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Friday, March 4, 2011

Rochester's Past Futures: Habitat Rochester

Moshe Safdie is best known in Rochester for getting paid almost $3 million to design RenSquare back in the early 2000's. He was later dismissed and the plan he laid out was given to a group of local architecture firms who were then tasked to redesign the project in ways that would reduce costs.

RenSquare is history and we are now left facing the construction of the bus shed in the same basic layout as determined by the Safdie plan but without the "niceties" Safdie included in the original design, or the theater and downtown college campus.

This was not Safdie's first flirtation with building in Rochester. In July 1971 a group of local leaders were given a tour by a young Moshe Safdie of his early masterpiece, Habitat Montreal. Plans were being made for Habitats in Jerusalem and New York City and one for low income families was under way in Puerto Rico. If approved, Habitat Rochester would have been built by local activist organization FIGHT on the west side of the Genesee River in the city's 3rd Ward.

The following articles appeared in local bulletins from the spring and summer of 1971. The first is from a series of bulletins produced by the office of Urban Renewal during the period of downtown modernization that provided the residents of the various areas of the center city updates on the changes that were coming to their district. One of the most fascinating series of these publications, the Southeastern Loop Urban Renewal bulletin, will be the featured in an upcoming post on that massive project.


 The second article accompanies an image of the Rochester contingent's visit to Habitat Montreal and comes from the July 1971 issue of the Third Ward Bulletin. Both articles and many of the images in this post can be found at Rochester Municipal Archives.

The Rochester project never got past initial design modeling and Safide moved on to establish a respected body of work that continues to merge daring engineering with interesting and attractive architecture. However, his body of work  would not include another Habitat as the projects in New York City and Jerusalem did not make it past the concept stage and the Puerto Rico project stalled for lack of funds and was never finished.

Below are images of the models of Habitat Puerto Rico.

 In 1977 modern architect and author Peter Blake wrote a scathing indictment of the failings of many modern architects to deliver on their promises of efficiency, purity and economy in his book Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn't Worked.

Habitat Puerto Rico was one of the many examples used to illustrate how modern architecture's reliance on technology to simplify construction methods often resulted in projects that were more complex and expensive to build and maintain than if built using conventional, time-tested methods. He states that the project was half finished before it was abandoned and that the area is now a ruin of modern architecture and techonolgy.

The following image is from Form Follows Fiasco.

Never ones to waste a good concrete shed, some local folks relocated "complete" units to areas surrounding San Juan and made homes of them. I believe that would have given Mr. Blake quite a chuckle

As a final note it should be mentioned that while Safdie features the failed, half built Habitat in San Juan in his comprehensive list of built and unbuilt projects on his firm's website there is no mention of RenSquare to be found.

Guess his time in ol' Smugtown is one he'd like to forget!

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