Its exterior of stacked blocks is recognized worldwide, but rarely do we get a glimpse of the life within the concrete complex of Habitat 67. For the most part, published photographs of Moshe Safdie’s pioneering design for high-density urban housing resemble, or are, real estate images; they do not resemble cozy, lived-in spaces.
Montréal-based photographer James Brittain sought to move beyond such straightforward documentations to capture the spirit of the building and its residents today. He began photographing the apartments of the Brutalist icon last year, revisiting it in between commissioned work. The resulting series, Revisited: Habitat 67, was produced in collaboration with the building’s residents, with whom Brittain spent time during his visits. An exhibition of these large-scale color photographs is currently on view in Toronto as part of CONTACT Photography Festival.
Brittain has photographed nine apartments so far. In his images, interiors are well-trodden homes — a crumpled shirt is carelessly tossed onto a chair, a cat hangs out in a carefully decorated salon, a cluster of bamboo in a kept garden stays erect thanks to carefully tied string. Sometimes we see people, too, from residents to a cleaner tidying the building’s stark undercroft.
The series is part of Brittain’s ongoing, personal inquiry into how we represent architecture today. Working as a commissioned architectural photographer for over 16 years, he has felt that images in his field typically stay away from “communicating the experience of buildings and spaces, and in particular how buildings are occupied, used and adapted,” he told Hyperallergic. In approaching Habitat 67, Brittain was interested in seeing how the building has aged since Safdie designed it five decades ago for the World Exposition of 1967, and in how people have occupied and adapted it overtime.
To an outsider’s eye, the stacked boxes might suggest a uniform internal configuration. However, each apartment interior is different and distinct, as many modules have been restructured, at times merged with others. They each exude a unique personality, animated by the objects and people settled in each.
Habitat 67 is often described as a “failed utopia” or “failed dream.” While Safdie’s goal to provide a new typology of affordable housing did indeed fail, ideas he pioneered for this project remain relevant today, Brittain said, such as prefabrication, an emphasis on natural light, and apartment living that fostered community. On his many visits to the complex, the photographer saw firsthand how current residents have delighted in creating their own nests within these standard units.
“These aspects have undoubtedly been achieved at Habitat 67, and are actively being enjoyed today,” Brittain said. “The complex is unanimously enjoyed by the residents. I’ve heard no voices of dissent either about the architecture or the experience of living there.”
Revisited: Habitat 67 continues at Bulthaup (280 King E, Toronto, Ontario) through July 31.