Back of House

TEXT Suresh Perera
PHOTOS Alain Laforest

The once-gritty urban residential cores of Montreal have been given a second life as a younger, educated, and more affluent population looks to establish itself in the already built-up city. In older neighbourhoods such as the Plateau, ever-increasing land values and strict municipal regulation of front façades have resulted in the expansion of existing houses towards the back, and as a result, alleyways traditionally reserved for services are being invigorated with a new public face.

Responding to this phenomena, the Maison de l’architecture du Québec (MAQ) has recreated a typical alley bounded on either side by the backs of row houses. Twenty-two emerging architects and landscape architects were invited to select one of the lots and present, in large-scale model format, their interpretation of an ideal backyard addition, renovation and landscaping solution to a theoretical existing row house.

By purposefully ignoring the front façade and instead focusing on the intricacies of living, the exhibit allows a voyeuristic entry into the everyday. 

Judging by the long lines on opening day and the large public attendance since then, perhaps it’s this very foray into “what goes on behind closed doors” that attracts such interest. For the most part, leaving behind formalistic pretensions, the exhibition tends to deal with everyday living. It is in this that it finds its greatest draw.

While Réinventons la ruelle! at the MAQ focuses on the issue of insertions into existing buildings, its success in doing so raises some nagging questions about contemporary residential practice in the city: in an ever-evolving world, why are we often still duplicating front façades that numbly replicate 1890s era homes? Or worse yet, meekly partake in some stylistic or formalistic game? Could not the same approach expressed in the exhibition be applied to an entire building? Also, if our acts of dwelling only occur in the back, what roles are our front masks relegated to, and what does this say about our society? 

These projects, carefully inserted amongst existing structures and responding to the narrow pedestrian alley, recall the scale and intimacy of the medieval city where architecture was about experience, interiority, habitation and pedestrian movement rather than image, icon and object. With such tight perspectives as these spaces afford, the idea of “façade” disappears and dissipates into lived space. Detail, material and spatio-temporal relationships emerge supreme as neighbours confront each other. It is in this coming together that the lived city, as a construct, truly emerges. CA

Architect Suresh Perera lives in Montreal where he also spends much time in his tiny backyard overlooking an alley. The exhibition Réinventons la ruelle! will be at the Maison de l’architecture du Québec until December 20, 2011. For more information, please visit