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October, 2007

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Why was Habitat one of kind?
John Fretz
Expo 67’s theme of Man and his World honoured Moshe Safdie’s visionary low-cost housing. His stunningly original Habitat, built on Montreal’s harbour peninsula, featured apartment units with amazing privacy, individual views and generous terrace space.
Adapted from the Middle Eastern template of hillside rooftops, Habitat catapulted the McGill graduate onto the international scene. Safdie claimed that his innovation would solve the problem of drab, mediocre housing projects by granting occupants a sense of prestige and self-worth at a time when mass culture and its anonymity threatened to crush what C. G. Jung called our “spiritual autonomy.”
Forty years ago, Safdie’s breathtaking approach to housing architecture seemed like a panacea, but its impact fizzled. Witness today, with more and more urban blight — exactly what Safdie wanted to avoid with his daring design.
Too often, our cityscape is a miasma of condo monoliths spreading like a concrete disease. Sterile, formulaic architecture litters the scene, and nowhere more egregiously than in the new development along the Lachine Canal corridor, a golden opportunity to apply some of the revitalizing originality of Safdie ’s ‘aerie’ effect, ultimately beneficial to anyone living in a housing complex – an opportunity that was completely missed.
In addition, along the Southwest Canal corridor, no new green space was allocated for parks or regulation-sized playing fields to compensate for this blight. Where are the kids going to play increasingly popular sports like soccer?
What happened to the Habitat legacy — a bit of life and sun and green space for all apartment dwellers? Why wasn’t Safdie’s thrust adopted in the way that Parisian fashion becomes prêt à porter?
As architect Peter Lanken explained to me, Habitat was impractically expensive and difficult to build. The erection of Habitat ’s 354 modular concrete boxes had to be equilibrated with each other. Installing the structural beams was tricky, and the project became ‘handcrafted architecture.’
Consequently, prices went through the roof, with a unit selling on par with a big Westmount home. Today, Habitat is a cooperative.
Another criticism is that the units tend to be smallish and pokey. And yet, they’re phenomenal. I once visited a typical apartment on a grey December day. Looking out onto a harbour plied by an ice-breaking tugboat was a Zen-like experience, like being on another planet.
Take a look at Habitat by walking around to the rear, along the majestic St. Lawrence, and marvel at the loftiness, the intoxicating light and air. And don ’t miss the adjacent Tropiques Nord, with its amazing tropical conservatory rising over 10 storeys.
A bike path runs along Pierre Dupuy, and motorists can pull over at the lane just before the Concord Bridge. Let ’s hope the Habitat dream will yet be fulfilled.


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Why was Habitat one of kind? by John Fretz

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