February 16th, 2008

Shelter: Life in Habitat 67

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Shelter is a weekly Montreal Gazette series that peeks into the lives of ordinary apartment-dwelling Montrealers.

This installment looks at an apartment in Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67, inhabited by Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. The apartment consists of four “cubes” covering 2,700 square feet, with an additional 1,800 square feet of outdoor terrace space.

Most apartments in Habitat consist of different cubes stuck together, right?

Right. Most of them are one or two blocks, and this was a three. (Gestures to a corridor leading away from the dining room.) The apartment used to stop here, but the people who owned it before me purchased the next block and turned it into a bedroom wing. It was a originally a one-block apartment, there was a kitchen, a living room, a dining room. You can see how you could have a nice little cozy apartment here.

So how much of the renovation was done by the previous owner and how much was yours?

About half and half. (We wander down the hall and into the bedroom. She gestures to a glass door leading onto a large terrace.) This is the back terrace, which is beautiful in the summer. It actually goes right over to the river. I have a lovely garden there in the summer. You can see the casino.

So you have views on both sides of the apartment, the city at the front and the river at the back.

Every single window has a gorgeous view, it’s amazing. (We head back into the dining room and down a flight of stairs. Most apartments in Habitat are split between two floors.) In the original three-block this was originally the living room, and the bedroom was over there. I took out all of the internal walls, so this is a huge entertaining space. It’s actually one block.

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The terrace down here is spectacular.

(Gestures towards the glass door leading to the terrace): All of these doors, they go right back into the wall, so that there’s nothing there at all when it’s open. I had the terrace tiled so that it’s the same colour as inside.

The effect is that the barrier between inside and outside is erased, then, and the apartment just sort of flows outside.

It’s even more than that. Come, look. (Walks to the other side of the room, then down a short hallway.) See, this is the study, and these doors open right onto the terrace, too. So you’ve got a whole free flow through the whole area [from the living room to the study], which works really well. If I have a party, which I don’t often because I’m so busy, I can easily have a hundred guests.

Do you have a lot of guests who stay here?

Occasionally I have people who find me and say, ‘I’ve always wanted to see inside a Habitat apartment, would it be possible to come?’ I had this happen just a couple of months ago, this woman from Toronto, her husband and her son, and they were really nice. The other thing that happens is that we get lots of groups of architecture students who come often in a bus and they get permission from our administration to wander around the building. Because I’m a university professor I know what students are like and they like to get their hands on the real thing. If I see a bunch of them, provided things are not a big mess, I’ll ask them if they want to come and see inside. They get so excited.

Your attitude towards sharing your apartment seems pretty liberal.

I come from an Outback family in Australia. Even now there’s a very open, hospitable attitude. But you know, I’ve never felt that it was abused. Usually it’s been much more gratifying for me than I thought it would be.

How many people live in Habitat?

There’s about 152 apartments… but let me check. (Picks up phone and calls the assistant building manager.) About 240 people.

That’s like a village. It must sometimes feel like an island, being out here surrounded by water. Is the isolation ever a problem?

Oh, it’s not! That’s ridiculous. If I hear one more Montrealer say it’s isolated, I’ll go absolutely crazy. I’m about seven minutes from my work and I work at the top of Peel Street. You know, when I first came here, this was more or less a dirt road, before they opened the casino, and you would be driving home at night and you’d see a deer. Even now we have hares in the garden.

It’s a pretty special place.

I think that’s exceptional. If you talk to Moshe Safdie, the architect, he always says that it was meant to give you the best of apartment living and the best of living in a single family home. It’s a combination of the best of both worlds. One of the things is that everybody in the building has a front door that opens into the outside, not into a corridor and not into an elevator. It’s very beautiful in the summer. The building maintains the common area gardens but we all spend quite a lot of money on plants for our terraces.

There’s a feeling of the big sky. If you go out onto the tenth floor, up by my bedroom, you can actually see across right across the whole sky, from the river on one side to the Old Port on the other. The building really is a sculpture, too. The way the cubes are all stacked together, there are these holes that frame the views. You can see the bridge through one of them.

I’ve said that Habitat is 51% of the reason I’ve stayed in Montreal or even Canada. I do a combination of creative, imaginative, highly stressful and controversial work. In order to do that, you need to be able to let your spirit travel and you need to have somewhere that’s peaceful and tranquil and beautiful. This is a unique combination of all of those things.

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9 comments

  1. slutsky says:

    Wow that really makes me want to see more, or take a walk around that apartment…

    February 17th, 2008 at 3:26 pm

  2. phrawzty says:

    Don’t bother walking around unless you’re with somebody that lives there. The one – and only – time i went to take a look at the complex, i was yelled at by a tenant, who then called security to ensure i didn’t loiter around ground level.

    The security guard was perfectly reasonable, of course, but i was escorted away regardless.

    February 18th, 2008 at 4:59 am

  3. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I spent about 20 minutes taking photos after my interview and nobody said anything. Of course, it was also -10 and windy so there wasn’t anybody around to notice.

    It’s a private apartment complex and I’m sure the residents value their security, but it’s a bit of a shame that such a remarkable place is off-limits to ordinary Montrealers.

    February 18th, 2008 at 2:35 pm

  4. Maryam says:

    What a great article and interview ! I’ve always wanted to visit inside Habitat 67, but I never have so it was a treat reading this.
    Margaret Somerville, if you read this, I’ll let you visit my appartment in Paris if you let me see yours in Habitat 67 ;) ! Deal ?!?

    February 19th, 2008 at 4:06 am

  5. lefty says:

    Quite sad that Safdie’s plan for affordable housing for Montrealer’s turned into luxury dwellings for the rich. With condo fees alone reaching 300-400$ per cube to cover expensive annual repairs, it is completely out of reach to the average home buyer. That being said, at least this architectural gem is being restored from the shambles it resembled in 1986 when the units were still being rented and repairs were virtually non existent.

    Could you imagine how cool the Cité du Havre peninsula would have been if the full scale of his vision was brought to completion? Originally he planned 900 units… only 158 were built.

    February 19th, 2008 at 12:36 pm

  6. Olga Schlyter says:

    If I got an appartment there I’d easily leave my life in Sweden and move to Montreal right away.

    February 24th, 2008 at 2:27 pm

  7. Shawn says:

    Wonderful article. I gather they have a lot of surfers cutting across the property these days, too, for the surf break just outside?

    March 24th, 2008 at 9:50 pm

  8. Sioux says:

    It’s so hard to find any pics of the inside of this place, I find it all so fascinating. and yes it is a shame that it is only for the rich. but better to be put to use than to sit and allow druggies and other forms of life to ruin it. I was just in Montreal last week and I love the city. I actually took a pic of this unusual building, not know what it was. Now I am thrilled. I’m on a quest to find interior pics! Anyone?

    November 17th, 2009 at 7:03 pm

  9. Lab #5 | qinqinyu says:

    [...] 3)  People love Habitat 67because it is so special from anything else. (Christopher DeWolf, “Shelter: Life in Habitat 67″) [...]

    March 5th, 2013 at 1:44 pm