In Full View: Public Space In Montreal

TEXT Gavin Affleck

In a vibrant city, architecture can have its moments as a spectator sport and one such moment is the spectacle of a downtown construction site. Montreal’s most exciting downtown construction site in recent years has been the Saint James Cathedral refurbishment on rue Sainte-Catherine, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare–the project attracted more rubbernecking and pedestrian pauses than any other site in recent memory. This attention was all the more remarkable since no buildings were actuall beingbuilt–the project consisted of the demolition of a commercial building dating from the 1920s and the creation of a new square designed by Claude Cormier. The magnificent sculpted stone faade of Saint James Cathedral, hidden for more than 70 years, now presides grandly over the new square and participates actively in the sidewalk life of rue Sainte-Catherine. While this might not have been what Mies van der Rohe meant by his aphorism “less is more,” the project argues that the creation of a void in a city can be considerably more exciting than the construction of a building.

In many ways the story of recent public space design in Montreal has been a story of moving from more to less. The city core boasts an impressive inventory of public spaces ranging in age from colonial squares to contemporary corporate plazas. During the last 20 years, the design of both historic refurbishment schemes and contemporary projects has been marked by a gradual shift towards a more minimal expression. The most successful of recent projects are evidence that well designed urban space is simple, flexible and free of physical encumbrances. What public space is about is human activity; what it is not about is architectural objects. The great urban spaces of European cities are precisely that: spaces. What fills them is the ebb and flow of life–events, experiences, activities. Rather than aesthetic, formal or visual concerns, the measure of success of a public space is the degree of vitality it achieves as a support for human activity. The Nolli Map, architectural history’s quintessential mapping of urban space, is more than a plan of solids and voids–it is a celebration of potential experiences.

While Montreal has a long history of formally designed spaces complemented by statuary and monuments, the first concerted attempt to integrate contemporary art with public space was the Viger Square redevelopment in the 1970s. The construction of a new underground freeway had resulted in the destruction of a classic 19th-century square including the heartbreaking chopping down of a proud copse of mature elms. In hindsight, it is remarkable that the team formed for this first foray into multidisciplinary urban design consisted of engineers from the provincial Ministry of Transportation (responsible for the freeway underneath) and avant-garde Quebec sculptors. Strikingly absent were urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and municipal officials. To paraphrase Mies a second time, the new Viger Square created by engineers and sculptors was a classic example of “more is a bore”–the project was object-oriented and architecturally complex–a seemingly endless plethora of concrete park pavilions, pergolas, retaining walls, fountains, planters and outdoor sculpture–so much stuff, in fact, that there was no space left at all. A great irony of the project was that it inverted the classic architectural para- digm of a promising concept poorly realized– here we had an inherently flawed concept built with great care and precision–the project’s reinforced concrete, for example, rivals the best work of Arthur Erickson for its quality of execution. Ultimately, the new Viger Square was such a hostile environment that it became a refuge for the homeless, and more recently, the theatre of a contemporary art installation seeking to find meaning in urban incoherence.

Two major projects–one recently completed and the other dating from the 1990s–form a conceptual bracket for the last 20 years of public space design in Montreal. The redevelopment of the city’s Old Port, realized in the early ’90s under the direction of Aurle Cardinal and Peter Rose, was a key project in redefining Montreal’s character as a port city and reconnecting the contemporary city to its historic riverfront. As a last gasp of the Postmodern critique, the first phase of the project, overseen by Rose, reintroduced long-neglected ideas of Romantic landscape design with its serpentine ponds and rustic park pavilions. Cardinal’s second phase, apparently innocuous when built, actually contained the seed of a renaissance in Montreal public space design–the fundamental tenets of a formally minimal, programmatically fluid and experience- based urban design took form here for the first time. Instead of applying historicist formulas, minimalism was discovered by returning to the industrial archetypes of the site and urban gestures took precedence over the creation and display of objects. Spaces like the new waterfront promenade generate a messy vitality with the daily mixing of pedestrians, bicycles, tour buses, street vendors and all manner of recreational vehicles.

The minimalist imperative first observable in the later phases of the Old Port is fully developed as a conscious ordering of space in Clment Demers’ and Ral Lestage’s Quartier International, a recently completed scheme that reconfigures the urban landscape of more than a dozen downtown blocks, creates a new square (Place Riopelle) and gives new life to a neglected public space (Victoria Square). The project does the obvious so well that the result is unique and exceptional–straightforward urban design ideas such as the realignment of streets, balancing of pedestrian and vehicular space, and rhythmic sequencing of street furniture are carried out with uncompromising excellence. The understated elegance and minimalism of the project embraces numerous practical concerns including the reality of Montreal’s climate–fountain basins are simple, shallow granite trays that don’t appear forlorn and empty in the winter.

The years between these pivotal projects saw the emergence of a new sensibility to public space design in Montreal and the development of a multidisciplinary design methodology which has refocused the potential of public space as a collective utopia. Government agencies were established to bureaucratize the collaborative process and both financial conditions for the integration of art (1% of construction budgets) and contract procedures were standardized. Public space projects realized under the auspices of the new programs in the 1980s included Place Roy, Place milie-Gamelin, and the Champ-de- Mars. The high point of the early years of the integration of art with public space was Melvin Charney’s Garden for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), probably his finest built work. The CCA Garden is a seamless integration of art, architecture and landscape and is at once theoretically grounded and experientially rich.

While the myth of multidisciplinary collaboration in public space design idealizes a group effort with the sum being greater than the parts, in practice the results of these collaborations have been mixed. In many cases, landscape architects continued to create surfaces occupied by artist-made art objects and architect-made buildings. The integration of art often amounted to little more than the replacement of traditional statuary with contemporary outdoor sculpture. Among the more evocative examples of the integration of art and public space are Jocelyne Alloucherie’s Cor-Ten steel sculpture in Dalhousie Square, which focuses references to the city’s historic fortifications in a contemporary form, and Jean-Paul Riopelle’s spectacular fire-breathing fountain in the new square that bears his name. Michel de Broin’s Revolutions, a spiralling aluminum sculpture inspired by Montreal’s curved staircases, plays an important role in the new park developed around the P
apineau subway station. Less successful were Gilbert Boyer’s controversial cube in Place Jacques-Cartier and the collection of Rice Krispies-like concrete planters and art things on the esplanade of Place des Arts. Recently, municipal officials have begun experimenting with a new formula that fully integrates the artist with the design team–the space itself is given recognition as the artwork and the artist is no longer required to produce a distinct work.

Among the most ardent defenders of the idea of public space as a gesture of collective generosity in Montreal is Atelier Big City. In both their teaching and built work, Big City have insisted on the importance of optimizing opportunities for social interaction and creating a fluid, open-ended attitude to programming. Their recently completed skate park under the Jacques Cartier Bridge is an excellent example of this approach and a model for the creation of contemporary urban space. Claude Cormier’s projects, including Place d’Youville (in collaboration with Groupe Cardinal Hardy) and the Complexe des Sciences at the University of Quebec (UQM), integrate historic and pop-culture references in often surprising ways. Widely discussed as a celebration of the artificial, Cormier’s Lipstick Garden, an interior landscape of pink tree trunks in the city’s new Convention Centre, is a provocative and humorous comment on the pratfalls of banality that can handicap contemporary architecture. Montreal has also benefited from the enthusiastic input of a new generation of landscape architects with a critical attitude to public space including NIP Paysage, Vlan Paysages and Espace DRAR.

Another important player in ensuring the quality of public space design in Montreal has been the city’s Municipal Parks service. In its heyday in the 1980s, this service was one of North America’s largest landscape design offices. While now more modest, the service remains notable for its progressive attitude and insistence on design quality. Three recent downtown projects under the direction of landscape architect Robert Desjardins–the refurbishment of Place Jacques- Cartier, Place de la Paix and Dalhousie Square are excellent examples of the Parks Service’s ongoing commitment to quality design.

As the density of the contemporary city increases, so the spaces between buildings assume an increasingly critical role in fostering a sense of identity and quality of life for the urban dweller. The minimalism of an Italian piazza is directly related to the intense urbanity of its edges: like Kasimir Malevich’s black-on-black painting or Frank Stella’s white-on-white painting, the relationship between a taut and clearly defined edge and the space of imagination it contains creates a fundamental dynamic. Putting stuff in urban space is a fundamentally suburban idea, and as Montreal has densified, its public spaces have cleared out, simplified, and evolved into generous supports for human activity.CA

Gavin Affleck is a partner in the Montreal-based firm Affleck + de la Riva Architects. He has been a contributing editor of Canadian Architect since 2004.