Exhibition film still
David Hartt Exhibition film still

Fifty years have passed since Moshe Safdie, FAIA, debuted his now-iconic prefabricated housing project Habitat 67 in Montreal for Expo 67. “He spent the decade after Expo designing versions of Habitat, for Washington, New York, Rochester, Baltimore, Jerusalem, and San Juan, Puerto Rico,” wrote ARCHITECT contributor Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, in a 1990 article for The New York Times. Rybczynski explained that only the Puerto Rico project “managed to get off the drawing table.” However, the government pulled funding after only 30 of the 800 planned 430-square-foot units were built. “The ’70s were, for me, a series of disappointments,” Safdie told Rybczynski.

Section drawing of Habitat Puerto Rico
Safdie Architects Section drawing of Habitat Puerto Rico

The new exhibition “In the Forest” at Chicago’s Graham Foundation examines this stopped housing experiment. Artist David Hartt, an assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, explores Habitat Puerto Rico with sculpture, photographs, plants, objects, sound, and a film—all of which Hartt produced himself—showing the project’s original and alternate sites and how the remnants had survived decades after construction ceased. "I wasn’t interested in the project as a failed utopia so much as curious as to what future actually emerged in its absence," Hartt wrote in an article for Pin-Up magazine. While working on the project, he made several trips to Puerto Rico as well as conducted research in the Moshe Safdie Archive at McGill University. Hartt describes his work as "closer to the essay film tradition, but nonetheless, they borrow from the documentary methodology."

Hartt shot the film in January and February of this year, and the Graham Foundation exhibition opened prior to Hurricane Maria’s recent devastating impact. There are no current plans to modify the exhibition in response to the storm, but the Graham Foundation has included a link to the Hurricane Maria Community Relief & Recovery Fund on their website. "The idea of responding real-time to the site of the work is something that isn’t really within the scope of my practice," Hartt says. "That being said, obviously my heart goes out to the people of Puerto Rico and especially the folks who I was privileged to meet and work with and who helped tremendously in the research and production of this work."

“In the Forest” runs through Jan. 6, 2018, and then travels to Ontario’s Oakville Galleries. The Graham Foundation will host a talk by David Hartt on Oct. 18, and another by Moshe Safdie on Oct. 30.