Montreal’s “Inside the Box” Design

November 2, 2015 | | View Comments

A little over a week ago, I went on a “personal Design Museum Field Trip” to visit one of my favorite North American cities— Montreal. I could go on for my love of this city. It’s a multi-cultural, socially emancipated, politically progressive urban-scape that is home to a burgeoning design scene. It’s equipped with a Design Commissioner at the municipal level, and with a revered status of UNESCO City of Design. This city has come to hold a very special place for me and, I would argue, many design enthusiasts.

I’ve only made the trip a few times, but when I do, I ultimately fall victim to the delectable assortments that Montreal provides in it’s vast culinary offerings. You’d be hard pressed to find a chef who doesn’t salivate at the mention of Montreal. This time, however, I had one goal at the top of my agenda: to go inside the box!

That box being Habitat 67, of course.

Habitat 67 is Montreal’s iconic housing complex that looks like a pile of large concrete boxes stacked above one another and spread over a large swath of  unexciting land. The structure was originally built for Montreal’s Expo of 1967, part of Canada’s centenary celebrations that marked a point of pride for a city with so many new elements of design— from a metro system to skyscrapers. A 26-year-old Moshe Safdie designed the building as a government-sponsored attempt at reimagining affordable housing, with attempts to bring suburban amenities to an urban environment— “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.”

The finances for the project were not optimal. It was funded by the government’s Central Mortgage and Housing, and the budget spiraled out of control. To recoup the costs, the proposed affordable units’ rents were set so high that they became unaffordable. In 1985, Central Mortgage and Housing wanted to sell the structure. There residents, however, banded together to purchase the building and today, nearly a third of them remain.

As I walked around the property and took in the magnificent utopian design, I was amazed at both the size and complexity. A few residents were standing in the cordoned patios of their cubes, smoking or conversing with one another, or simply taking in the breathtaking view of the cityscape just across the water. The structure may never have achieved status of affordability, but it was awarded Heritage status by the Quebec minister of culture in 2009, and to this day, Habitat 67 remains a pioneering example of idealism in design.