FALLING FROM GRACE

An examination of Habitat ’67’s utopian vision and disheartening reality.

Abstract

From the Tower of Babel to the Metabolist biomorphic city, throughout history, architects seem to bear this mythical duty of recreating a utopia that can magically shelter the misery and nourish prosperity. Habitat ’67 was one of the few realizations of these utopian-like architectural projects. Under the exceptional context of the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal where anything is forgivable, architect Moshe Safdie successful made an attempt to manifest a universal housing project by conflating his Mediterranean heritage with the state-of-the-art industrial production technique. But the disparity among the conceptual vision reflected in the project’s Original Scheme, the faulty reality from the legislative, financial, technological constraints, and the dishonorable predicament Habitat ’67 is trapped now graphically demonstrates to the public and the architects that utopia should, and would, never exist beyond one’s imagination, planning sheet, or at most, an architectural model. The downfall of Habitat ’67 should serve as a cautionary tale for the architects who still attempt to realize the unrealizable.

 

 

Looking out onto the now overgrown Expo island from Montreal’s industrial waterfront, the only two discernible evidences of 1967’s bygone glory are a distant skeleton of Buckminister Fuller’s geodesic dome, and the heroically composed megastructure of Habitat ’67. The latter seems to prevail as the last remnant with its ostensibly intact contour, but knowing the internal overhaul from a once edgy community housing solution into a luxurious condominium casts its heroism with a tragic hue. Unbeknown to the public, the built Habitat ’67 was already a letdown to the architect. He regards the Original Scheme, which was released in 1964 for promotional and funding purpose, as the most pristine apotheosis of his architectural ideology. However, this proposal is overcrowded with the nostalgia for the utopian life of his childhood in Haifa, Israel and the ambition to generate a new, omnipotent architectonic language to save urban housing condition, which leads to the inevitable compromises with the harsh reality of by-laws, labour production, and building technology. After Habitat has been occupied, more problems manifested on the practical level from the failed management of Central Mortgage and the structural defects, and magnetized a series of critics and media onslaughts. The downward trajectory of Habitat ’67 testifies the impossibility to realize a state of utopia with architecture, and also warns the fellow architects to balance out the theoretical enthusiasm towards a utopian heroism with the rational soberness from the practical concerns.

 

 Original Scheme

Figure 1. This is a rendered image of the built model of the Original Scheme, demonstrating the magnitude of the anticipated project, and the various structural differences from the commonly known Habitat ’67. This photograph was printed among a few other renderings on the promotional brochure prepared by Safdie’s team in February, 1964. 

 

The Original Scheme was stemmed from Moshe Safdie’s illustrious sixth-year thesis at McGill, named “A Three-Dimensional Modular Building System”. This work radically reimagines the solution for the problematic high-density urban future with entirely mass-produced techniques that he saw implemented in the automobile industry. After his family immigrated from Israel to Canada in 1953, Safdie witnessed the entire process when automobile popularized into a household necessity within a handful of years, and credited it to the tremendously efficient assembly line method. He concludes that mechanization not only saved human labor, the fractalization of the production process also “permits analyses of each step”, thus enabled quality control, precocious planning and waste elimination. The abundance of advantages excited Safdie, because from his observation to the building industry, “[a] typical construction site is swarmed with idle men”; it lacks exactly this methodical organization. Although the thesis applies a rudimentary “plug-in” mechanism, the potential for industrially pre-fabricated construction and his ambition to explore modular housing in greater detail earned him the affirmation from notable names like Jane Drew. In the subsequent designing of the Original Scheme, Safdie continued the experiment by repeating a cubic precast module 950 times into a series of rhomboidal membranes that inclined onto several A-frames (Figure 1). He envisioned a precast factory to be erected on site to streamline the process and explained that precast could achieve a “smooth, machine-like finish” that could guarantee a stackable “pure geometry” in the final presentation, shunning the lackluster roughness in Brutalist architectures. The other components, fixture and finishes like the kitchens, bathrooms, and window frames should all be conferred on individual factories to mass-produce into prefabricated packages. On site, “the architects, the engineers, the technicians” ought to be present simultaneously to form a close and orderly circuit of communication. Once the pre-made components arrived, the construction should be as easy as an assembly-line, first installing each pre-made elements into the shell; and then hoisting up the completed module using cranes onto the A-frames. 

 

Mimicking the mechanics of stairs, the modules are supposed to be stacked with a setback from the one below. On each tread surface, the Original Scheme guaranteed to every module an exquisite terrace recycling the exterior roof of the one beneath, and a maximum exposure to sunlight with a slight orientation, all for the purpose to re-establish the closeness to nature in the urban context. The offset modules clustered into inclined membranes that is further stabilized by the twenty-two-stories high A-frames to form a rhythmic stretch of hills that harks back to the Mediterranean costal geography of the architect’s hometown. Safdie was born in a hillside village called Haifa, where stairs profusely outnumbered roads. “We spent our lives walking up and downs stairs rather than driving”, as he remembers in his memoir “Beyond Habitat”, the repetitive offsetting mechanics and the expanse of the mountainous geography undoubtedly expanded his imagination for a three-dimensional city and a life in midair. Further, during his time working for Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng on the Philadelphia City Hall project, their audacity for composing tetrahedral and pyramidal geometries and stacking house-capsules in a similar “stepped die” profile galvanized him into putting his similar design vocabulary into practice and equipped him with the necessary techniques to realize that. 

Nature symbolizes Safdie’s solution to the urban housing issue; aside from the democratization of the gardened terrace, to his opinion, a three-dimensional circulation could also bring about a sense of humanism. Large gaps are sandwiched below the A-frames to filter sunlight and fresh air from top to bottom; and within these frames, horizontal and diagonal pedestrian streets, elevators, and cultural amenities weaves into the entire plan to maximize the circulation inside and out. In particular, Safdie pioneered the idea of “semipublic space” which is a network of corridors located on every fourth floor (Figure 2). The twist is a transparent roof fully or half-enclosing these spaces which gives the inhabitants an outlook and more sunlight. During his McGill years, he participated in a traveling scholarship organized by CMHC. The trip examined the housing schemes in every major city in North America, and the conditions agitated Safdie. He loathed high-rises apartments for its suffocating enclosure which made it inadequate to raise a family, as well as suburban sprawl which wasted the precious green belt around city. Once again, he fished in the memory of Haifa for a solution. It was a “dense, compact, mixed” urban environment, comparable to the North American standard; but at the same time, suburban features such as domestic farming and agriculture were well-interpenetrated within this city. The rooftop terrace of Safdie’s own childhood house, located in the middle of the city, had “fifty chickens, two goats and two beehives”. He treasured this “ecological balance” between the natural and the artificial and firmly believed in its “psychic significance”. “In those days people did not lock their doors because there were no thieves”, although Safdie was not expecting this degree of absolute openness to recur, the organic circulation in the Original Scheme entrusts his aspiration for an vernacular sense of community to emerge in an urban context.

 

Moreover, the Original Scheme is intended to be a multifunctional housing complex, encompassing commercial, institutional, as well as residential purposes. Safdie feared that the extreme homogeneity of the mass-produced modular systems might steal away the sense of location and identity from the individuals. The two beehives on his roof in Haifa inspired him to introduce a hierarchical system into the mechanical monotony. Despite the extreme accuracy of the hexagonal cells in a hive, bees are most adept at finding their own spot. He avidly observed the bees in his childhood and came to the conclusion that their sense of orientation is guided by the nuanced sense of hierarchy within the regularity. “Some of the cells have white spots in them because there is a bee developing; some have liquid in them, the sugar syrup; some are sealed with very dark wax because they are filled with honey; some of them are bigger because they are nourishing a potential queen.” This finding propelled him to test out the rhythmic organization of land-use in the Original Scheme. On the terrestrial level, shopping complex is opened with direct links to the parking lot and the transit systems of monorail, expressways and metro tunnels connecting to downtown Montreal. Institutional amenities follow; lastly, the construction is topped with residential and hotel. Within the structure, distinct routes of circulation are designated for visitors and inhabitants; and each unit are encouraged to flourish their respective garden to manifest the multitude of individuality on the façade. 

 

  Built Habitat ’67

 

Notwithstanding the compliments from the media, the public and the authorities granted him the ticket to the Expo, the federal government marked down the budget from the proposed $42 million to $13.5 million. Compromises were made with the uppermost loyalty to the essentials of the utopian Original Scheme. First he drastically reduced the magnitude of the project from 950 units to only housing 158 units with 354 standard cubic modules. With the new twelve-story height, it was too short to actually implement the A-frames and inclined membranes. Safdie nevertheless persisted on the stacking motion, thus the weight is re-distributed to all parts of the building to carry, including the stairs and the passageways. Contrary to the seemingly sporadic arrhythmic order, the architect has strategically mapped out every setback, every void, to generate fifteen geometric arrangements, ranging from 60 to 160 square meters in size, and perfected a cantilever connecting technique using “high-tension rods, cables, and welding”. Every house is equipped with at least one garden with irrigated planters and views in three directions to preserve a sense of nature. Circulation was also guaranteed with the realization of “semipublic space”, seats and flowerbeds were added in Habitat ’67 to facilitate interpersonal connection and nourish the sense of community (Figure 2).

 

Law and legislation further suffocated the creative freedom and forcefully made Safdie deviate from the efficient route. The zoning law made housing projects in Canada “impossible” to have commercial function in the name of being “a nuisance to the tenants”. Therefore, the vertically integrated mixed land-use concept is compromised to merely a parking lot on the ground level and two convenience stores opened only decades later. At the same time, the inflexible performance codes obligated the reinforcing steel to be covered with at least two inches of concrete to give it a four-hour fire rating, which was at odds with Safdie’s intention for a lightweight module. Presumably, the doubling wall was able to provide enough fire resistance, but the architect still had to surrender to a “5-inch” walls. Moreover, these legislated parameters varied significantly depending on the local policies; which impedes the Habitat scheme from large-scale proliferation, and demonstrates the awkward inflexibility of the building industry. 

 

The inefficiency in the production process was another harsh reality he faced. Instead of a tightly knit team, the subcontractors were egocentric and bureaucratic. At the public bidding for each of the building component, none of the bidders would risk doing research before getting the contract, resulting misunderstanding on the particularity of this undertaking. For instance, the bathroom was bid off to Reff Plastics and Tielemans for $100 thousand, but both companies only offered $30 thousand and wanted to revert the one-piece bathroom package back to the conventional “bits and pieces”. The disrespect of the subcontractor infuriated Safdie, but the miscommunication exacerbated by distancing themselves further from the site on McKay Pier. Although a factory was indeed erected on site to precast the concrete boxes, the existence of unions also degraded the efficiency. They naturally resisted any change that might threatens their work hour, especially mechanization. This contestation was best demonstrated in the switch to the “magic joint”. It was a production technique for the tubing proposed by Safdie in order to save man-hours for plumbers by one-half or one-third, under labour unions’ tremendous opposition, the built Habitat ’67’s functionality weakens

 

The reluctant decision to use concrete as the main material for the modular shell was decided at the last minute before releasing the Original Scheme. During the initial planning, Safdie dreamed to use a building material that exists “in the hydrocarbon family of polymeric” in order to keep the boxes lightweight without losing its practicality. It ought to be “one fifth the weight of concrete”, “a tensile strength double that of mild steel”, “insulation value equal to foam plastic”, completely moldable, watertight and “have compress strength and density”. He realistically planned to use the substantial demand for this material for the magnitude of the Original Scheme to carry out its mass production from the laboratory. But the lack of faith from the authorities, engineers, and suppliers towards Habitat ’67 and the dwindled demand caused Safdie to take this half measure with concrete. Although it was the closest approximate, the formal restriction, porousness, technical demands of concrete detained the construction process tremendously.

 

Post-Expo

 

Figure 3 This is a recent promotional photo of Habitat ’67 from a real estate broker’s website. The unit is boldly marketed as “luxury as its best”, and proclaims it was a convergence from four individual units, forming an “astonishing penthouse of 2835 sqft on 2 levels”.

Following the whirlwind fascination Habitat ’67 received from the Exposition, Central Mortgage took over the administration of the entire MacKay pier including Habitat, and inaptly marketed the building as a “luxury apartment” with an astronomical rent. This crown corporation always held a doubtful grudge which was originated from the misunderstanding of Safdie’s intention for the Habitat Scheme to be an affordable urban housing solution. Its executive director, Hector St. Pierre, openly addressed to Time magazine that he did “not believe that this building is the type of construction for people with young children”, and that CMHC was reluctant to “commit themselves publicly to future plans” for the building and the area around. Beyond the prohibitively high rent, the structural defects started to manifest in the inconvenience of the actual living experience. Particularly during the harsh Montreal winter, the “problem of heat loss and temperature differentials” escalated the utility cost for heating. Critics like Oscar Newman pointed this negligence out early from Safdie’s Original Scheme proposal. The disenchantment with the multi-functional land-use by the stiff zoning law further troubled the Habitat residents due to the lack of institutional and commercial amentias in the neighborhood. They were impelled to leave the peninsula of Cité-du-Havre to reach the nearest shop or school. 

 

  Once the first sign of failure sparked from the difficulty to attract tenants, the press immediately wrote Habitat ’67 off as another idealized showpiece, which exacerbates the chasm between the public’s opinion and the architect’s intent. At first, the professional critics like Banham started to condemn the project as “an illusion, a myth”, and drew a parallel with the downfall of the Modernist public housing scheme that “heavy prefabrication would ‘solve the crisis of the American city’”. Since the release of the Original Scheme, the mystification of Habitat ’67 has been gradually built up and peaked at the opening of the fair. The press and the visitors were bedazzled by the hopeful promise of the Mediterranean utopia, extoling it as “an idea whose time has come”; the academics rejoiced since it coincided with their bourgeoning interest towards “system-building” and “prefabricated housing”, proclaiming it as “the model of the good unban architecture of the future”. But under the denounce that it “delivered almost nothing commensurate with the size of the myth that had been built up”, the press quickly switched side and manipulated the public. Amalgamating all its unaffordability with the sensationalized portrayal in the media circuit, the post-Expo state of Habitat ’67 left a lofty, isolated, and icy impression to the world.

 

Almost simultaneously, Metabolism with their analogous pursuit of an organic three-dimensional city seemed to be making a bigger impact on the urban landscape of Japan. Nakagin Capsule Tower was often compared with Habitat ’67 for their identical approach of the fully modular capsule system. All the furnishings in the tower were pre-fabricated and consequently assembled into the disposable capsules; then they were attached onto the central shaft using simple connections (Figure 4). With profound admiration, Safdie paid a visit to the offices of several ‘Metabolist’ architects in 1970 to seek out their approach of coping with the constrains of a three-dimensional city on the mundane level. As he vividly remembered in the opening page of “For Everyone a Garden”:

 

“The questions I asked the Japanese had to do with problems such as What kind of structure could possibly hold their buildings up, or How could someone move around inside of them, or What materials would be used? Often the response was that this had not yet been considered. The implication was that their studies were theoretical and my questions were therefore irrelevant.”

 

The unrealistic conceptualism in their respond reminded him of the utopian ignorance he had during the design of the Original Scheme, thus ceased his last glimmer of hope. Consequently, Metabolism met its doom shortly after its culmination in the 1970 Osaka Expo. Although the Nakagin Tower still somewhat holds its outer profile today, the capsules were never renewed, and therefore the facilities are obsolete and heavily deteriorated. Meanwhile, the government and investors has been eyeing the Tower’s central business district location and anticipating its demise impatiently. The collective consensus from the residents is the only reason it is still left standing with dignity. In comparison to Metabolism’s total collapse, Habitat ’67 is slightly more well-off by its official recognition as a heritage site by the Montreal government in 2009. 

        

Fresh from his undergraduate study, the precocious Safdie went overly ambitious and expected to fit in every single element from the design vocabulary he had collected for the twenty-six years of his early life. From gardened terrace, to 3-D circulation; from prefabricated modules to multiple land-uses, his eagerness to re-enact the childhood Haifa deep in his rose-colored memory clashed head-to-head with the realistic concerns under market economy. Habitat took several tumbles on its fall from the Mediterranean utopia, precipitated by CMHC, the press and the critics. Not only did all of Safdie’s Habitat projects around the world were never able to proliferate, on the contrary the intention as an urban high-rise living solution is often misconstrued and or even reversed. In the case of Habitat ’67, its upper-class residents now completely rule over the interior space with no regards to the original design, some of them took down the doubling walls to integrate several separate modular units into one palatial whole, and refashioned the building into a symbol of wealth and power. 

 

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