Making Place

The new skate plaza under Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge has been a victim of skateboarders’ unreasonable expectations, and a troubling misunderstanding of the architect’s role in public projects. Designed by Atelier Big City, this 1,000-square-metre concrete landscape potently signifies the city’s willingness to make a place downtown expressly for young people. It is the first municipal park that skateboarders, BMX riders and inline skaters can use legally. But it had a difficult genesis and absurdly indignant reception from the very people it was built for. Why?

At the root of the controversy is a relationship between the Modernist dream of fluid urban movement and the perceived danger of public areas. As shown in films such as Larry Clark’s provocative Kids or Spike Jonze’s classic Video Days, we associate skating with violence, criminal activity and trespassing. Skateboarders zoom through the city as if every place were public space: walls, stairs, curbs, sidewalks, handrails, flowerpots, streets, parking lots. In other words, in an era of bland and branded public space, skateboarding tests the limits of acceptable urban behaviour.

The basic story goes like this. Montreal hired Atelier Big City to find a location downtown suitable for a skate plaza. The firm catalogued over 60 sites. A promising location bridging the underground Ville-Marie Expressway was rejected even after positive public consultations. Finally, the city designated a vacant parking lot dramatically poised under the Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Big City then won the commission to design the actual plaza, too, and included a skate consultant as part of their design team. About a month into the six-week design phase, this consultant, a Montreal-based group called Grind, quit the project. Another skater, Martin Gagnon, offered to help, specifying precise details on how the skating features should be designed: thicknesses, heights, angles. Nevertheless, the rumour persists, repeated often in the press, that there was no expertise on the project–and that there are basic functional errors even a beginner skater wouldn’t make. “There are probably too many features and gizmos,” says architect Howard Davies, “but they were recommended by the consultants.” When the plaza opened in May 2007, these former consultants denounced it. Grind leader Eric Mercier, who declared publicly that he quit because Big City went “buckwild,” even helped organize a protest.

What they protested is a roughly square-shaped, two-level plaza. Big City took advantage of the need to remove contaminated soil from the site to sink the main skating area about a metre below grade, enabling passersby and skaters to use the park simultaneously. Models show a concept based on manipulating topography, as if the plaza was built from a folded and crimped concrete sheet. The eight-inch-thick insulated concrete has galvanized steel edges–a demanding spec that, along with additional landscaping and lighting requirements, accounts for the $450,000 construction budget. “The place is built to last,” says Davies.

Drawbacks? The architects were not allowed to use the area directly under the bridge. Coupled with safety precautions preventing activity from spilling onto the sidewalk, and the presence of a giant subway ventilation shaft, this left only about 700 square metres of actual usable area for skating, much less than the 3,000-square-metre plaza in Vancouver or the 4,000-square-metre park in Winnipeg. And the chosen site is a bit of a no-man’s land, not the rich urban crossing originally envisioned. Ironically, given skateboarding’s links to marginal behaviour, some skaters don’t like being close to the street life of Montreal’s gay village.

Herein lies the conundrum. If sometimes skaters are urban lumpenproletariat, more often they are bourgeois suburbanites. Davies opines that perhaps one vocal group of skaters thought they would get a recreational facility, like a community soccer pitch, set apart from street life. For them the plaza’s publicness–which the architects worked hard to achieve–is a disappointment.

So what are public spaces supposed to do in the modern city–and exactly what are people supposed to do in them? Shop? Eat? Play beach volleyball? The skate plaza is yet another recent instance that shows Montrealers uninterested in inhabiting public space. A more prominent example would be the award-winning design for the Quartier International de Montral, designed by Daoust Lestage/Provencher, Roy et associs. It vastly improved its neighbourhood via a strong interpretation of 19th-century urbanism, but it gives us gardens–respite from urban life, not involvement in it–with no real public place for a rabble-rousing speech, for a demonstration, or for skateboarding.

Nevertheless, Davies is hopeful that for future skate parks, the best solution may still be achieved through good architecture combined with less policing. “If I could do this again, I would design a public space–a Big City public space–and let them claim it,” says Davies. “I think the skaters would just take it over.” But getting that to happen would require faith in public space that neither the city nor the skaters seem to possess.CA

David Theodore is a regional correspondent for Canadian Architect.