Hillside Habitat

A virtual reality model brings Safdie’s original vision for Habitat to life for a new generation.

The original design for Habitat included dwellings stacked on massive hill-like frames, with public amenities underneath. Rendering courtesy Epic Games

“Under Louis Kahn’s care, I had become immersed in a world that had everything to do with the conception of buildings and also with the craft of building,” writes Moshe Safdie in his memoir, If Walls Could Speak. “Without this immersion, short as it lasted, I could have never led an inexperienced team of young architects to realize Habitat 67.”

Habitat 67—with its stacked concrete habitation modules, flying walkways, and rooftop gardens—was, by Safdie’s own admission, difficult to translate into a constructable proposition. Safdie, who in the early 1960s conceived what would become Habitat 67 as his university graduate thesis, relied on model-making as a principal tool to demonstrate his vision.He piled and stacked hand-cut wood blocks, and later Lego, into various configurations, trying to determine the optimal design for a building conceived as a radical solution to the crisis of urban housing.

The version of Safdie’s vision constructed for Expo 67 became Canada’s most iconic brutalist construction, but it was just a shadow of his original vision. Safdie’s interest in what Habitat might have been evidently persisted throughout the last five decades, with traces of the original scheme found throughout the architect’s portfolio.

Digital tools have now, of course, made it possible for Safdie Architects to realize a comprehensive virtual model of the original Habitat scheme, and they recently unveiled just such a model, created in collaboration with Epic Games and Neoscape. Dubbed Project Hillside, the VR environment demonstrates the sophistication of modern modelling tools—the model was created on Unreal Engine, a 3D computer graphics engine used by video game designers—permitting a photoreal immersion into an environment far more ambitious and fantastical than the real-life Habitat.

The Hillside model—which is based on the pyramid-like frames of Safdie’s thesis, intended to act as artificial hills—includes 1,200 dwellings, floating above a hotel, school, offices and other commercial spaces. All of these are linked with separated vehicle and pedestrian passageways, and unified through shared gardens and water features.

Though the original vision for Habitat is unlikely to ever be realized, the virtual model has the potential to inspire a whole new generation of architects all around the world, even if they never set foot in Montreal. Here at home, policy makers and those interested in finding long-term solutions to the housing crisis may also find inspiration in Project Hillside, and consider that affordable housing doesn’t necessarily have to be bland and unappealing. The presence of an immersive 3D model makes the aspiration for higher-density, highly integrated urban living tangible—if still not necessarily constructable in the exact form proposed by Safdie as a university student. If Habitat 67 asked 50 million Expo visitors ‘what if?’, Project Hillside demands to know ‘what are we waiting for?’”

Taylor Noakes is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in Montreal.