. According to Abrahams, Canada is 67% suburban, and most of those suburbs are significantly denser than Habitat 67’s own neighborhood. A higgledy-piggledy apartment building doesn’t create density on its own, and Habitat 67 remains, half a century after its construction, bereft of the kind of schools and shops and other facilities that would help to kickstart a genuinely livable suburb.

That said, as Abrahams notes,

What Habitat 67 does most successfully is resist the lazy distinction of high-rise inner city and low-rise suburbia. The drift of history may have been against it in terms of city-centre dwelling, but it still acted as an exemplar of how apartment buildings might operate in a suburban setting… Habitat 67 shows what a suburban core might look like. 

In other words, this is what Silicon Valley is lacking. Abrahams notes that Habitat 67 falls short of its utopian egalitarian ideals when you start looking at its residents, who are largely drawn from Montreal’s creative elite. But for suburbs rich and poor which are struggling with both an undersupply of housing and a feeling that there’s no visual center to their town, Safdie has provided a largely ignored architectural blueprint for the future.

Abrahams also notes that Safdie has solved the “backyard problem,” whereby upper-middle-class families don’t want to buy into apartment complexes because they want to own their own backyard. One solution to the problem, it turns out, is to create a “market where the use of gardens has become performative and spectacular, rather than personalised and discrete”. The individual mini-gardens at Habitat 67 aren’t big, but they’re just as much status symbols as any half-neglected backyard.

It’s also incredibly heartening to see that Habitat 67 is in fine structural shape, the brutal Montreal winters notwithstanding. Brutalist buildings often age badly; Habitat 67 is proof that they don’t need to, not even when they’re built in a rush out of pre-fabricated units.

All that said, Abrahams does over-egg his pudding a little bit. For instance:

One should remember that the model for incorporating industrialisation into buildings was Corbusian Modernism which found its apogee in the USA in the Miesian tower. In the Americas, no other building confounded that model more than the Habitat and, after it, extruding the plan was no longer the default architectural means of capitalising on Fordian economies of repetition.

What he’s noting here is that if you want to build residential housing on an industrial scale, the default thing to do is to come up with a floor plan, and then just repeat it, floor after floor, vertically, over and over and over again. Think Hong Kong, or, for that matter, just about any modern Chinese city.

According to Abrahams, that model is “no longer the default,” thanks to Habitat 67. I wish he were right, but the fact is the repeat-the-floor-plan model is very much the default, still. Even when big-name architects are deliberately trying to follow the Habitat 67 model.

I’m thinking here of 56 Leonard Street, the Herzog & DeMeuron “Jenga tower” which was meant to be an updated luxury urban version of Habitat 67. In the end, the top few stories retained their asymmetrical vivacity, but the rest of the building got value-engineered into something boring and repetitive.

Which is really why the Habitat 67 model never took off. It’s a much-loved building, but it’s simply too difficult, practically, to try to construct apartments like that on a budget and at scale. Which is why Habitat 67 remains a unique masterpiece. Go to Montreal, and check it out. It’s well worth the trip, even if you don’t eat at Joe Beef.