Brutalist buildings: Habitat 67, Montreal
by Moshe Safdie


Brutalism: next up in our series on Brutalist architecture is Habitat 67, the experimental modular housing presented by Moshe Safdie at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal as a vision for the future of cities (+ slideshow).

Comprising a three-dimensional landscape of 354 stacked concrete "boxes", Habitat 67 pioneered the combination of two major housing typologies – the urban garden residence and the modular high-rise apartment building.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Photograph by Timothy Hursley, as main image

Safdie, an Israeli-born architect who moved to Canada in the 1950s, first developed the concept as part of his thesis at McGill University in 1961, entitled "A Case for City Living".

Two years later, when the architect was just 23 and starting out his career in the office of Louis Kahn, his former tutor Sandy Van Ginkel suggested he submit his design for the Montreal Expo. It became his first ever built project.

The original masterplan involved over 1,000 residences, alongside shops and a school. This was scaled down to just 158 homes, forming a 12-storey complex located beside the Saint Lawrence River in the centre of the city.

By utilising a variety of geometric arrangements, making use of both setbacks and voids, Safdie aimed to create a series of properties with their own identities. Each one featured its own roof garden and could be accessed from an external "street" – one of Brutalism's key ideals.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Photograph by Sam Tata

Safdie, who himself believes the project is "a reaction against brutalism", described his design as an attempt at a high-rise village – a way of upsizing from a micro to a mega scale.

"I think Habitat was important at its time and resonated with the public because it proposed in realised form an alternative to the typology of the conventional apartment house," the architect told Dezeen.

"The public recognised in Habitat the possibility that high-rise living could be more like living in a village and have the quality of life of a house than what they associated with the negatives of apartment housing. While there were many theoretical proposals floating in the air at the time, the fact that we had the opportunity to realise Habitat, and for 50 million people to experience it during Expo as a real and living environment, suggested that this was a possible future reality."

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Photograph by Studio Graetz

Fifteen different housing types were developed. These varied between 60 and 160 square metres, each accommodating between one and four bedrooms.

Six monumental elevator pillars were added to offer vertical access, stopping only on every fourth level to try and prevent unnecessary journeys and thus decrease the structure's energy consumption.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Photograph by Studio Graetz

To allow the prefabricated construction process to take place on site, a factory was built beside the site to produce the concrete modules, which were to be connected by high-tension rods, steel cables and welding.

Safdie believed this to be the most cost-efficient solution – a decision that ultimately backfired with costs spiralling to CAD$22 million, which represented about CAD$140,000 per home.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Photograph courtesy of Safdie Architects

Despite this, the project has remained popular with residents. In 1986 the building was sold to its tenants for CAD$11.5 million – or around CAD$26,250 per residence – by a Quebec businessman, who had bought it from the government for CAD$10 million.

"Everybody knows that Habitat was a money-losing proposition," Fritz Delphine, special projects coordinator for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the agency that ran Habitat, told the New York Times. The newspaper reported that the design of the units, each with several exposed walls, made the building twice as costly to heat as any other building in Montreal.

According to Safdie, many of the original occupants still live in the building, and the architect has also kept a residence for himself there.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Photograph by Jerry Spearman

"A built fragment of a grander, mixed-use proposal, Habitat's concrete rawness speaks to Brutalism's beton brut – raw concrete – origin, but defies its massive image with a three-dimensional burst of individual module homes," said architect Wendy Kohn, a former colleague of Safdie.

"Unlike Kahn or Corb's elemental, powerful Brutalist monuments, Safdie's Habitat suggests a spontaneous orchestration. Economics and luck dictated its singularity, but Safdie’s subsequent designs for desert, tropical, and compact urban Habitats around the world suggest its aspiration to multiply, adapt, and mutate, rather than stand rooted."

"Habitat constitutes an urban vision of building economically but humanely, expressing individuality, but committed to solving enduring communal needs," she said.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Sketch by Moshe Safdie – click for larger image

After the expo, the architect was commissioned to replicate the design in various locations around the world, from New York to Puerto Rico and Israel, although none of these were ever realised.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Section – click for larger image
Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Module assembly diagram – click for larger image
Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
Unit typologies – click for larger image
  • haney8604

    Someone needs to look up the definition of Brutalist architecture.

    • jimmy

      Totally agree. Concrete yes, but also humanist and expressive. Hardly brutal.

    • Josh

      Read some Reyner Banham.

    • Luke

      As a movement, Brutalism doesn’t refer to a universally recognised manifesto in that respect; so the question of Brutalism’s definition isn’t really valid.

      Of the broadly accepted characteristics of the genre, an unadorned expression of structure, and ‘memorability as an image’ (Banham) could both be reasonably applied to Habitat. I think it makes total sense to consider it alongside works of ‘Brutalism’.

      • haney8604

        Also, that’s a fair point about the definition of Brutalism, which in my mind expresses and clearly defines the structure (in the engineering sense) in a very raw way. I think it throws me to see the density of form here, where the structure is seemingly not apparent even though in reality what you’re seeing is the structure.

    • rob

      ‘Brutalist’ is not derived from brutal, but from ‘beton brut’, which can be translated by unpolished concrete or raw concrete. We’re referring to the way it’s finished here: unpainted, uncovered with the marks of the shuttering often left clearly visible. You could have found this definition easily in Wikipedia and other sources.

  • chris

    The great-grandfather of the Lego house, VM houses, and the mountains by BIG.

    • scot sims

      Lego predated Habitat 67 by 35 years. Cart/horse.

  • Kalum

    Fun fact: Habitat 67 was featured in the matte painting of the Star Trek Episode “Wink of An Eye”.

    See it in the bottom left :)

  • haney8604

    Hmm. I guess? Wouldn’t that make just about everything say… BIG does brutalist?

  • Kay

    Brutalism has nothing to do with brutal, it is all about ‘brut’ that is ‘beton’ that is ‘concrete’. Pure and simple. Don’t over complicate things!

  • Sam

    Brutalism originates from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”. Doesn’t mean it’s aesthetically brutal by nature.

  • Christopher Hoyt

    Much more interesting than ‘what is brutalism’ ad nauseum is was Habitat a good idea or not? I’m going with interesting, but flawed.

  • Felix Tannenbaum

    Flawed from what perspective though? It seems successful on the personal and physical level. Very successful even.

    This isn’t meant to be seen as hostile. I am curious about perceptions and realities of this project.