In the 1960s, there was no shortage of young visionaries with revolutionary architectural schemes. The difference between Moshe Safdie, FAIA, and almost everyone else was that his undergraduate thesis at McGill University in Montreal, which called for a radical hybrid of the suburban single-family home and the urban apartment building, actually got built. His plan involved stacking prefabricated concrete modules in dense, irregular geometric piles; he was thinking Italian hill town, but the end result more closely resembled the Taos Pueblo. Safdie’s Habitat 67 was one of the highlights of Expo ’67 in Montreal, which itself was a showcase of that era at its most utopian. (The U.S. pavilion, for instance, was a 20-story-tall geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller.)
Safdie, who was 29 at the time, achieved more fame for his first built project—designated a heritage site by the Quebec government in 2009—than most architects ever achieve. Conspicuously inventive, formally and structurally, with an ambitious social mission, Habitat was a harbinger of the projects Safdie would design in the succeeding decades, a body of work that earned him the AIA’s Gold Medal this year.
Born in Haifa, Israel, Safdie graduated from McGill in 1961. During his years there, he received a fellowship from the housing authority of Canada. “We went wandering for an entire summer,” recalls Safdie, who is now 76—“to housing projects, public housing high-rises … Chicago, New York, all over the place. Levittown. We covered a lot of territory.” Habitat was Safdie’s reaction to what he saw that summer. “I came back and wrote my thesis proposal in which I said: People wanted to live in houses. We have to build denser cities. We’re building a lot of apartments. We need to reinvent the apartment to give every person the quality of life of a house in a high-rise building.”
For the expo, Safdie prefabricated 365 modules in a factory and stacked them asymmetrically to make apartments of different types and sizes, from 600-square-foot one-bedroom to 1,800-square-foot four-bedroom units. Each one had a roof garden. Each was entered from one of the shared pedestrian streets that ran through the complex. All of the building’s components—the modules, the walkways, the three elevator cores—were load-bearing and worked together to form “a continuous suspension system.”
The project, back then, was entirely unexpected. Yes, it was futuristic, but it also possessed a shaggy humanity that was often missing from visionary schemes. It was unquestionably modern, but there was also something wonderfully primal about it. The boxes resembled a mound of toy blocks, poised on the brink of tumbling into the St Lawrence River: a vision as arresting today as it was then. Habitat remains a desirable place to live; the apartments shown for sale in current real estate listings are uniformly spectacular, and sale prices are in the $400,000 to $500,000 range for typical “two cube” apartments, substantially higher than Montreal’s average home price, in the low $300s.
In 1967, the acclaim was intense, but not universal. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. (whose father had commissioned Fallingwater) called it “repulsive.” Ada Louise Huxtable was moved by the project’s boldness. “Just about every housing and building rule, precedent, practice, custom and convention is broken by Habitat,” she wrote in The New York Times. But she reported that because the project was such an experiment, built with untested methods, on an accelerated production schedule—“in ten months and 21 days”—it was, in some respects, a failure. “It was planned as a $42-million project of 1,000 units,” Huxtable wrote. “The budget was subsequently cut to $11.5 million. It took $5 million just to develop the manufacturing plant and machinery. With the balance, only 158 units could be built. What was meant to be mass produced is virtually handcrafted sample, and costs have soared to more than $100,000 a unit.”
No matter. The project was a sensation and developers everywhere commissioned the young architect to design them their own version of Habitat. By 1968, Safdie was working on mountains of modules for clients in San Juan, St. Thomas, Jerusalem, and New York City. None came to fruition.
Habitat New York is one of those what-if stories. Carol Haussamen, a real estate heiress with passion for housing and connections to the late Mayor John Lindsay, hired Safdie to design upscale developments for two possible sites, both on the East River. The initial site was at East 91st Street, but Haussamen eventually settled on a larger property between Wall and Fulton Streets. The models show a series of crazy looking 50-story triangular stacks of prefabricated volumes. Safdie compared the structural system to that of a suspension bridge: the modules, instead of fitting into a superstructure as they did in Montreal, were to be hung from cables. The complex was also supposed to include offices, retail, and parking (with a garage that was partially underwater).
What happened in New York is more or less what happened everywhere. While innovation was surely the raison d’être of World’s Fairs, the marketplace had little tolerance for wholesale rule breaking. What killed the idea? “I’d say a combination of economics, resistance, and building codes,” Safdie says.
There was also the matter of the changing Zeitgeist. Safdie’s merger of the single-family home and the apartment complex could be read as a last ditch effort to buoy the notion of urban living at a moment when affluent North Americans were deserting the city in droves. “In the later 1970s, “ Safdie recalls, “there was such a recession in terms of urban development.”
Aside from one smallish apartment complex in Cambridge, Mass., the Esplanade (1989), which had a passing resemblance to Habitat, the architect who radically reinvented urban living stopped designing residential buildings and instead established a reputation for cultural projects, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (1988) and a series of Holocaust museum and memorial buildings at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem (1987–2005). “You design one good museum and one good library, and you start being stereotyped,” Safdie says.
In this millennium, however, the ideas that were so exciting to a young Safdie—like prefabrication and density—are suddenly fashionable again. Even the aesthetic that emerged from Safdie’s nonlinear thinking—the word he now uses to describe it is “fractalized”—has become stylish; see Bjarke Ingels’ 8 House in Copenhagen or West 57th in Manhattan. So it makes a great deal of sense that now, finally, almost 50 years later, commercial developers are clamoring to build projects inspired by—or, at the very least, named after—Habitat 67. Predictably, those developers are all in Asia.
“Only in China,” quips Safdie principal architect Lorenzo Mattii, AIA, about one of the most exuberant Habitat-inspired projects, Golden Dream Bay, a beachside development in Qinhuangdao, China, on the Bohai Sea. It was Mattii who spearheaded a 2008 research project for Safdie Architects that, intentionally or not, resurrected the Habitat brand. It began innocently enough. Curator Donald Albrecht was organizing an exhibition of Safdie’s work at two museums the architect himself designed: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. (2011), and Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (2013). “All the models of the original Habitat were being remade for the exhibition,” Safdie recalls. “Donald suggested to me that we should conclude the exhibition with a rethinking of Habitat.” Says Albrecht: “My thinking was that since the original Habitat 67 was a futurist proposal, it would be good to have Moshe revisit it and its assumptions.”
But the curator’s request wouldn’t have carried much weight if it hadn’t also been the exact right moment to re-consider the project: “With respect to the mass migration of people back into the city,” Mattii says, “I thought that it was certainly something worth looking at.” After studying the original project and sifting through the archival material, which was housed at McGill, Mattii’s team concluded that today’s Habitat couldn’t crack the prefab nut and be in any way affordable. “We quickly knew that we could not do the box architecture,” Mattii says. “We needed to do something that was buildable with your basic construction techniques.” At the same time, it still needed to look like a giant stack of single-family homes rather than conventional apartments. The goal, according to Mattii became to “build densely in a manner that it doesn’t look like it’s built densely.”
Currently, Safdie’s office has two Habitat-inspired projects that are just about done: Golden Dream Bay and a Singapore high-rise called Sky Habitat. Both are intended for a middle-class market and apply the formal qualities of Habitat to complexes that dwarf the scale of the original. Golden Dream Bay is a cluster of 15-story buildings that each has a cascading slope of terraces along one edge. The buildings are stacked in a dramatic fashion, so that the complex is actually 30 stories tall. The stacks frame 20-story-tall openings between buildings that make the development—in the photos, at least—appear porous. The design comes directly from one of the models that Mattii’s research group made for Albrecht’s exhibition.
The Sky Habitat complex in Singapore is a bit more conventional, a pair of 38-story towers connected by three landscaped sky bridges, with balconies arrayed along the towers’ angled edges to create the appearance of cascading terraces—or, as the Safdie website says, “fractal geometry surface patterns.” The balconies echo Habitat 67’s generous rooftop gardens. “Plan a dinner under the stars, tend to your very own herb garden and bond with the family at home,” suggests the sales material. A similar project is now planned for Colombo, Sri Lanka, and one is also underway in an unannounced location in the Middle East.
The story of Habitat 67, a revolutionary work of architecture that seemed, for a moment, as if it was really going to change the world, is almost operatically sad. “It was hurtful,” recalls Safdie about the period when all his Habitat commissions fell apart. It was “painful that the idea had not proliferated, as it should have after the public reaction.” And then some of his more conventional residential projects, like 1987 Columbus Center (on the site where Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Timer Warner Center now stands), didn’t get built. “So there were a lot of disappointments.”
Clearly, Habitat 67 failed to change the world. Instead, over the course of five decades, the world changed on its own. A market opened up in Asia for gargantuan developments. “In my dreams, I didn’t think of the densities that we’re building today,” Safdie says. And Asian clients have embraced formal inventions and structural gymnastics beyond anything that even the most outrageous 1960s thinkers could have imagined. Safdie seems bemused by the emergence of Habitat as a 21st-century brand, tickled by the way the Singapore developer uses photos of the original to give his own project a pedigree. Unexpectedly, this architectural opera has a happy ending: “It feels very comforting,” Safdie says. “It seems like, ‘I told you so.’ ”