Courtscrapers and Bigamist Hill Towns

20 thoughts on “Courtscrapers and Bigamist Hill Towns”

  1. I can see the connection, but only for residents. Folks living in Via 57 get a wedge of the sky, along with a nice courtyard to look at. The rest of us are simply out of luck. Oh, it is an interesting big building, with lots of shiny medal. But at street level the power plant is more attractive than the new building ( To be fair, they were dealt a terrible site, as you mentioned, with ugliness all around. I have no qualms with what they built — might as well go big and shiny, since very few people will want to walk by there anyway (58th, where I linked, is by far the most attractive street surrounding the building).

    But the contrast between it and Habitat 67 is striking. This is from the ugly side: Despite the same sort of highway next to it, this actually looks like a nice place to walk. I’m sure the other side is nicer.

    My guess is the Habitat concept did not spread because of its relative isolation. I’ve been to Montreal a couple times, and never even knew about the building. I’m sure architects and planners thought it was interesting, but not appropriate for most big projects, which involve smaller places integrated within an urban environment. Yet as Safde explains, it can be a great choice. There is no reason why you couldn’t build something like that in a large city block, surrounded by older buildings. Something like this would look great to the north of the convention center, covering up the freeway, or at the very least, replacing the parking lots that dominate the area ( It would involve both great housing for the residents, along with an interesting pathway for folks on the street. As Safde said, it would mean no big walls — no big separation between the housing, nature and the city. What would work for Montreal would work for Manhattan, and just about any big city. I’ve got nothing against residential towers, but Habitat 67 is a lot more interesting and attractive to both residents and those walking by.

  2. Interesting how timeless Habitat 67 looks. Reminds me of American southwest pueblo architecture. Coincidence?

    1. The Pueblos of New Mexico are organized in the same manner as the hill towns of Sicily or the fishing villages of Morocco, Turkey, or Greece. They have that form because it solved problems in the most efficient manner possible with the raw materials and labor on hand. Habitat 67 was an attempt to replicate those ancient designs on an industrial scale. But it didn’t quite catch on.

  3. I remember Habitat from the Expo and VIA 57 from my most recent trip to NYC.

    Habitat was an attempt to bring one of the few advantages of suburban living, direct access to a garden patio, to an urban setting. We visited one of the show units, and it seemed to be a clever approach. The typical urban terrace is too narrow to be really useful and often winds up as a storage space. Not everyone has access to a penthouse or rooftop “tar beach”. Habitat offered each unit an enclosed outdoor area with more useful dimensions. It seems to have aged well overall. I wouldn’t make a big thing of the flat roofs. Lots of buildings in Montreal have flat roofs.

    VIA 57 struck me as a piece of new Manhattan, and right now, from street level, it seems pretty raw. Still, it does have street level retail, and as the area is developed, I’m guessing foot traffic will increase. Unlike South Lake Union, it even has a performance venue. I didn’t get to look at a unit, but I’ve seen other buildings that have used interior courtyard space very effectively. It does pretty well on tricky site in an area formerly considered industrial which explains the sanitation facility and power plant. I wouldn’t worry about the construction method. Odds are, by the time it needs renovation, systems for reproducing the appropriate components will be as common as computer controlled CNC machines.

  4. Some of the projects are just too ugly for my tastes, but if people are happily living there, well to each their own. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned, though, is that for a very large and quite interesting city in North America, Montreal is pretty affordable. Check the regular, ordinary home listings sometime. They do have real winters though.

    1. I agree. Compared to Toronto or Vancouver Montreal is a high quality low cost city. What’s the old joke? Name the three worst things about Quebec. “January, February, and March.” But the Francophone situation is also tricky. I think the French language and culture are charming – and irritating – at the same time. Quebecois have intentionally limited themselves to foreign investment and immigration to preserve their culture. It’s a good strategy. And a bad strategy… But it’s their choice to make, not mine.

      1. Heh, it’s been 260 years since the French lost Quebec. I’m not really sure I’d characterize Quebec as having a French culture any more than Americans have a British culture, Brazilians have a Portuguese culture, or even Boers have Dutch culture. I’ve certainly heard more than a few French folks adamantly state that they do not speak decent French in Quebec, though it certainly sounds French to my untrained ear.

        1. The French of France are disdainful of French Canadians. They say they speak like ducks. I’ve heard Canadian French is just French from 300 years ago frozen in time.

          I had one slightly unpleasant experience in Montreal. I was there the first week of good spring weather when all the shop keepers were opening up their windows and doors to the outside and setting up sidewalk cafes. I stopped to talk to a woman who was installing some decking and potted plants and asked her about her work. She pretended not to speak English in a tone that made it clear she was defending her sovereignty. I shrugged and kept walking. Every Swede, German, and Italian I know speaks English and is perfectly comfortable switching languages as needed. It’s the global lingua franca. The fact that the Quebecois feel threatened by this is a sign of deep insecurity and weakness, not strength. Would anything change if Quebec was independent from the rest of Canada? I don’t think so.

          1. I’ve heard the same about “native” Spanish speakers in the Southwest area: that it is an antiquated dialect a few generations behind the times. Probably not quite as bad as Quebec, due to influx of modern speakers from various parts of Latin America.

            My understanding is that France is also culturally and linguistically defensive, limiting foreign (especially English) influence in arts, media, new words, etc. Which is kind of funny, because some of the supposedly bad English words are often derived from other (occasionally indigenous) languages.

            1. The French insistence on the maintaining the purity of their language does suggest a lack of savoir faire.

              I read something once about the Spanish spoken by people in northern New Mexico whose families have been there for over 300 years. When one kid went to Spain as an exchange student he was told he sounded like Don Quixote.

          2. I’m a French speaker from Northern Ontario. I’ve had to call strangers in Quebec a handful of times. In every case, I spoke to them in French only to have them speak to me in English. Whole conversations were had this way. Telling them I was comfortable speaking in French didn’t change anything. In a few of these cases, they had really bad English, but still persisted. I don’t fully understand it.

  5. I love your site, although I’ve never commented before.
    I have to wonder, studying the pictures of both the 67 building and the new ‘sail’ building, how they’re going to keep out the rain long-term.
    Those flat roofs must invite leaks.
    Those inset balconies in the ‘sail’ building look like holes to catch rainwater.

    Does the architect consider long-term maintenance? Or do the tenants live with leaks because the architecture justifies doing so?

    Thanks again for wonderful posts.

    Teresa from Hershey

  6. Upon arriving I expected revulsion. Mostly I was not disappointed. ViA 57 is just scary. Even any reference to the Jetson’s falls short – everything in the Jetson’s was rounded, cylindrical, happy blobs. The best thing about that set of photos was the narrow strip of brick along the frontage road that somehow dodged the road grader and those early-20th Century style lamp posts. Naturally, ViA won all sorts of awards, I see.

    Habitat, on the other hand, kind of grew on me. It’s ugly as sin, but the concept is good, and the scale is not inhuman – only 10 or so stories, or levels. Too bad it didn’t pencil out.

    If only Safdie had stopped there. That thing in Singapore is a joke (three giant buildings with a surfboard on top? ). And Columbo? Columbo goes against every law of physics we learn as little kids playing with blocks and pieces of wood in the backyard (or should I say Legos. I was “pre-Legos” – they really didn’t get rolling in the U.S. until the 70s, and by then I was out of the “playing with blocks in the backyard” stage….=)

  7. Closer to home, I suppose “Mira” by Jeanne Gang ( is in this category of generative architecture that can never be maintained without sophisticated CAD software, although it’s certainly fun to look at.

    Way on the other end of the spectrum, 20 years ago I spent a summer in Sicignano Degli Alburni, an old Norman hill town south of Naples. I was there on a “volunteer vacation” with an international group to restore the local church which had fallen into disrepair. With about 10 words of Italian between us, we literally moved rough hewn stone blocks all day that were then put into place by local stonemasons. Talk about modular architecture!

    1. I’m trying to picture a group of people coming together in 600 years to try to renovate Mira SF. “Okay ladies, I want you each to lift one of the specially prefabricated trapezoidal aluminum and glass panels and carefully attach it to the steel frame on the 23rd floor. All together now!” The reality will be closer to Torre David in Caracas. The Centro Financiero Confinanzas was not long for this world.

  8. And they are remarkably ugly, which I find is common among projects like these. But that’s just my opinion; others may like them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.