Cabot Square Redux: Cabot Square, Montreal, Quebec

The revamped Cabot Square maintains the circulation pattern of the original plaza while giving it a contemporary feel.
The revamped Cabot Square maintains the circulation pattern of the original plaza while giving it a contemporary feel.
TEXT Peter Sealy
PHOTOS Thomas Miau

Cabot Square long marked the western entrance to Montreal’s centre-ville. However, since the Montreal Canadiens left the neighbouring Forum in 1996, the square and its surroundings have been better known for their boarded-up storefronts and the presence of a large itinerant population. A design charrette began to address the situation in 2008, followed by public consultations leading to an area masterplan in 2011.

While the ability of architecture to remediate economic and social ills is limited, it can serve to keep open certain possibilities that might otherwise be foreclosed amidst rapidly changing circumstances. This is exactly what Affleck de la Riva’s rehabilitation of Cabot Square offers. Working with City of Montreal architect Wade Eide and landscape architects Fahey et associés, they have re-urbanized a significant public space, valorizing its centrality at the heart of an evolving neighbourhood.

First laid out as a Victorian design in 1890, Cabot Square has seen many iterations. Frederick Todd designed a picturesque garden there in the 1930s, and Wendy Graham reinterpreted it in a postmodern language in 1996.

Affleck de la Riva recognized the utility of the original “union jack” plan with its diagonal axes, but softened its edges, marking them with a series of curving, white concrete benches. These protect large areas of vegetation from unwanted intrusions, offer comfortable seating and almost imperceptibly guide foot traffic through the square. The architects replaced the square’s dirt paths with a permeable paving material, Solepave, which allows groundwater to pass through. The whitish covering offers a resilient surface that is noticeably more forgiving underfoot then the concrete sidewalks surrounding the square. In summer, Cabot Square is covered by one of Montreal’s most impressive tree canopies, creating an oasis amidst the city centre’s many heat islands.

Curving concrete benches create a soft barrier between pedestrian spaces and planted areas.
Curving concrete benches create a soft barrier between pedestrian spaces and planted areas.

Faced with the mandate to remediate a public space that many considered unsafe, the architects have acted sensitively, seeking to produce an inclusive place that multiple communities may call home. Within the square, the architects renovated a splendid 1931 pavilion to serve as a community outreach centre for the First Nations population that frequents the area, and who often face discrimination, precarious living conditions and difficulty accessing public services. The pavilion also houses the indigenous-staffed Roundhouse Café. Unfortunately, while Affleck de la Riva intelligently enlarged the square by removing an unneeded bus lane, their remit did not extend to the awkward Métro entrance obscuring the square’s northwest corner.

Cabot Square is praiseworthy for using simple gestures to amplify the qualities of the public realm. Meanwhile, around it, all is changing. New condominium and student housing towers have sprung up to the east, while debate rages as to the future of the former Montreal Childrens’ Hospital to the south (to view a visual essay of the hospital by Giuseppe Pascale, click here). To the question of what will happen to the hospital—the likely answer is more condos—we may add another: what should happen to the old Forum? Its late-1990s conversion into a cineplex with shops and restaurants has never been successful, and the ghosts of Howie Morenz, Toe Blake and Maurice Richard decamped long ago. Affleck de la Riva’s project for the 2008 charrette offered a logical solution: demolish the Forum and divide its site between an office tower and an extension of Cabot Square. While controversial, this move would create an impressive entrance to downtown Montreal, while also—finally—providing a fitting commemoration for the historic Forum.

Peter Sealy is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.