Looking Back: Place Bonaventure, Montreal, Quebec

place bonaventure in montreal
Place Bonaventure in Montreal. Photo by H.R. Jowett

TEXT Tanya Southcott

“What Italy can do with marble and stone,” proclaimed architect Raymond T. Affleck of his firm’s seminal work Place Bonaventure, “we can do with wood and concrete.” In the mid-1960s, Affleck’s statement echoed the mega-tendencies of a metropolis on the eve of its international inauguration. Construction for Expo 67 was in full swing, and Montreal was projected to grow its population of roughly 3 million to 7 million by the end of the century. Place Bonaventure epitomized this spirit of euphoric optimism.

Promoted as a city within a city, the 3-million-square-foot poured-in-place concrete monolith inspired superlatives from conception. Located at the foot of the Bonaventure Expressway, the multi-purpose complex reclaimed a lucrative block of downtown real estate by transforming the airspace above the Canadian National Railway tracks into a hub of activity that linked to subway, railway and interior and exterior pedestrian networks. Its unique combination of large-scale trade, exhibition and convention-centre facilities with a wholesale merchandise centre aimed to revolutionize the wholesale retail experience by bringing the customer directly to the vendor. When completed, Place Bonaventure was the largest concrete building in the world and the second-largest commercial building after Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. At 250,000 square feet, Concordia Hall was the largest exhibition room in Canada, easily accommodating an artificial lake, an imitation ski slope, or three simultaneous football matches. The complex’s crowning jewel, a 401-room hotel, framed the country’s first rooftop garden complete with indoor-outdoor swimming pool, 17 storeys above downtown Montreal.

The last half-century, however, has not been kind to Place Bonaventure. A series of renovations underscore the vulnerabilities of its monumental vision. Failure of the complex as a destination shopping location forced the incremental conversion of retail space to offices, a transition which erodes its folded concrete faÇades into a grid of windows. Crumbling concrete led to the construction of new entryways, and the reorganization of circulation at ground level obscures a once-clear orientation system. The introduction of new finishes dilutes the power and austerity of its carefully sculpted concrete detailing. While these changes ensure the building’s continued viability, they have done little to soften its fortress-like appearance for contemporary users.

Despite its mixed reception, Place Bonaventure remains a hallmark in the evolution of the Canadian construction industry and architectural practice. The building “task force”—the consortium of architect (Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise), developer (Concordia Estates Development Company) and contractor (Concordia Construction Incorporated)—challenged the linearity of the traditional project delivery model with Canada’s first design-build proposal. The simultaneous design and construction of Place Bonaventure carried the project from idea to reality in half the time of conventional sequencing. This process exceeded the team’s ambitions of efficiency and functionality by delivering a product miraculously both on time and on budget. According to head designer Eva Vecsei, “We all just learned in the process. We were new; we saw no limits.” Its success is a credit to the cooperative spirit of the times and the project’s young entrepreneurial team.

Tanya Southcott is a Montreal-based architect and writer.