Digging Beneath the Surface

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTOS John Martins-Manteiga/Dominion Modern

One of Jean Drapeau’s election promises when he ran for Mayor of the City of Montreal in 1960 was to see the development of a new subway system. A few months after he won the election, City Council set aside the funds for the initial 16 kilometres of the subway system known as the Montreal Metro. Construction began in 1962–around the same time Montreal was awarded the Universal and International Exposition of 1967, or Expo ’67.

On October 14, 1966, after four years of construction, the City of Montreal handed over the completed first phase of the Metro to the Montreal Transportation Commission (better known today as the Société de Transport en Commun, or STM). Today, the Metro includes 68 stations and carries over one million passengers daily. To mark the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Toronto-based architecture aficionado John Martins-Manteiga produced a self-published book entitled Métro: Design in Motion. With text in both English and French, the book documents the origins of the Metro, complete with an extensive collection of archival photographs and drawings.

As Métro: Design in Motion makes clear, the construction of the first phase of the subway was backed by Jean Drapeau (the autocratic Mayor), Lucien Saulnier (Montreal City Councillor and Chairman of the City’s Executive Committee), and Claude Robillard (Chief Planner for the City of Montreal). Certainly, other important figures include professionals like Sandy van Ginkel, a Dutch architect and planner who was instrumental in devising the first plan for the subway system. The plan, as his lifelong partner and noted architect Blanche Lemco van Ginkel remarked, “was the central instrument guiding the cohesion of a new sense of urbanism that included a plan for the downtown, expressways, and a subway.” Pierre Bourgeau was the architect in charge of the Metro’s first phase, but the decision to hire different architects such as Jean-Paul Pothier, Roger d’Astous, Victor Prus and Norman Slater to design each station was critical in capturing the dynamism and ambitious city-building occurring in Montreal throughout the 1960s. Moreover, the commitment to dedicate a high level of architecture and design established an important precedent for the Metro that was carried through subsequent phases of its construction, right up to the completion of the De La Concorde, Cartier and Montmorency Metro stations in 2007.

Martins-Manteiga is not an academic, but his ability to tell a passionate story about the origins of North America’s eighth subway system is equal to or greater than any architectural historian. Perhaps the greatest achievement found in his labour of love is his systematic approach to documenting all 68 subway stations; his impressions of daily life within each station were captured through the lens of his own camera. In addition to reflecting upon the extraordinary degree of thought and effort that went into the public art and architecture of the Metro, Martins-Manteiga’s photography raises questions pertaining to the changing demographics apparent in the various neighbourhoods located above and around each station–undoubtedly a fascinating indication of Montreal’s social and cultural evolution since the Metro was first inaugurated 50 years ago. CA

Copies of John Martins-Manteiga’s book are still available. Limited to 1,000 copies due to financial constraints, Métro: Design in Motion was supported and saved from abandonment through the generous financial assistance of Jane and Eberhard Zeidler, and the STM.