A Complex Story

My father’s prefabricated housing project, Habitat ’67, broke ground in April of 1965. The building, which grew out of his bachelor’s thesis, came to be regarded as one of the touchstone buildings of Montreal’s Expo ’67. There are many twists and turns in the story of how the building came to be, but, simply stated, it was born at the fortuitous juncture of social and political change, Canada’s coming-of-age as a progressive country, and a young architect’s naive determination to realize his vision.
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As it happens, Habitat’s groundbreaking also coincided with the realization of another of my father’s projects: me. And thus much of my early history is entwined with the building’s: While most children played with Legos, I lived in them. But, for me, Habitat is not simply the place where I grew up; it is also a symbol of idealism as well as a reminder of loss.

My first memory of experiencing Habitat as architecture rather than as my home coincided with my first job as the building’s paperboy. Not only did I have to make sure that the paper hit each doorstep by 6:45 a.m., I was also responsible for collecting payment. Needless to say, I quickly familiarized myself with the complex’s incongruous floor layout—not to mention the tenants. The openness of Habitat’s structure, along with the staggered skywalks—the elevators only stop on floors 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, and 10, and you walk up or down to the floors in between—enabled me to deliver the paper to several levels simultaneously. Each morning, I would roll up the papers with elastic bands and place them in a shopping cart. Strolling down the skywalk of the sixth floor, I was able to drop a paper four flights down to the doorstep of apartment 239, and then lob a paper up three flights to apartment 905. The only problem was that if I missed, I’d have to retrieve the paper from a ledge with a 40-foot drop, or crawl gingerly across a span of acrylic canopy.

This all came in handy as I got older and was called upon to show the building to visiting dignitaries whenever my father was out of town. It seemed as if there was always a prominent Czech architect or a city planner from Kuala Lumpur passing through Montreal, in need of a tour. I usually started in the garage, careful to point out the skylights, which brought in natural light. I’d then lead my visitors up to the second-floor plaza, where they could glimpse the inner workings of the structure, then to the third-floor lobby, where cool gusts of air blew off the fountains. After zigzagging through the other floors, we’d finish the tour at my family’s apartment on the tenth floor. I would invite the guests in to test out the prefabricated fiberglass bathroom, sit back in the apartment’s custom-made built-in furniture, and enjoy some tea while gazing out at the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows. If a head of state came for a visit, the whole thing turned into a banquet, my entire family dressing up like we were ambassadors of some imaginary nation. I remember, in particular, shaking hands with Indira Gandhi as a throng of reporters snapped our picture, and the time I had 15 minutes to squeeze fresh orange juice for 30 people after it was discovered that President Senghor of Senegal was Muslim, and that all the champagne on ice would not be appreciated.

Being adaptable was something I learned early on growing up in Habitat. Because the building was so isolated from the rest of Montreal, there were very few children around. It forced us all to be friends regardless of language or age; there was an unspoken understanding that we had been dragged here by our parents—away from schools, shops, and movie theatres. According to them, it was for the greater good, and we were left to make the best of the situation. I think we did. During winters, we found freedom in the vast open fields where we built sophisticated snow forts with secret dens and multiple light wells. When spring came and the snow melted, we took to our bikes and rode across the Concorde Bridge to Îsle Sainte-Hélène, where the entire abandoned Expo site served as our private playground. Whether it was the hexagonal frames of Arthur Erickson’s pyramidal theme pavilion, or the wide-open spaces of Buckminister Fuller’s geodesic dome, each  pavilion was unique and bold, and you couldn’t help but feel inspired. Every year, rumors spread about the site being fixed up and opened as a permanent exhibition, but the buildings continued to stand vacant, deteriorating slowly, until eventually Expo was demolished.

When I turned 13, my parents threw me a bar mitzvah that people at Habitat still talk about today. It felt as if the entire building participated in my passage into manhood. Unfortunately, it was also around this time that my parents decided to separate for good. There is never one reason why marriages break up, but it seemed to me that my father’s early fame complicated matters. For five years, things went back and forth, but when my father was offered a teaching position at Harvard and moved to Boston, my mother decided not to go with him. I was already used to the separation that comes with split families—he often traveled for work half the year—but this separation felt different. Suddenly all of Habitat’s wonderful details, once so inspiring, served only as a reminder of his absence. Surprisingly, my mother continued to live there for many years, even after my sister and I went to college. She had formed close friendships with many of the tenants, and she was with the building from the beginning. In Beyond Habitat, my father wrote that if they ever gave out honorary degrees in architecture, my mother most certainly deserved one.

Today, Habitat has been turned into a condominium complex. Some tenants have bought two or three apartments and broken through walls to create mega-apartments out of five or six of the original modular units. Most of the original bathrooms and kitchens have been refurbished to suit contemporary tastes. The exterior of the building is much the same, except for dozens of new glass solariums that enclose terraces and give owners an extra room—especially useful during the long winters. Next door, there are two nondescript glass and concrete high-rise apartment buildings, as if to suggest a textbook comparison for architecture students. Across the Concorde Bridge, the remaining frame of the geodesic dome has been converted into an ecological museum, and the French pavilion has been taken over by the Montreal Casino. Yet, 40 years after Habitat first opened its doors to the public, it continues to thrive as a proud community. The concept has never been successfully reproduced elsewhere—but perhaps cities need to reach a point of crisis before people begin to pay attention. As for me, no matter where or how I live, Habitat will always be a part of who I am. 


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