Exhibition Review: Expo 67, The Shape of Things to Come and A World of Dreams

Of all the 2017 anniversaries – Canada at 150, Montreal at 375, Expo ’67 at 50 — one building is common to these occasions for civic pride. The artful stacks of pre-fabricated concrete capsules along Montreal’s waterfront have gripped our collective architectural imagination since they first became an instant icon five decades ago. But why?

For many, Habitat 67 captures a moment of confidence when Montreal met the eyes of the world with a vision for a new way of living in cities. The radical government-sponsored experiment by a young and then-inexperienced Moshe Safdie, continues to serve as a multi-unit housing complex today.

Habitat 67, Montreal, Moshe Safdie
Moshie Safdie during construction in 1966

It embodies the optimism of the 1960s and entrenches our belief in architecture as a wellspring of innovation. Yet for others, Habitat 67 is a reminder of failed dreams. From the beginning, its overblown budget challenged the promise of economies in its prefabrication. And Montreal’s harsh winters have rendered its concrete façades shappy-looking up close, and in need of constant maintenance. Habitat 67 was designed as a prototype, yet the absence of other iterations in its wake makes its success at best questionable. Perhaps it owes its longevity both on the ground and in the public’s imagination to this paradox, and its 50th anniversary affords us another opportunity to rethink its legacy.

Over much of the year, exhibitions around the city have paid tribute to this grand experiment in urban housing. Habitat 67 vers l’avenir/The Shape of Things to Come at Université du Québec à Montréal Centre de Design has traced Habitat 67’s formative ideas through its design and construction, and into both early and recent projects in Safdie’s now international architectural practice. Sky Habitat in Bishan, Singapore; and Golden Dream Bay in Qinhuangdao, China, for instance, are examples of projects nearing completion that grew out of “Habitat for the Future,” a research fellowship designed to adapt Habitat 67’s initial objectives to the complexities of a more demanding urban housing market.

Habitat 67, Montreal, Moshe Safdie
Poster from the Stewart Museum exhibtion “Expo 67: A World of Dreams”

The origins of these projects are now the stuff of architecture-school legend: after travelling around North America on a scholarship to study affordable housing, Israeli-born Safdie returned to Montreal in the early 1960s to McGill University. He developed his master’s thesis proposal, “A Three-Dimensional Modular Building System,” in reaction to the soulless urban high-rises and unsustainable sprawl he witnessed firsthand in North America’s urban centres. His fusion of dense apartment block and suburban garden home recalled the Mediterranean villages of his childhood, incorporating common public spaces for residents to come together by breaking up the building’s mass and integrating landscape into their everyday lives. As one of few remaining structures of Expo 67, the “living exhibition,” as it was then known, continues to be embraced for its utopian vision and as a precedent for a humane urbanism in an increasingly densifying world.

The exhibition concluded ironically with photographs by Alexi Hobbs and James Brittain, images that offer rare glimpses into the contemporary realities of Habitat 67’s interior spaces. While the building was designated a Quebec heritage site in 2009, the classification only restricts alterations to the exterior. Interiors have been renovated and redecorated to reflect the increasingly affluent, often ostentatious tastes of their residents, obscuring the quiet minimalism of their original design and its aspirations for economy and efficiency. The merciful exception is Safdie’s own four-cube unit, which is in the final stages of a restoration to its original 1967 purity.

Habitat 67, Montreal, Moshe Safdie, UQAM
From the “Habitat of the Future” study series: model of the Domino or Urban Window Scheme. Image via UQAMM “Habitat 67: Vers l’avenir/The Shape of Things to Come”

The discrepancy between the project’s initial ambition as low-cost housing and its current reality is picked up less overtly by Expo 67: A World of Dreams at the Stewart Museum on St. Helen’s Island. The exhibit stages an explanation by way of didactic panels of the urban housing problems it sought to address opposite a video projection from the Radio Canada Archives. Filmed on the construction site, the video clip ends with Safdie explaining how at one-fifth of its initial scale, the project does not benefit from the economies of standardization required to keep it affordable. After a short stint as government-run rental housing, Habitat 67 was privatized and then stratified in the mid-1980s. Since then, numerous owners have purchased additional “pods” and merged them into larger, more luxurious homes. What was once billed as a solution to housing affordability is now among the most costly addresses in the city.

Changi Airport, Singapore, Habitat 67
Jewel at Changi, rendering of the Forest Valley Garden, to be completed in 2019 at Changi Airport in Singapore

Outside of the gallery space, walking tours have complemented both exhibits and provided differing perspectives on Habitat 67’s evolving context. A tour of St. Helen’s Island offered by the Stewart Museum offered excellent views of the development’s peninsular site just south of the Old Port and the other remaining Expo ’67 structures like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, now the Montreal Biosphere; and the former France and Quebec pavilions, now the Montreal Casino. Rare up-close visits to the otherwise private housing complex have allowed fortunate visitors to explore its exterior walkways, suspended terraces and pedestrian streets; and glimpse a few residential units. Fifty years in, these exhibitions and up-close views help us move away from unchallenged rhetoric surrounding Habitat 67 by re-imagining the building’s original spaces and the ideas associated with them, and by exposing both the opportunities and limitations a single building can have on its architect’s career, as well as the lives of those who live in it, and the wider society around it.

Tanya Southcott is a graduate architect and a PhD candidate at McGill University School of Architecture