Fair and Square

PROJECT Square Des Frres-Charon, Montreal, Quebec
DESIGN TEAM Affleck + de la Riva Architects with Robert Desjardins and Raphalle de Groot
TEXT Thomas Strickland
PHOTOs Marc Cramer

In the 1990s, Montreal, like many North American cities, took up the 20th-century project of cleansing and repurposing the smoky urbanity of the factory system. Given that a core component underpinning the rezoning and restoring of 19th-century industrial architecture and spaces was to draw tourists and locals to these areas, it follows that the urban plaza would secure a significant role in the process. Designs for Square des Frres-Charon and Place d’Armes, two plazas located in Old Montreal, offer interesting insights into the way a site’s history and design methodology activate different experiences and roles for users of complex heritage spaces.

Square des Frres-Charon is almost perfectly square, but this is an accident of history. The small plaza is on part of a former community founded in the 1690s by priest Jean-Franois Charon de la Barre to provide alms for working men. In 1842, McGill Street was extended south to the port, leaving an interstitial space between the road and the estate that is the current plaza. The square changed ownership and uses many times from the 1850s to the 1980s, serving at one time as a storage area for building materials and at others as a terminus for light transit trains. In the 1960s and ’70s, the land was expropriated by the City of Montreal and a pumping station was constructed to buttress the flow of the city’s primary east/west and north/south sewer lines, which still gush 10 storeys below the site. Officially established as a park honouring Charon’s philanthropy in 1986, the square was by that time supporting trees, a grassy core, a bus stop and the small pumping station.

Today, the plaza is demarcated by a soft circle of local prairie grasses, recalling the once vast landscape that grew beyond the walls of the old city. Designed by the multidisciplinary team of landscape architect Robert Desjardins, artist Raphalle de Groot, and Affleck + de la Riva Architects, the most striking feature of the design is the perfect circle in the square. Filled with a variety of grasses, shrubs and seasonal blooms, the circle emits a sweet aroma that is a delight and a surprise, especially once one learns about the sewer. In this momentary shift of the senses, the nearby residential towers and the daunting elevation of the Old Customs House on McGill recede, and one’s attention turns toward the swirling grasses. A textured concrete boardwalk populated with benches crosses the centre of the circle, diagonally connecting McGill and Marguerite d’Youville streets. Intersecting the boardwalk, slightly off-centre, is a slim path that steps down from the periphery, lowering the pedestrian into the flora for closer inspection. Seemingly a great sunken planter carved out of the contiguous civic sidewalk, this verdant space gives a majority of the plaza area over to non-pedestrian activities.

What is interesting about the soft circle and its intersecting boardwalk and pathway is the resulting position and perspective of the plaza’s users. Planting a large portion of the area, in fact, runs counter to the traditional practice of covering civic plazas with hard surfaces, challenging long-held beliefs about the material qualities of publicness. While the soft surface prevents pedestrians from using a large part of the plaza, the boardwalk gives people access to a place generally reserved for monuments and fountains: the centre. Furthermore, the benches along the central median suggest rest rather than action and turn the user’s gaze outward across the plantings towards the peripheral sidewalks. In this way, the plantings and the people are the object of observation rather than monuments and buildings. A curious interloper in this calm geometry is a small building in the tradition of the architectural folly, located on the northwest edge of the plaza. Covering the pumping equipment, this small cylindrical tower is wrapped by a stair and topped with a bench and didactic information explaining the history of the site. On this tower, one is not sitting at the base of the monument looking up, but is instead offered a position usually reserved for a privileged few–a view from above.

To better understand how the historical machinations of a site intermingle with the material qualities and spatial practices of publicness, Square des Frres-Charon can be compared to the redesign of Montreal’s most prestigious site: Place d’ Armes. In the fall of 2007, the City organized a charrette which resulted in three proposals for the plaza. While the final design for Place d’Armes is currently in the construction phase, it is still useful to look at one proposal from a large team that includes, in addition to landscape architect Claude Cormier and six other contributers, two designers from the Square des Frres-Charon project, architect Gavin Affleck and artist Raphalle de Groot.

Anterior to Notre Dame Basilica, the august Gothic revival church, Place d’Armes has been and continues to be a highly determined space. Built to replace a 17th-century parish church, the Basilica was constructed between 1824 and 1829, with towers being added in 1843 and a chapel in 1890. The square began to take its present form in 1845; in line with the fashion of the Victorian era, the streets were paved, and a park and fountain were located at the centre. Signalling the arrival of high finance to the square, the fountain was removed in 1895 and replaced with a monument to Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve, the first governor of Montreal. Over the next 60 years, corporate buildings reflecting periodic architectural styles rose around the perimeter of the square. Throughout these changes, the Basilica and the monument at the centre of Place d’Armes remained, marking the square’s ongoing role as the symbolic heart of Montreal.

The team’s proposal, like that for Frres-Charon, emphasized the square’s history. The presence of elements that function as important symbols informed a different approach to the use of the Plaza. In the proposal, an elevated platform representing the footprint of the 17th-century parish church becomes an arrival area in front of the Basilica. The plaza is to be resurfaced and curved lines cut into the finish to draw pedestrians towards de Maisonneuve at the centre of the plaza. Supporting both the tradition of Place d’Armes and common practices connected to civic plazas, the proposed hard surface of the square focuses on the monument. Here, the emphasis on the centre turns the visitor’s gaze towards the statue, and while it is possible to get close to the apex of the space, the pedestrian can never achieve this point. The subject of the plaza is not the user but Montreal’s founding governor. While the proposal’s broad resurfacing implies a more pedestrian-friendly area than the streets and sidewalks of previous iterations, the church-shaped platform on the porch of the Basilica sanctions the sacred purpose of the site over other activities and subjectivities. Thus, the role of the square as support for the Basilica and as a symbolic gateway to the city remains intact. In this space, whether tourist or parishioner, one’s gaze is to be turned upward toward the material embodiment of Montreal’s history.

An important and telling aspect of these two projects for civic plazas in Old Montreal is their design methodology; both of these projects were planned to integrate public participation in the process through the website for Old Montreal (www.vieuxmontreal.qc.ca). At the outset of the design process for Square des Frres-Charon, before a program was established, people responded to questions via the website, expressing their opinions and commenting on the viewpoints of others regarding plans for the square. Based on the public’s suggestio
ns, a spatial and aesthetic mandate was established that informed design choices such as the arrangement of benches and the verdant circle. In this way, Montrealers’ hopes for the future of the square were embedded in the first sketches of Square des Frres-Charon.

For the refurbishment of Place d’Armes, the public was also asked to communicate with the designers over the Web. However, rather than being integrated at the beginning, Montrealers were asked to view and comment on three proposals developed during the charrette. In this process, the citizen’s role was preceded by that of the designers. In this sense, the public’s place in the design process of Place D’Armes is secondary to the authority, and is collateral to its role in the plaza itself, which is to gaze respectfully upon monuments and buildings. Conversely, the design for Square des Frres-Charon foregrounded the project with public opinion, thereby giving the user a primary place in the process and collaterally in the square; an imperative made concrete by the arrangement of benches, boardwalks and towers. The designs for both urban spaces in Old Montreal are technically and aesthetically confident, recognizing the history of their sites and sharing a belief in public participation. However, a comparison of the Place d’Armes proposal and Square des Frres-Charon reveals how public input can challenge designers to look at the history of a site differently and to imagine new relationships between people and urban places. CA

Thomas Strickland is a J.W. McConnell Doctoral Fellow at the McGill University School of Architecture.

Client City of Montreal, Large Park Management Division
Architect, Landscape Architect and Urban Art Team Gavin Affleck, Robert Desjardins (Landscape Architect), Raphalle de Groot (Artist), Richard de la Riva, Brigitte Boudreau, Dany Hasswani, Lucie Robin, Valrie Vincent, Pierre Duhaine, Sylvain Legault, Pierre Yves Leblanc
Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Genivar
Civil and Urban Infrastructure Genivar
Construction Management Quartier International de Montral
Contractor Terramex (Landscape) and Celeb Lte (Pavilion)
Lighting clairage Public (Gilles Arpin)
Horticulture Sandra Barone
Industrial Design Morelli Designers
Museology Moiti-Moiti Exposition Inc
Area 1,600 m2
Budget $2.2 M
Completion Fall 2008