Artist David Hartt Sifts Through the Ruins of Moshe Safdie’s Unrealized Habitat Puerto Rico

In a new show on view at the Graham Foundation as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the artist documents the remnants of a utopian building that never was.

Moshe Safdie Habitat Puerto Rico
David Hartt, Camuy II, 2017 Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey and commissioned by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Moshe Safdie’s revolutionary project Habitat 67. The building—a tessellation of prefabricated concrete cubes—was a prototype aimed at making urban housing both livable and affordable.

Safdie envisioned a series of Habitats across the globe, including New York and California. (He revisited the theme with the vertically oriented Sky Habitat complex in Singapore, opened 2016.) A year after the Montreal building’s opening, the architect actually came close to realizing a Habitat in Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan, a cascade of 800 prefab units whose verdant campus would include a pool, and an outdoor amphitheater. So close was this project to becoming a reality, that in his 1970 book Beyond Habitat Safdie titled the Puerto Rico chapter “Breakthrough.” But the project, plagued by logistical, financial, and bureaucratic setbacks, was ultimately never realized.

Philadelphia artist David Hartt was thumbing through Safdie’s book when he discovered an aerial shot of the project’s proposed site. He turned to Google Earth and quickly identified the present-day location—a lush botanic garden in San Juan. He also discovered that Safdie and his team had worked on the site for several years before the project was abandoned leaving behind a host of concrete modules to crumble in the forest. Hartt—who, like Habitat, was born in Montreal in 1967—was transfixed: “I was really interested in the of dialectic between one future in Montreal—luxury housing, a clear landmark—and then in Puerto Rico—a very different situation.”

The fruits of this investigation are on view at Chicago’s Graham Foundation in a specially commissioned installation, in the forest. Spread across two floors and in the courtyard of the foundation’s 1902 mansion, the show comprises a series of photographs, a film, and a handful of sculptural objects chronicling Hartt’s exploration of Habitat Puerto Rico’s remnants.

The large photos depict views in and through the structure’s brawny interiors, gradually succumbing to nature, a wry irony for a project meant to usher in the environment.

The photos are not exclusively set in San Juan; through his research, Hartt discovered that several modules were scattered across Puerto Rico and repurposed as cow sheds. A photograph called “Camuy II” depicts one such unit on a brown hilltop, a lone Brutalist object surrounded by a of palms and brush.

A 20-minute film on the second floor is central to the installation. Here, Hartt juxtaposes meditative shots of the dense jungle, the sunbaked streets of San Juan, and images of the decaying modules, set to an ambient score by electronic artist Karl Fousek. A series of potted plants in hexagonal planters—meant to evoke the shape of Habitat Puerto Rico’s modules—and speakers playing the ambient, humid sounds of the jungle are also placed throughout the galleries.

According to Hartt, the documentation of Safdie’s forgotten project is a lens through which to view the contemporary challenges burdening Puerto Rico—the consequences of fiscal mismanagement, the shadow of colonialism, and the failures of the neoliberal project. “For me it’s an amplifier,” he says. “It’s a way I can begin to explore these doctrines and ideas as manifested within the built environment.”

Documenting abandonment has the tendency to deviate into the realm of ruin porn. But Hartt’s camera doesn’t luxuriate in the decay. Instead, in the plodding progression of shots and the lens’s unflinching gaze, the viewer is left with elegiac impressions of the building—and the utopian vision—that never was.

Going to the Chicago Architecture Biennial? Don’t miss our Top 10 Things to Do and See at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

You may also enjoy, “Moshe Safdie Tells the Tale of Habitat 67—And Predicts Housing’s Future.

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