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The Homey Feeling Of Living in Boxes

In Montreal, an architectural wonder exhibited in World Expo '67 turns 30

The white water of the St. Lawrence River runs less than 50 yards from the balcony of Danielle Gauthier's apartment at Habitat '67, one of Canada's most famous and spectacular buildings.

"It isn't just the view it's the sound," enthuses Ms. Gauthier, a Montreal fashion designer. "The sound of the rushing water all day and all night."

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This year Habitat celebrates its 30th anniversary, with a ceremony this spring involving the architect who built it and the government that put up the money to build his dream. Later in the summer, the people who live in the building will hold an anniversary party of their own.

The spectacular site - between the port of Montreal and the shallow rapids of one of the world's mightiest rivers - is one reason for the success of Habitat. The other is its design, a series of identical concrete boxes stacked like children's blocks to build apartments with wide terraces, private entrances, and privacy. In spite of the density, it is hard to see one apartment from the window of another at Habitat.

"There's lots of privacy. It's halfway between a house and an apartment. And there is incredible indoor privacy because the concrete boxes are so soundproof," says Pierre Teasdale, an architect and professor at the Universit de Montral who has lived at Habitat for 10 years. "Of course the genius of the location does a lot for Habitat. It's like living on a ship docked in downtown Montreal."

Habitat was built in 1967 for the World's Fair at Montreal, Expo '67. It was designed as a showpiece of how buildings could be put together from prefabricated concrete boxes, all identical in size - 650 square feet - and all built on the site.

Apartments vary in size depending on how many boxes are connected to one another. In the beginning, the largest apartment was four units, making up a three-bedroom flat. Some owners have gone beyond that, connecting six boxes. But huge apartments for people with money was not what architect Moshe Safdie, a graduate of Montreal's McGill University, envisioned when he designed the place in 1963.

"I was 25 when I designed it, 29 years old when it was completed," says Moshe Safdie from his office in Boston. "If I had to do it again, I would change nothing in terms of the living environment. On a technical level, we could make the boxes lighter [in weight] and change the mechanical distribution of the pipes."

Other architects agree that Habitat could be more energy efficient.

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Mr. Safdie still keeps an apartment at Habitat. He says he has used ideas from his first project in other buildings around the world from Boston to Jerusalem. He says his building in Boston - a condominium complex called the Esplanade overlooking the Charles River - has two features in common with Habitat: It sits near a river and has roof gardens.

Habitat was designed to be a showcase for affordable housing. But today it is a place for people who are richer rather than poorer. The garages are filled with Jaguars, BMWs and Range Rovers. People pay for the panache of living in a famous building with a one-of-a-kind view, though because of Montreal's depressed property market, the apartments aren't that expensive: about $182,000 (C$250,000) for a 2,000 square-foot space.

Fans of the building say its success as a condominium is not an issue, and certainly doesn't prove the idea was a failure as an attempt at public housing.

"Safdie conceived of mass producing housing on a huge scale, but to do it at a smaller scale is very expensive," Mr. Teasdale says.

Avi Friedman, an architect and professor at the McGill school of architecture, says Habitat was built as a prototype and shouldn't be criticized because it now houses the middle class and not the poor.

"Habitat proves you can build high-density housing and still provide some measure of privacy. It's magical. You can see the water from any unit," says Mr. Friedman, who also heads the affordable housing project at McGill. He feels the building has had an influence on others around the world because it is so different. "Habitat is a source of inspiration to architects in Canada and around the world. It proves housing doesn't have to be a box."

After Expo '67 closed, Habitat '67 was owned by the Canadian federal government. It had a shabby period as slightly neglected, upscale public housing. Then in 1985 a group of residents bought the building from the government for the bargain-basement price of $7.3 million (C$10-million). It cost $9.9 million (C$13.5 million) to build in 1967, and that throws in the cost of the land for free.

There are 158 apartment units and the Lego-style building rises as high as a 12th-story structure. While each unit has a wide terrace, some people have modified them for the long Montreal winter, building a solarium over the terrace that can connect one box to another, expanding living space.

Not everyone loves living here. Irwin Steinberg, a Montreal entrepreneur, finds the size of the boxes difficult to deal with.

"It's hard to deal with the small area. You have a 650-square-foot box and you have to dedicate it to one use. I'm used to a more traditional house," he says sitting at the dining room table. A small kitchen makes up the rest of this one box. Upstairs it connects to two other boxes. There are two bedrooms and an office.

"One advantage is you can knock down the interior walls if you want to because there are no supports inside this concrete box," says Mr. Steinberg, pointing to a cupboard in his office he would like to move.

Other disadvantages to Habitat include the outdoor passageways in the building that are open to sometimes icy winds from the St. Lawrence River.

And while it's just five minutes from downtown, there are few places in walking distance to grocery shop.

Moshe Safdie went on to become a professor at Harvard and build an international architectural practice. He has left teaching but has just finished a book on housing in the next century called "The City After the Automobile" (Stoddart Publishing and Basic Books).

But 30 years on, Habitat remains the building by which he is measured. And Safdie thinks Habitat still proves high-density housing can be radically different and provide an elegant, private place to live.

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