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Habitat 67 – even better than when first built in 1967

Along with the “underground city” and Mont Royal, Habitat 67 stands out as a Montreal must see! It just may be the most interesting housing development anywhere in the world. And, it looks like its been constructed out of lego!

Habitat 67 from a street view; you can see the lego-like structure rising up.
Habitat 67 in Montreal as seen from the street

A modern approach to building urban homes

Modular habitat construction

The project is constructed from modules. These modules were manufactured on site. Then they were lifted into place using cranes. Each one is about 600 square feet. And each of the modules, along with internal walkways and three elevator cores, acts as part of the load-carrying structure of the complex, held together with tension rods, cables, and a lot of welding.

A crane lifting a prefabricated module for Habitat 67 into place.
A crane lifts one of the prefabricated modules into place during construction.

The design features wide spaces between clusters, and open lanes between units. This helped create a sense of privacy and space similar to what private homes in the suburbs could offer.

In the late 1960’s the Habitat was part of a broader movement towards inexpensive pre-fabricated homes that could help provide affordable housing. It also became an important part of the movement to make livable spaces in dense urban areas.

Modern oasis in an urban apartment setting

There are 385 modules in all. They are interconnected to make what was originally 158 housing units. They range from small 600 s.f. one bedroom apartments to much larger 1,800 s.f. “homes.” And each unit has a roof garden!

The gardens provide every unit with access to sun and air. And the units all have privacy not common in apartment settings. Along with the grand views and open floorpans, the design intentionally combines the most desirable features of suburban housing with the economics and benefits of high density urban apartment dwellings. This 1967 complex became a highly visible execution of a broader movement in architecture, and has remained relevant over the past fifty years.

Actually living in Habitat 67

From all reports, the residents love the living space and the way the complex is laid out. Also because of the thick walls of each pre-fab unit, residents note how excellent the soundproofing is!

Since the original configuration, some residents have bought multiple units and combined them to make bigger spaces. So, today there are 146 residences, down from the original 158.

A beautiful view of Habitat 67 showing the structure against a blue sky.
Habitat 67, Photo by Thomas Ledl

All of the units have views on 3 sides, and as noted above, come with landscaped terraces. The largest units spread out over three floors. The residents of 67 are “Special Partners” of a Limited Partnership structure.

How a student project morphed into the word-famous Habitat 67 complex

When he was still a student, Moshe Safdie designed a model housing complex for his master’s thesis at the School of Architecture at McGill University. Safdie had a vision for building a private and natural environment within the confines of a dense urban space.

A portrait of Architect Moshe Safdie in 1967 during the construction of the  pavilion for the Expo.
Moshe Safdie in 1967

Safdie has been recognized as one of the great architects of the 20th century, and it was this project that put him on the map.

Several years after school Safdie submitted a proposal to the organizers of Expo 67 to build his thesis design. Even though he was relatively young and not yet known, the organizers, along with Canada’s Prime Minister Lester Pearson, gave him the go-ahead.

The complex was built in a surprisingly short time in the years leading up to the Expo, and was financed by the Canadian government.

Expo 67 – one of the most successful word’s fair in the 20th century

The 1967 Montreal World’s Fair or Expo 67 is widely considered to be one of the most successful world’s fair of the 20th century. It vies with New York (twice, in both 1939 and 1964) for that honor.

Broad view of Expo 67, the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal
The 1967 International and Universal Exposition

Expo theme: Man and His World

Formally named the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, the fair attracted huge audiences. The theme of Expo 67 was “Man and His World.” An astounding 62 nations participated. And on the third day it set the single-day attendance record for a world’s fair with 569,500 visitors!

Official Logo for Expo 67 showing matchstick figures of man linked in friendship.
The official logo of Expo 67

Highly regarded logo, but with some debate and criticism at the time

Montreal artist Julien H├ębert designed the highly recognizable logo. The basic icon is the matchstick symbol for man. It is shown in groups of two linked together to represent friendship. The circle design of repeating icon pairs is meant to indicate friendship around the world. While highly appreciated afterward, at the time there was debate in Canadian politics over the logo, even reaching Parliament.

Habitat 67 – built as an Expo pavilion

Habitat 67 was initially built as a pavilion for Expo 67. Because housing was one of the expo themes, the organizers wanted a dramatic statement showing the importance of design in urban residential architecture. The Habitat fit that bill, and was designed and built just for the Expo. Many of the 50 million Expo visitors came to the pavilion, and they were able to view up close the Expo’s vision of the future of a model community and urban apartment living.

In addition, many of the visiting dignitaries to Expo 67 stayed in the Habitat 67 complex. While we can’t determine exactly who stayed where, some of the famous visitors to the Expo included: Queen Elizabeth II, President Lyndon Johnson, Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Haile Selassie, Laurence Olivier, Charles de Gaulle, Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, and Marlene Dietrich.

A comeback for the habitat movement?

While the ideals that Habitat 67 were built on never left the architectural scene, similar complexes that were once planned in New York, Puerto Rico, and Jerusalem never came about. That is largely because the economic returns that private investors look for in real estate development were hard to deliver with a less dense and open structure.

In cities the land and development costs just don’t support less dense structures. That is why we have so many boxlike apartment buildings . . .the density is economically attractive, but the outcomes are unattractive in so many other ways. In fact, without Canadian federal funding, the initial complex would probably never have been built.

Over the years there has been a resurgence of interest in habitat style developments, especially in Asia. The original breakthrough was adding a sense of space and privacy to urban living. We will have to wait to see if a new crop of Safdie inspired buildings spring up.

So does it really look like Lego?

It’s OK to admit it. The complex looks like it’s built out of Lego!

Building blocks including Lego bricks

Even Lego got into the action, recognizing the complex in 2012, with many models built over the years (just google Lego Habitat 67). However, even though they hinted at issuing a Habitat 67 set in 2012 and again in 2017 it never happened. But we can hope!

Lego model of Habitat 67
A lego model of Habitat 67

In several interviews Safdie actually acknowledged he used Lego to build the initial models of the project! At one point he said, without a hint of embellishment, that he “used all of the lego in Montreal” to make Habitat 67. Apparently he bought up as many Lego sets as he could find, and he built prototype after prototype to try different variations until he got what he was looking for.

Find out more about Habitat 67

There are a couple of great sources to find out more. First is the website for the Habitat 67 complex. You can take a 90 minute guided tour the next time you find yourself in Montreal. In addition, there is the website from Safdie Architects which features a detailed background on the project.

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