Habitat 67 Turns 50: Safdie Talks Ethical Architecture

Architect Moshe Safdie in front of his Habitat 67, 2006

Architect Moshe Safdie remembers the mid-1960s, when he was designing Habitat 67 — the revolutionary pavilion for Canada’s Expo 67 in Montreal, as a time of enormous optimism. As he said in a recent interview, “Everything was possible. We could make a better world.” While Canada’s population was then only twenty million, fifty million visitors — full of Age-of-Aquarius enthusiasm — poured into its World’s Fair. Safdie’s audacious concrete boxes, piled higgledy-piggledy like gigantic sugar cubes dropped from on high, delighted them. “The public went crazy for it,” Safdie recalls, yet critical reaction ranged from rave reviews to gasps of horror. Only now — 50 years after Habitat’s debut — is Safdie’s pioneering experiment in humane housing for the masses coming into its own.

“For everyone a garden.”

Habitat 67 was a visionary new typology for urban buildings that grew out of Safdie’s 1964 thesis at McGill University. Before forming the concept, he had toured North American cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and suburbs like Long Island’s Levittown, studying multi-family public projects and sprawling developments of detached houses. He found both wanting. The urban apartment blocks lacked light, air, individual identity and connection to nature. The suburban tract houses (characterized in Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 song as “made out of ticky tacky / And they all look just the same”) lacked dynamic street life and the communal vibe of a city. Safdie (born 1938) invented a new way of living that would combine the best of both.

Habitat 67, view from courtyard, Montreal, Canada. Photo: Timothy Hursley

“For everyone a garden” became his mantra — seemingly impossible in a dense urban setting. Drawing on his background — born in Haifa (then part of Palestine) before his family moved to Montreal when he was 15 — Safdie imagined a Mediterranean hill town where residences climbed up a slope, offering views to all. He achieved this radical vision by irregularly stacking 365 70-ton modules to create 12 stories of 158 terraced residences, ranging from one- to four-bedroom units. Symbiosis was the theme, where the roof of one apartment became the outdoor garden for its upstairs neighbor. Common “streets” in the air link the units, which each has a separate outside entrance. Public gathering spaces and views in several directions (towards the St. Lawrence River or the Old City) contribute to quality of life and the sense that each box is an individual home.

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The complex was made affordable by using prefabricated modules, lifted into place by cranes. A prefab fiberglass bathroom and Frigidaire-produced kitchen were further innovations. “To have accomplished both order and diversity is the intellectual achievement,” Safdie said. Through systematic repetition and fractalizing the mass into multiple facets and surfaces he provided extraordinary variety, reproducing suburban amenities in the city. (Fractal geometry is the opposite of smooth, Euclidean geometry’s pure forms based on straight or curved lines and cones, pyramids, cubes, and spheres. “Fractal” refers to natural, irregular forms: complex, porous and connected.)

Safdie stamp
Canadian stamp to celebrate 150th anniversary of the country and 50th anniversary of Habitat at Expo 67.

Today Habitat is a National Heritage Building, much loved by its occupants and looking as up-to-date as ever. As Montreal celebrates its 375th anniversary, Canada its 150th, and Expo 67 its 50th, a retrospective exhibition of Safdie’s work that has toured the US will be at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal) Centre de Design from June 1-Aug. 13. In April, Canada issued a postage stamp honoring Habitat.

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Safdie, whose practice is currently based in Boston, was awarded the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2015. In 2016 he received the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He has completed more than 85 projects on five continents including airports, museums, libraries, and cultural venues. Yet the trajectory of his career has not been consistently upward.

Safdie Newsweek Cover
Safdie on the cover of Newsweek, 1971

After the fairy tale of having his thesis built (his first project to be realized when he was all of 28), Safdie seemed like a cheeky boy wonder. His picture adorned the cover of Newsweek magazine under the title “The Shape of Things to Come.” Major organizations besieged him with commissions. He drew up utopian plans for replicating the prototype of Habitat’s humane but dense housing in New York, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Nothing came of it. His first project was groundbreaking, but, to reproduce it, there was scant ground breaking. “I was shattered,” Safdie said. Was he a one-hit wonder? A cumulative train of issues like pesky building codes and inability to industrialize the process sidelined his dreams. “The system was not ready for the big revolution,” Safdie acknowledges.

The architect has gone on to design many remarkable structures, first in Israel, then throughout North America, and now in Asia. The US Institute of Peace (2011) in Washington, DC, devoted to conflict resolution, has a structural symbolism, its curved roof shaped like a dove’s wings. The ten-million-square-foot Marina Bay Sands (2010) mixed-use resort complex in Singapore has become a visual icon for the city-state with its surfboard-shaped sky park on top linking 57-story towers.

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Safdie US Institute of Peace
Safdie’s US Institute of Peace, Washington, DC

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum (2005) in Jerusalem is a work of genius that delivers an unforgettable experience. A 650-foot triangular tunnel slices through a mountain descending into the earth as galleries show the tragedy of the Holocaust. Lit by a slender skylight overhead, the passage then gradually slopes upward, culminating in a cantilevered, sunlit space with a view of golden hills. His most moving work is the 1987 Children’s Memorial on the museum’s grounds. Rather than designing a building, Safdie envisioned descending into a subterranean chamber. A single memorial candle is reflected to infinity while a voice intones the names of 1.5 million murdered children.

21st-century Habitat prototypes look as futuristic as Star Trek abodes.

Throughout his career, as he did institutional work rather than housing, Safdie always felt Habitat’s time would come. In 2010 he established a residency for architects in his office to design a habitat of the future. The challenge was to combine affordability and density with life-enhancing amenities. The solution was individualization according to regional culture and environment, structural simplification, density and mixed-use layers of office, retail, recreational and residential spaces. By fractalizing the building’s mass, he could convert the high-rise tower into a wholesome urban building block. The mixed-use aspect meant a base of office and retail space, followed by a stack of terraced residences with varying exposures and communal parks, pools and sky walks at different levels.

Safdie Sky Habitat
Sky Habitat, Singapore. Photo: Edward Hendricks

The studio models for 21st-century Habitat prototypes look as futuristic as Star Trek abodes. Yet they’re actually being built; some are already complete and inhabited. Sky Habitat (2015) in Singapore consists of two 38-story towers for upper-middle-income residents. The complex balances high density with community and livability, with public sky gardens and ample daylight for all. Each unit in the stepped towers enjoys a terrace or balcony.

Golden Dream Bay (2017) in Qinhuangdao, China, occupies six million square feet. Its stacked, stepped modules recede diagonally with large openings called urban windows punctuating the buildings’ massing to provide vistas to the seaside. Three thousand units with terraces and gardens will house ten thousand middle-income residents. Two 69-story towers in Colombo, Sri Lanka are scheduled for completion in 2018. The fractal geometry of their surface patterns allows multiple exposures in each unit.

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Perhaps Safdie’s most spectacular project to date is Raffles City, due to open in 2018 in Chongqing, China. This nine-million-square-foot series of eight towers sits on a commanding site — a peninsula at the confluence of two rivers. Its mast-like towers form a semi-circular arc that suggests billowing sails. The mixed-use project includes a multi-level podium covered with a one-acre park, gardens, a pool and public circulation corridor. Five levels of retail, cultural facilities and transit hubs occupy the base. Topping four, 60-story central towers is a cylindrical glass conservatory one-quarter mile long with gardens, a viewing platform, restaurants, gym and hotel lobby.

Safdie Raffles City
Raffles City, Chongqing, China. Courtesy of Safdie Architects

Raffles City is a model of Safdie’s desire to humanize the megascale of dense cities. While his designs have always been socially responsible and ideologically inflected, he admits, “My obsession with the public realm has now replaced my former obsession with ‘for everyone a garden’.” Safdie laments the proliferation of luxury high-rise buildings in Manhattan that turn their backs on the city. These towers — like gated suburban developments — are introverted and privatized, abjuring connection to the public realm.

In packed Asian cities, multi-level, climate-controlled malls have replaced the public squares, gallerias, parks and promenades where people used to intersect. Eighty percent of commercial activities like shopping, entertainment, retail and cultural events happen in these malls, according to Safdie. To avoid the self-selection and isolation of homogeneous clientele, he said, “We have to find a way to make them diverse and really public rather than carefully controlled to milk maximum sales per square foot.”

Safdie Golden Dream Bay
Golden Dream Bay, Qinhuangdao, China, Courtesy of Safdie Architects

Safdie comes by his idealism naturally, since he was born in the land of the kibbutz. His childhood in Israel and its atmosphere of social and communal responsibility “informed my political consciousness and values profoundly,” he said. Asked whether architecture can transform not only the built environment but also build community, as he aims to do in his practice, he said, “If we didn’t believe that, we’d be in despair,” adding, “We can at least have an influence.” In his commissions he admitted not always succeeding in fully changing the developers’ agenda, but his designs have made a difference. In Chongqing, Safdie prodded the developer, whose tendency was to pursue business as usual, toward greater connectivity to the city.

Why the principles of Habitat have been embraced in Asia more than in North America provides food for thought. Star architects like the Danish Bjarke Ingels and the Swiss team of Herzog and de Meuron have recently designed North American projects indebted to Habitat, showing a renewed interest in taking on the problem of quality housing in dense cities. In general, however, the profession still relies on the model of a been-there, done-that glass-and-steel rectangle with long interior corridors to reach each apartment cell. Unlike conservative American developers, in the burgeoning cities of Asia, Safdie said, “The growth is there, the ambition is there and the marketplace of people seeking something beyond the standard product is there.”

What ethical responsibility do architects have?

In this Trumpian era of wide disparity of income and exclusionary rhetoric, one wonders what ethical responsibility architects have. Should they submit proposals for Trump’s 1900-mile-long, thirty-foot-high border wall? Safdie believes architects should heed the dictates of conscience, but whether they’ll assume that responsibility is unclear. For his part, Safdie belongs to an NGO that fights building walls between Palestinian and Israeli areas, and he has refused to build Israeli settlements on the West Bank. During apartheid, he rejected commissions in South Africa. But when it comes to commissions for authoritarian regimes, “That’s trickier,” he said. “I haven’t drawn that line,” since if you only build in enlightened democracies, “you stop building.”

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With his commitment to affordable, attractive housing, Safdie would like to see a government guarantee of minimum living space for all, as in many European social democracies. Yet he admits it’s a political issue rather than an architectural one. The chances of Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, advocating for a universal Housing Care Act — similar in scope to Obamacare — are nil. The likelihood of Carson doing that is “as likely,” Safdie said, “as we’re going to be living on Mars next week.”

Nevertheless, what are dreams for, if not to point us in the right direction? As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”