From Thesis to Icon; Visiting Moshe Safdie’s “Habitat 67”

A few weeks ago I attended the incredible C2 Conference in Montreal; a unique conference in the sense that the aim is to blend “commerce, culture, and creativity,” in several days of high-quality presentations, masterclasses, brain dates, and labs that provoke as well as inspire. Having arrived a bit early due to the lengthy flight time, I spent the night before the conference wandering the city.  After being charmed by the European feel of the friendly and sophisticated city, I found myself strolling along Montreal’s Historic District’s waterfront.

Across a slender body of water the long, modular composition of stacked boxes unfolded before me.  Scanning my mental index of architectural precedents and projects, I quickly identified the project as the iconic Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie.

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View of Habitat 67 from Montreal’s Vieux Port, photo credit: Mosenthal

Conceived and presented as Safdie’s Master’s Thesis Project at McGill University in 1961 (coined “A Case for City Living,”) the project was selected to be built for the Canadian Pavilion at the World Exposition of  1967 in Montreal.  At that time, Safdie was interning in Louis Kahn’s studio and was only 23 years of age.

Given the green light to develop his thesis idea, as explained in ArchDaily, Safdie applied his original theories regarding a “three-dimensional modular building system” (a highly novel idea at the time, pre-3d-modeling software and proposed amidst the adoption of North American suburban sprawl.) The result was an ambitious masterplan/microcosm comprised of “shopping centers, a school, and 1000 housing units” (ArchDaily 2013.)

Ultimately Safdie’s visionary proposal was approved, albeit cut down in scope.  The final built project consisted of 158 residential units constructed from 340+ prefabricated modules.  The modules were arranged in varied combinations and connected by steel cables.  Units were designed to be accessible via pedestrian bridges and streets as well as three cores with elevators for the top floors.

As described by Gili Merin for ArchDaily, “the prefabrication process of the 90-ton boxes took place on-site. The basic modular shape was molded in a reinforced steel cage, which measured 38 x 17 feet. Once cured, the concrete box was transferred to an assembly line for the insertion of electrical and mechanical systems, as well as insulation and windows. To finalize the production, modular kitchens and bathrooms were installed, and finally a crane lifted each unit to its designated position.”

Several days later, my former architecture professor (currently a Professor at McGill) and I found ourselves quickly and quietly scuttling around the grounds of Habitat 67 at early dusk.


View of the complex up-close at dusk, photo credit: Mosenthal 2016

A still-thriving residential community that values privacy and the almost utopian vision of a hybridized garden home in the sky (that is also, subsequently, on a narrow island surrounded by beautiful vistas of water, dense forest, and urbanity) we were discrete in our quick tour of the grounds.  Similar to Falling Water, some of the concrete had begun to crack and the stamp of time added a vintage patina that was admittedly pleasing in its acknowledgement of an idea distilled but also alive in a continuum of history and time.

Somewhat brutalist in its overall presentation, what won me over about the development was the lush greenery and individual gardens flanking the various sides and roofs of the extruded boxes.  Due to the unique stacking and configuration of the boxes, each unit is located a step back from its neighbor, creating an opportunity for “a roof garden, fresh air, and natural light” (Merin 2013.)

While today’s multi-family housing provides narrow balconies at a premium, Habitat 67’s simple juxtaposition of elemental form (the concrete box,) nature (an individual garden per unit,) and glass (a visual connection between the outside to the inside) creates a simple-but-elegant dialogue that remains desirable to any prospective housing tenant.

We stayed only a brief time, but my first impression and visit to Habitat 67 reminded me of why visiting historically significant architecture buildings is so worthwhile.  I left thinking about our current housing typologies, and was reminded how important it is to challenge existing assumptions in order to explore different models for living and building.

I’ve also thought a lot about what it means to be given a chance at the age of 23; Safdie was encouraged to submit his project for consideration by his thesis advisor, Sandy Van Ginkel.  Without a mentor or someone that believed in Safdie, his career may have taken a very different trajectory.  How do we inspire young architects to take risks, and for worthwhile ideas that rise to the surface, how do we facilitate these ideas and ambitions to be realized?  The Canadian Government ultimately took a huge chance on Safdie.  While the project wasn’t without high cost (in part due to its reduced scope,) ultimately many would consider the project a now integral part of Montreal’s built environment.

Remembering a True Artist; Celebrating the Life and Work of Zaha Hadid

Each day we experience what one might best be labeled “pragmatic architecture,” because it is exactly that.  From America’s beloved big box store with the gigantic (and changeable) sign to the prolific utilitarian gas stations that dot the corners of our residential fabric, utility is convention, and thoughtfully-designed architecture, sadly, is often the exception.

As children we are taught to draw a house in the form of a square with a triangle roof, windows where bedrooms might be, and a door for entry on the first floor.  Each element has a purpose and a lesson, but the drawing is symbolic rather than artful; explanatory rather than suggestive.

c1d8c5bafd9953f3d2a25e0ed8500fefIn late March the architecture community lost an architect that preferred architectural pyrotechnics to pragmatics; exploding onto the scene in the late 1970’s/early 80’s, Zaha Hadid is and will always be remembered equally weighted as an artist and architect that understood form as something fluid-but-faceted, expressive, and at its best moments, uninhibited.

After digesting the many articles that have been written in her memory, I was amazed to learn more about the person (and personality) behind the dramatic pictures (of Dame Hadid and of her work.)  Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Hadid studied mathematics at the University of Beirut prior to moving to London to attend the Architectural Association in 1972.  After working at OMA with rising Starchitect Rem Koolhaas, a friendship sustained throughout her lifetime, Zaha left to pursue her unique and individualistic architectural approach.

Starting her own practice in 1980, Hadid became prolific in the mediums of drawing and painting as tools to explore architectural investigations one might only think possible with a computer.  This type of representation led her to notoriety after winning the prestigious international competition for the Hong Kong Peak Club.  Although the Club was never realized, commissions followed including her seminal Vitra Fire Station (1993,) a buoyant ski jump in Innsbruck (2002,) the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio (2003,) and many more impactful projects that today, according to the Zaha Hadid Architects website, totals 950 projects across 44 countries/55 nations.

Growing up as an aspiring architect in the 1980’s and 90’s, as a child my architectural role models were pretty boiler plate.  There were Frank Lloyd Wright coloring books, history books touting the famed woman architect, Julia Morgan, and fancy spreads of New York penthouses and Aspen ranches in Architectural Digest issues that I admittedly devoured each month.

It wasn’t until my 20’s and immersion into architecture school that I fully understood the challenges, achievements, and artistry of contemporary architects like Hadid.  This understanding was fully reinforced when Hadid was recognized as the Laureate of the Pritzker Prize in 2004; the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Despite a smaller portfolio of built work at the time, architects such as Bill Lacy, speaking as the executive director of the Pritzker Prize in 2004 remarked, “Only rarely does an architect emerge with a philosophy and approach to the art form that influences the direction of the entire field. Such an architect is Zaha Hadid who has patiently created and refined a vocabulary that sets new boundaries for the art of architecture.”

Many people say Hadid was the most influential woman architect of our time.  I prefer to look to her as a role model, but to share a sentiment that has been expressed that she is simply one of THE most influential Architects of our time.

Firsthand Experience : Learning Through Design-Build

Ever wondered why the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, “Colorado Building Workshop,” is so popular amongst students, faculty, and Colorado residents?  Aspiring architect and graduate student Samantha Strang provides us with a guest post this week regarding her experience as an active participant in a project to design and build year-round cabins in Leadville for the Colorado Outward Bound School.  Read ahead to learn about what she aptly describes as a “layered design process.”   

Thanks Samantha!

-Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C



Photo credit: Rachel Koleski.   Description: Students presenting during the final design crits with the client, Colorado Outward Bound School

As a developing architect, I aim to approach all projects with a committed contemplation for detail, place, time, material, craft, and people. I hope to always represent those who will use the space through an informed design process based on sensorial and emotional understanding as well as environmental and regional components. These powerful elements invoke a timeless relevance and open direct lines of communication between people and the architecture that surrounds them.


My participation this semester with the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, Colorado Building Workshop, has given me (as well as many collaborators) the opportunity to utilize this layered design process to achieve a built outcome. Working and learning from our clients, Colorado Outward Bound School, while helping to build their community is a unique opportunity to enhance and contribute to the school’s sense of place and identity. As opposed to generating a theoretical design problem, I’ve found that CU’s Design-Build program allows students to develop key skills to explore the integral relationship between architectural design, people, and building construction.


Photo credit: Samantha Strang.  CU-Denver Design-Build students in Leadville conducting Post-Occupancy evaluations of the fourteen cabins from the 2015 build.

This semester, twenty-eight students are designing seven year-round accommodations. The housing, which includes three single occupancy units, three double occupancy lodgings, and the Executive Director’s cabin, will be built in Leadville during the CU-Denver Maymester. Expanding upon last year’s build of fourteen summer-use cabins, these seven units will be roughly 300 square feet, fully insulated, and will include electrical. Working in teams of four, my classmates and I have worked intensely throughout the design process to personalize our particular cabins to our sites and project concepts. Simultaneously, we have had the challenge of relating to the previous build while creating works which are individual to our class’s design sensibilities.

Working much like a professional studio, we have come to rely on one another’s strengths. Aside from our design teams, students work within other groups including areas such as Logistics, Structure, and Budgets which serve to keep the project focused as a whole. This ensures communication exists between the seven cabins while promoting a cohesive design approach relating to the architectural language and techniques employed in the fourteen cabins built last year.

Within the program, every student has the potential to bring unique insight to challenge and improve the architectural design. I have learned not only how to deal with structural issues and budgetary restrictions, but also the importance of efficiency, on-site problem solving, and adherence to deadlines. I’ve noted the clarity of communication necessary to maintain organization and the intricate detailing of construction assemblies required to fully understand how a project comes together. Needless to say, it has become exceptionally clear that one’s understanding of every detail matters.

As an aspiring architect, I want to experiment, pose questions, be questioned, and collaborate to create unique works. Learning and readjusting after each step through an iterative process is part of the Design-Build program. This is where I can bring all of my skills and put them into practice, learn from students with other backgrounds, and potentially teach others as well. This in-depth experience promotes the ability to comprehensively design, define career goals, and affords students the potential to be a more informed, valuable member of a professional studio in the future.

Guest Post: What (and Who) is the Emerging Professionals Committee?

Looking to get involved more involved in Denver’s extended architectural community?  Avik, YAF Chair to the Emerging Professionals Committee, provides a primer in what the committee is and how to get involved.   – Beth Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

You may be asking yourself, what is the Emerging Professionals Committee? According to our Statement of Purpose: The Emerging Professionals Committee is the intersection of representation for Student, Associate AIA, and Young Architect members. Its purpose is threefold: to improve knowledge sharing, expand outreach, and advocate on behalf of emerging professionals at all levels through collaborative efforts and direct communication.

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Emerging Professional’s Symposium, 2016

As the YAF Colorado Chair on the EPC this year, I know this by heart- but if you haven’t heard of the EPC or know about our events, that’s an issue regarding “direct communication” we are working to change in 2016. Our hope is to foster a rich design community with eclectic people by providing diverse opportunities. In February we had our first-annual Emerging Professionals Symposium held over a half-day at the University of Colorado Denver. Over 100 attendees joined us for six sessions and a keynote followed by a happy hour, and we cannot wait to expand upon this Symposia in upcoming years.

Cynthia Fishman of the EPC is leading the planning of our next big event- On May the 4th be with you day, AIA EPC will be partnering with over 15 other professional organizations again for the 4th annual Meet the Dark Side interdisciplinary networking event at Stoney’s Bar and Grill from 5:30-8pm.  It will be free to attend and the first 150 people to show up will get two free drinks. We are expecting 300-500 people for this Star Wars themed event (costumes encouraged) and attendees will have the option of playing ice-breaker bingo for amazing prizes in order to meet the next generation of leaders in architecture, engineering, construction, graphic design, marketing, sustainability, real estate, and more!

Katie Finnegan and Max McCloskey of the EPC are organizing the Young Architect Awards Gala on Friday June 3rd at Gensler Denver’s office; entry registration is now open and submittals are due by noon on April 22nd. In between we’re having smaller events including build days with Habitat for Humanity, Happy Hours, Building Tours, and Firm Crawls. Our hope is that our weekend events allow folks from other parts of the state to join in too. Down the line we also hope to have more collaborative events with other disciplines, such as Urban Planners, Landscape Architects, and Interior Designers (and if you’re in one of those disciplines and want to join forces for an event, let us know!).

If this all sounds like something you’d be interested in, consider joining our EPC list-serv! This is not a commitment to join the Committee, but the opening of a direct line of communication with the EPC- you’ll receive infrequent emails with all the upcoming events and opportunities without any worry of your email being distributed, and you can unsubscribe at any time. If you have ideas for an event, such as leading a building tour of your project, please send those ideas to us- we’re all ears! And if you do want to join us as an active committee member, just contact us. For whatever reason, you can find us at

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EPC Build Day

EPC Chair Adam Harding, myself, and the entire committee are stoked for our new upcoming events and initiatives this year. We hope you’re excited as well and hope to see you at one (or all) of them soon!


Yuguo Tian Qing; Moments of Beautiful Simplicity while Traveling in Japan

This past October I traveled to Japan for three weeks. I have often felt a connection to the simplicity and beauty of Japanese architecture, and therefore had put Japan on my bucket-list of “far-away” places to visit when the rare opportunity presented itself, which turned out to be my honeymoon.

Having booked places to stay in various cities over the course of three weeks, and armed with the invaluable Japan Rail Pass (similar to the Eurail pass, this enables you to travel pretty much anywhere in the country using Japan’s incredibly robust train system for a set window of time,) we did not set a daily agenda, but rather allowed the place and our guidebook to inform what we wanted to see, eat, and experience each day.

While I could write a lengthy blog post outlining each architectural wonder and cultural epiphany I had while there, in the Japanese spirit of brevity, I thought I might share 3 simply beautiful, inspiring things that made my day and life a little more profound after experiencing it.

Hopefully this might serve as afternoon inspiration or eye candy for you as well.

#1: When a phrase captures something almost more beautiful than the thing itself.

About an hour from Tokyo is the resort town near the Fuji Five Lakes called “Hakone.” This beautiful lake town was built with the idea of entertaining foreign dignitaries visiting Japan, and has become an eclectic cultural hub for museums boasting international art and culture (complete with an entire museum dedicated to “The Little Prince.”)

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Pola Art Museum, photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


Of the many museums, I was very moved by my visit to the Pola Museum, surprisingly specializing in impressionist art. Yet it was not the impressionist pieces that got me, but rather, an exhibition titled “Regarding Color: Oriental and Contemporary Japanese Ceramics.”

I learned that in Japanese ceramics, pottery created during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279) was sought after to be a highly specific celadon blue. This color, as described in the Japanese language, was referred to by the ceramicists as “Yuguo Tian Qing,” (雨過天青), which literally is translated to mean “clear sky after the rain,” and idiomatically has the meaning of “hope after hardship.”

This description (and metaphor) referring to a color felt more clear than any word assigned to the color itself.

#2: When nature becomes an integral part of the display of art.

Another highlight for me in Hakone was the Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park. Immediately upon entering this mountain-side open air museum, I was graced with a view of a Henry Moore sculpture, restfully placed on a serene, sloping pillow of grass that mimicked the sculpture’s amorous, flowing lines and rounded corners.

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Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park, Hakone, Japan, photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


As I continued to circulate around the park, each piece became all the more powerful as it interacted against the slightly gray backdrop of sky, green plot of grass, or dappled light of changing leaves in the rustling wind.

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Hakone Open Air Sculpture Museum, photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


While I think most architects agree it is a tenant of good architecture to relate site to building in an integrated, holistic fashion and vision, this visit reinforced my belief that this relationship is imperative in creating a strengthened dialogue and blurred line between form and foundation.

#3: When a space is curated so thoughtfully it takes on a life and character that is distinctly its own.

Towards the end of the trip we tracked down an air bnb in a place that felt a bit like it’s own country. About an hour from Nagano, buried in an agricultural community near the Town of Kaize, we came upon a cabin that had been completed by a young man and nine of his high school friends.

Completely powered by solar and in a remote location that we had to be driven to by our friendly host, upon arriving the cabin immediately felt familiar and, for lack of a better word, perfect.

The simple interior was evocative of a Finnish sensibility—light woods, simple whites, a simple balance of elevated everyday objects (copper pots, Muji colored pencils and books by a window, a simple wood bird mobile.) A small ipod hooked up to a faux-wood speaker held the contents of every Beatles album imaginable.

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Magical air bnb in  Japan (near Nagano), photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


Was I in Japan or the future tiny home cabin I had  dreamed for myself? Perhaps the greatest part of travel is the ability to imagine (and to even test) yourself as you might live in new settings, contexts, and cultures, if only to find the second best part of travel is, after a long journey, returning to your home.

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Until my next trip, I will probably reminisce of this view daily…