Revolutionary Montréal icon Habitat 67

Richard Burnett

Renowned Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 is a revolutionary urban housing complex originally built as a pavilion for Expo 67, where it gained worldwide acclaim as a prime example of avant-garde design. Today, visitors can take 90-minute guided tours of the world-renowned housing complex.

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Habitat 67 began life as a master’s thesis project by Moshe Safdie, who was a 24-year-old McGill University architecture student when he first proposed it and 29 when it opened at Expo 67. The revolutionary urban housing complex is located on Cité du Havre, a man-made peninsula partially created from material from the Montréal metro excavation.

Housing was a sub-theme at Expo 67, and Safdie wanted to revisit the function and role of architecture in a high-density urban environment. He wanted to reinvent the apartment building, and so created the 12-storey complex out of 354 grey-beige modules that are stacked one atop another in a pyramidal cluster to form 148 residences (there were originally 158 apartments in 1967).

“Safdie envisioned Habitat to be a model community and housing complex,” explains Habitat 67 tour guide and architecture enthusiast Kathleen Bouvier. “He lived on a kibbutz into his teens, and this experience helped inspire Habitat.”

There were 15 model residences varying between 1 and 4 modules each, spread out over one or two floors, with each residence boasting panoramic views of Montréal on three sides and landscaped terraces.

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Pre-fabricated modules

The concrete modules, cast on site, were delivered by crane and featured pre-assembled modular kitchens and pre-fabricated fiberglass washrooms to prevent complicated assembly. Habitat also boasted central heating, air conditioning and “racetrack wiring.”

“Think of Habitat 67 as one big prototype,” explains Bouvier. “Habitat 67 was housing of the future, as imagined in 1967. It was pioneering.”

With its minimalist design, Habitat 67 remains a gigantic sculpture of futuristic interiors, links, pedestrian streets and suspended terraces, aerial spaces, skylights of different angles, large esplanades and monumental elevator pillars. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2017, Safdie told the CBC, “Every apartment is a house with a garden open to the sky, access by streets, open to the weather. It’s like a house, living in the city.”

Today, Habitat 67 is a prestigious complex that employs some 40 staffers, from security guards and horticulturists to plumbers and electricians.

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Architectural legacy

Habitat 67 is a designated historical monument and was depicted on a Canada Post stamp in 2017. Following its great success during Expo 67, when it was the temporary residence of many visiting dignitaries, Safdie pitched Habitat Puerto Rico, Habitat New York and others. But modular and pre-fab did not take off as imagined, though they continue to strive for acceptance today.

Says Bouvier, “While Habitat 67 may not have democratized designed living for the modern world, it does stand as an example of the virtues of integrating quality of life and community to architecture.”

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Habitat 67 walking tours

Habitat 67’s 90-minute weekday walking tours are popular with tourists, students, architects and designers from around the world. The tours are offered in French and English from May through October, and also include a visit inside Moshe Safdie’s four-module penthouse. Safdie completed a meticulous two-year restoration of his penthouse in 2018. Click here to book Habitat 67 tours. Reservations are essential.

For more information, visit habitat67.com.

Richard Burnett

Richard Burnett, blogger

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

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