Expansion Pack

It turns out that hill towns aren’t made all at once or by one person.

“It is much like an Italian hill town!” This was a running joke when I was in architecture school back in the late 1990s. Whenever my friends and I spotted a project with ambitions to embody actionword concepts like “stacking” and “shifting,” we would call it out. The refrain was a gentle parody of our instructors’ obsession with Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 development in Montreal, a seemingly perfect synthesis of formal order and informal play—modular boxes dutifully stacked and shifted off axis. This was a popular act in the 1960s. Anyone who has attended a contemporary planning meeting has encountered a watered-down version of this tune: “breaking up the massing.”

The aptly named Project Hillside is a digital cover version, in Unreal Engine, of Safdie’s original Habitat proposal, which was something like five times the size and three times the cost of what got built in 1967. “Would you feel overwhelmed by the scale?” Safdie wonders in the promotional video. As lightning flashes and a dubstep beat drops, this commercial for game design software answers his question for him. The informality and play are drowned by the totalizing geometry, a tendency that shows up in the architect’s later work but that is revealed here to have been present all along. It turns out that hill towns aren’t made all at once or by one person, and nothing breaks up a mass quite like a budget cut.