Tracing the History and Meaning of Montreal's Megastructure

Oh Toronto, sometimes I find myself needing to separate myself from you so I can catch a breather from your busy summers. All the tourists, events, music festivals, and do not even get me started on the summer construction. Waking up at 7am to the sound of heavy machinery and concrete banging, when can a girl catch a little break?

At the end of July, I decided that in order for me to feel my most rejuvenated self, I choose to make a refreshing road trip to Montreal in search of rich culture, croissants and more notably-- its architecture. There was one particular building that I based my whole trip around, due to its tremendous reputation. In the 1960s, it was the first of its kind to really take a different approach in reimagining housing complex and really challenged cold geometric forms against living, breathing nature. And I have to say, I have never seen anything quite like it in my life...And of its scale.

Habitat 67 was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie, as his thesis project for this architecture and urbanism program at McGill University. This 13-storey building sits just south of Old Port, Montreal on a narrow, man made peninsula.

It is one of the 90 pavilions that were built for Montreal’s 1967 World’s Fair Expo 67 when Montreal was introducing a lot of new ideas and concepts. They introduced a new metro system, new skyscrapers in the downtown and a flourishing Quebecois Nationalist movement, so why not a new take on how we live in apartments and a new view on urbanization?

It is no question that Safdie’s use of concrete was inspired by Le Corbusier’s. Walking within and up the stair cases, you can’t help but admire the enormous concrete forms that Habitat is built upon. I was never a big fan of concrete forms myself, even in my own designs. I always found that it makes buildings and interiors feel cold and disconnected so I always refrained from using it in any of my projects. But seeing how concrete could look so organic and even evoke a sense of community, it really started to give warmth to this harsh material.

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Safdie had longed to create “a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit--Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors,” as he stated in a Ted Talk.

He balances the rigid geometric shapes of each inhabitant by arranging them in a wavering manner, free from any set rules. This form of architecture takes after a small post-war Japanese architectural movement called Metabolism, where they explore strategies for urban development on a large scale. It aims to create large mega structures that embrace the idea that the city is in a flux with constant change and impermanence. The building itself should be designed as living, organic, interconnected webs that are able to grow and shrink according to living demands and needs.

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The biggest take away for me was when I was standing within its corridors and although I felt small being among the limitless concrete forms, I felt a strange comfort being within it. Though Habitat is a megastructure and has been recognized for decades all over the world for its striking design, it is simply a home.

Overall? I had an amazing trip and I was more than pleased to have seen Habitat 67 in person. I can see why its name is no stranger to any architecture enthusiasts and why it has been raved by many architects and designers. If you ever get a chance and are willing to make a little trek out of the city, I would definitely recommend seeing this for yourself.


By: Melissa Boodoo