Text David Theodore

The best almond croissants in Montreal come from Les Co’Pains d’abord on Mount Royal Avenue East near rue Cartier. I regularly pick up breakfast supplies there Saturday mornings, so I have been following the renovations to the 1.75-hectare Parc des Compagnons-de-St-Laurent just across the street.

It seems everyone is talking about the new design, especially the new table. The old park featured fibreglass dolphins and ducks on rusty springs, clumpy bushes that hid all manner of sins and sinners, and a stand of magnificent, 20-metre-tall trembling poplars. The park designers, Schme Consultants, got rid of the ducks, kept the trees, and added the table.

Yikes! All this fuss about a picnic table? It’s a beautifully simple, 15-metre-long communal picnic bench–essentially one great big refectory table where everyone sits together. Globetrotting design spots like David Chipperfield’s Wagamama restaurant in London have popularized this one-big-table idea. But the main perpetrator of the table, architect Philippe Lupien, says the inspiration came from the gothic dining hall at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Lupien is a local celebrity. He hosts a popular cable TV show that features Quebec’s domestic architecture. He knows what people like. Still, they don’t like this table. A particularly disparaging report appeared in the newspaper La Presse.

What’s the big deal? Concrete. The table is made out of concrete. Prefabricated concrete. Soft-textured, light-coloured concrete, but still concrete. And in 2006, concrete elicits strong, conflicting reactions. Municipal services departments like it because it’s easy to maintain. Architects have been brainwashed to love it. But ordinary people really, really hate it. To them it says prisons, basements, highways.

It’s worth mentioning that Lupien, a Prix de Rome winner, has worked with concrete for a long time. He was part of the design team on another controversial concrete icon, Jacques Rousseau’s 1990 Maison Coloniale. And more recently, Schme has experimented with prefabrication for the TOHU performance hall near the Cirque du Soleil headquarters.

No one is complaining about the quality of the design. It’s all about the material. People like grass and wood in their parks, not concrete. It’s as simple as that. And while we’re on the topic, they don’t like weathering steel, either. Even if the design’s good. Why can’t architects get this straight?

Fortunately, the harsh reactions are dying down. Cool teenagers sit on the table with their feet on the benches. And last Saturday, I saw several couples enjoying their croissants al fresco at the table. I was tempted to sit down myself.

David Theodore is a Research Associate and College Lecturer at McGill University’s School of Architecture.