Mind & Matter


New Lessons from an Old Habitat

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Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada. Photo by Blaine Brownell.


Like fashion, architectural trends come in and out of vogue, and particular cycles emerge. One such cycle concerns the modular, accretive architecture celebrated in the 1960s by groups such as Team 10 and the Metabolists. Although the staggered pods and communal utopias envisioned by these architects fell out of favor during the heyday of Postmodernism, the compatibility of these ideas with current interests in prefabrication, biomimicry, and structural performance has returned these works to the spotlight.

Perhaps the most memorable structure from this period is Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 project for the 1967 Montreal World Exposition. Consisting of 158 modular dwellings that were staggered and stacked to create a large concrete ziggurat, Habitat envisioned the advancement of prefabrication methods and the creation of collective housing that would optimize occupants’ access to light, air, and views.

While attending the ACSA conference in Montreal last week, I had a chance to tour Habitat 67 for the first time. I was immediately surprised by the physical presence of the building, and what had been a simple mental diagram for me suddenly emerged as an immersive construction with palpable gravitas. The concrete surfaces and minimally framed glass—although looking a little worse for wear—give the structure a robust, muscular quality that I never appreciated in the project drawings. The interiors of the units also fulfill the aspirations of Safdie’s vision: simple volumes with floor-to-ceiling glass and generous terrace spaces receive stunning views of the Saint Lawrence River. Once your appreciate what Habitat 67 is like in person, you understand that what is considered a product of its time actually has enduring qualities.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.