The Habitat 67 experience

Yesterday, I visited someone who lives in Habitat 67. It was the first time I had been inside the landmark apartment complex, built as part of Expo 67 and based on Moshe Safdie’s McGill master’s project, and I was surprised at what an awe-inspiring experience it was to wander through it.

Although Habitat is known around the world for its unique modular design (The Walrus’ current issue has an interesting look at the ideas behind its design), what makes it a truly spectacular building is the way it relates to its surrounding environment. It’s an almost indescribable experience to stand on the top floor of Habitat, the St. Lawrence’s swift current rushing behind me, the sun setting over Mount Royal and the downtown skyline before me. If it hadn’t been so cold, I could have spent the entire afternoon staring at the ocean liners mired in ice, the port’s cranes framing the Farine Five Roses sign, the Victoria and Champlain bridges spanning an icy river bathed in pink light. More than that, though, Habitat actively frames that view, creating unexpected sightlines and unique vantage points.

The only disappointing thing about my visit to Habitat was its surroundings at the Cité du Havre, the long spit separating Montreal’s small harbour from the rest of the St. Lawrence. Its development since Expo 67 has been completely uninspired: aside from Habitat, there are a couple of bland, stubby condominium complexes, a dull park and a busy road leading to the Casino on Notre Dame Island. There’s no transit access (residents have a private shuttle that takes them downtown) and no easy way to get there by foot. What a shame.

15 comments

  1. The building immediately next door is not interesting architecturally, but it is culturally — it’s Les Tropiques du Nord, which was specifically designed to have a “tropical environment” inside that huge south-facing glass atrium. The plan was to market it to recent immigrants from warmer climates and sun worshippers…I think it worked!

  2. I am always told that this building has been a revolution in architecture, ushering a new era for habitation. And yet, it stands there alone.
    Since it was built, has there been a single follow up to this design? No.
    Are they building new condos like this? No.
    Can you find such building in the new suburb developments? No.
    Does you live in one? No.

    As far as influencing the “real world” construction market, this building is a total failure.

  3. AJ is right, Tropic Nord is easily one of the city’s more interesting buildings, with its rain forest with full grown tropical trees, birds and ponds.. Definietely worth taking a look at if you can.

  4. My friend’s girlfriend’s uncle has an apartment in Tropic Nord. I really have to weasel my way into a visit there.

  5. “awe-inspiring” to say the least. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a condo restoration/renovation project 2 summers ago over the the span of several months. Christopher, as cool (pun intended) as it must have been when you visited, it’s another world in the summer. The residents are out and about, although they tend not to mingle as they mostly seem to enjoy their isolation. You can watch the fireworks and spend hours checking out the surfers and kayakers on the Habitat standing wave.

    The unit I was working on was a 3 cube arrangement, (there are some that span up to 9!!) stunningly modern and oh so cool inside. The owner was striving to restore the place to it’s original look and feel. We salvaged an original kitchen from another owner and installed it alongside a fully restored stove top (with working analog clock!). The bathroom unit near the entranceway was an original as well. Fully enclosed fibreglass room with integrated vanity and wall mounted toilet. During construction in around ’67 these were dropped into place by cranes. So many simple yet well designed touches by Safdie, like parquet flooring all aligned in one direction instead of the now standard checkerboard pattern. etc etc etc

    The view of the cityscape at night is breathtaking, as this unit had a massive picture window framing mont-royal.

    But along with the good came a heavy dose of reality. All summer long a large crew of workers tend to the over 200 individual ‘roofs’. Clogged drains on these rooflets lead to chronic water damage of the units. Aging caulking around the heavily fenestrated cubes allows the wooden framework to rot away, leaving the aluminum clad windows structurally unsound. With no overhangs to protect the windows and doorways, heavy summer rainstorms reek havoc. You get used to the near constant jackhammering as the crew tries to lay new concrete stairways and slabs…

    All this to say, if I had the coin, I would live move there in an instant! I’ll dig up some of the interior pix I took back then and post them.

  6. I think it is fair to say that althought they haven’t been exact replicas of “Habitat 67″ around the world; it’s influence is felt around the world
    of architecture.

    We see completed wall been assembled
    like a mechanoe set and multi-story building taking shape within days. I now live in Perth Western Australia and I can see right here influence in architecture that bring be back to Montreal.

    While living in Quebec during Expo 67 I had the chance to visit Habitat and I must say I haven’t seen anything like it since.

  7. Hi Lefty,

    Just wondering if you’ve posted anywhere the interior pics of Habitat?

    Thanks,

    Savannah

  8. My uncle got in on Tropiques Nord when it was in the final construction stage. He’s an architect on international scale. Before he could be met with any objections he cut through his penthouse unit to the roof and put in a spiral staircase. He added a gourmet outdoor cooking area and guest bedroom up there.

    This was indeed a place for those who spent the winter in Montreal but, what is most spectacular is what you will find on the inside. It’s truly amazing. All the terraces are open to the interior atrium. I’ve seen residents’ birds fly from unit to unit. You can actually swim in the “lagoon” in the center. And each unit has a wine cellar. And the views of the city, in the evening, from the roof are unbelievable.

    Do not sell this building short … nor believe it is meant for immigrants. Both my aunt and uncle are life-long Montrealers (my aunt’s family goes back to the founding of the city – 400 years). But sometimes you like experiencing the beauty of a Montreal winter from a place of warmth.

  9. I was wondering the same thing “Lefty” is there any interior photos that you said you were going to post… Can’t seem to find any and if there is they are “67 design :(

  10. Google pics is your friend. Just do a search for…

    HABITAT 67 bedroom, washroom, living room, ect, ect.

  11. Hi, 
    I was wondering if you would know or if you could ask the person you know who lives at habitat what is the code to enter in the stairs. I desperately need to get pictures from habitat from a top angle view.
    Thank you very much for your help

  12. hi, i wanted to know how water supply and drainage maintained here..i dont see any water supply  or drainage pipes..nor any duct. plz help me find info on this topic…

  13. Hi, I would also like to know, similar to veda shirke, how does the piping services work within Habitat ’67? With such a haphazard positioning of forms, I’d really be interested to know how piping is integrated within the building. It’ll be nice if you could tell veda and me about it!

    Thank you!

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