Modern Living

Benny Farm Housing, Phases 2 and 3, Montreal

Saia et Barbarese, Laverdire Gigure architectes

The reconstruction of Montreal’s Benny Farm continues the tradition of the important role of social housing in the evolution of Modern architecture and planning, particularly in defining improvements in urban, mid-density residences. In its carefully referential urban plan, its crisp architectural form and subtly playful details, as well as its equal attention to providing a strong, supporting landscape, the project offers a quiet but forceful lesson in city-based residential design.

Early Modernists like May, Gropius, and Haesler used public housing commissions as a means to illustrate their belief in the positive physical and intellectual effects of rationally planned, airy and fully modernized housing units. But if their hostility to the street, made explicit at the 1927 Congrs International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), challenged historic urban form, it was post-war politicians and their architects, with their mass produced towers and housing estates–like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis–that contributed to a crisis of dysfunctional communities.

The original Benny Farm, constructed in 1946-47 on Montreal’s western edge, was different. Intended as comfortable, modern housing for war veterans and their families, it owed its architectural form, site planning and generous expanses of green space to pre-war standards of human scale and to Canada’s abundantly available land. Designed by Harold James Doran, its six hectares were bounded on the east by Benny Street, Monkland Street on the north, and two lanes on the south and east, while Cavendish Boulevard split the site. Its 384 units were distributed in 16 groupings of single loaded, three-storey walk-up blocks set in crenellated plans around two large land parcels. This serpentine plan created a succession of courtyards alternately facing onto the surrounding streets or into large interior commons.

By the ’90s, the project was showing serious signs of aging. Water penetration had damaged the wood structure, while the buildings’ narrow halls, lack of elevators, and substandard balconies simply did not meet the needs of a dwindling population with an average age of 76.

A 1994 plan developed by Blouin Faucher Aubertin Brodeur et Gauthier architectes for CMHC respected the traces of the original plan while substantially increasing building densities. Two new U-shaped crescents penetrated the larger parcel but left Benny Farm as two super-blocks. Some of the original buildings along Benny Street were to be recycled. Subsequently, Blouin et al completed two six-storey blocks for veterans, filling in the new south-facing crescent.

A key raison d’tre of the plan had been the federal government’s desire to make the veterans’ housing self-financing through market development of freed-up land. Concerned about restoration costs, which were estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 per unit, and a plan not well adapted to Montreal’s development market, CMHC invited Saia et Barbarese Architectes to redevelop the site plan. The result was the transformation of Benny Farm to a robust urban form.

Connecting the two crescents with a traffic square results in the largest parcel being divided into three smaller blocks. By extending Prince of Wales Street south through the smaller of the original parcels, a similarly well-scaled block, plus townhouse sites on the extended street’s west side, are also established. According to Mario Saia, partner-in-charge of the project, which his firm carried out in collaboration with Laverdire & Gigure architectes, the new plan still respects the imprint of the original. “But instead of having only these snake-shaped buildings with their standardized courtyards, we set out to create a succession of private yards and semi-public courts.” In fact, the courts are designed to act as east-west pedestrian streets, further breaking up the blocks.

Saia’s team carefully catalogued the existing urban context: three-storey street-oriented houses on Benny, a park along Monkland, a shopping mall to the south, and houses backing onto the new Prince of Wales west flank. Finally, with its planned extension to the north, Cavendish had to be considered as a major transportation route for the city. In response, the approved plan mandates perimeter blocks of three storeys along Benny and Prince of Wales, six storeys along Cavendish and the shopping mall edge, and six stepping down to four along Monkland and the park. Two three-storey townhouses on the west side of Prince of Wales will face similarly-scaled blocks to the east.

Saia’s plan introduces a sophisticated, European-influenced response to the history and the requirements of the site. But a good urban plan does not guarantee that good architecture will follow. Fortunately, the firm’s contribution–the final veterans’ housing planned for Benny Farm–sets a fine standard. In keeping with the architects’ previous body of work, there is no resorting to the vaguely historicist pastiche common to both mid-density and elders’ housing in Canada. The two buildings are straightforward, elemental forms that are crisp and linear.

The outward-facing exterior walls are clad in rich orange clay brick, a material intended to fit with the neighbourhood and to express security. “Security for these people,” says Saia, referring to the veterans, “was a central concern, so the exterior elevations are a kind of shield all around, a shield of bricks with relatively small punched windows.” In addition the modulation of the outer facades is strongly vertical, an effect achieved with stacked balconies and vertical aluminum panels, reflecting the verticality of the houses fronting Benny.

The balconies are generally half-recessed into the facades and have guards of mottled glass to increase privacy and the all-important sense of security. At higher levels, balconies are fully cantilevered and some have been pivoted to make the most of views of the St. Lawrence River and Mount Royal, resulting in animated facades. As an example of attention to detail, the glass guards slide past the edges of the balcony decks to conceal their raw concrete lips.

Inside the private yards, the emphasis on security is relaxed in favour of lighter materials, greater openness, and a bit of whimsy. Anthracite, a fine grey-green stucco, replaces the brick. Glazing is in the form of larger strip windows fronted by long balconies that combine to create what project architect Vladimir Topouzanov calls “a ribbed horizontality.” Here, the balconies are offset, permitting neighbours on different levels to converse easily. The mottled glass is replaced by clear glass silk-screened with a vibrant grid of yellow polka dots.

Inside, the modest units range from one to three bedrooms, most having two. Their relatively compact interiors are kept as open as possible, providing kitchen areas with views to the outdoors. The wide hallways, equipped with safety handrails, are also characterized by a rhythm of recessed entrances marked by brightly coloured tile thresholds and shelves for groceries, all simple gestures that help delineate a sense of arrival.

Saia states that “in addition to scale and detail, the way you enter the buildings is vital. We wanted it to be like it is normally in Montreal where you enter directly from the street. That was our inspiration.” Thus, each first floor unit has an entrance directly at ground level, whether to the outside circulation court, Benny Street or the interior courtyard, a move that fully anchors the buildings to the ground.

One of the great problems with post-war Modernist housing schemes was always the lack of definition of the ground plane, with exterior spaces being largely treated like residual no-man’s-lands. By contrast, the contribution of the landscape architects at Benny Farm is a design that completes, in a convincing way, the synthesis of site and building. A rising star following such projects as Place d’Youville in old Montreal (with Groupe Cardinal Hardy) and his recently completed work wit
h Saucier + Perrotte architectes on the Montreal Garden in Shanghai, Claude Cormier and his collaborators’ inner courtyards and pedestrian lanes are satisfying matches for the architecture.

The courtyard is a largely hard surfaced area broken up by a series of mounds or “pills” of tall, wild grass spun around a circle of lawn with three trees. Harking back to the balcony dots, these circles divide the garden into smaller and larger open areas, informal spaces for meeting friends or simply being alone. Striking one discordant note is a traditional fountain that may play to the residents’ tastes but that seems a bit lost and in need of a more substantial treatment of its base.

In contrast to the circular motif of the yard, the path of the pedestrian court is defined by three lines of trees, with each tree supported by four large vertical poles that add extra substance to the landscape’s form. Between the trees of the outer line, a dense planting of low bushes demarcates public circulation from private spaces for the first floor units. At each unit door, Cormier has angled a hard surfaced path across this barrier and marked it with a handrail so that each one reads like a bridge. The partial inner court of the northernmost block relies on a geometric quilt of criss-crossing paths–a leitmotif of Cormier’s–in-filled with trees and planting.

The plan of Benny Farm stands as a strong model of responsible urban design. Saia’s plan is now enshrined within Montreal’s bylaws and will define the site plan and massing for future private development of the remaining parcels. Whether or not there are developers with the vision to stick with the program and a municipal government able to avoid compromise remains to be seen. But the new work at Benny Farm clearly shows that the Modernist program of providing rationally planned, airy and bright housing has some life left in it yet.

Rhys Phillips is an Ottawa-based architecture critic.

Client: Canada Lands Company

Architect team: Mario Saia, Dino Barbarese, Vladimir Topouzanov, Andr Laverdire

Structural: Saia, Deslauriers Kadanof & Associs Inc.

Mechanical/Electrical: CIMA+

Landscape: Claude Cormier/Le Groupe Seguin Lacasse/architectes-paysagistes

Contractor: Le Groupe TEQ Inc.

Size: 146 units

Budget: $17 million

Completion: September 2000

Photography: Denis Farley unless noted