Public Viewings

“C’est MA place (publique)!” takes a quirky look at contemporary public space. The show is on at Monopoli, a private architecture gallery in downtown Montreal. The fifth floor space, co-curated by Sophie Gironnay, occupies the entrance to the offices of Dupuis Le Tourneux architectes. It is small, but readily visited by the crowds doing the Saturday afternoon art crawl through the galleries of the Belgo Building.

The idea is simple. Furnish sixteen of the city’s prominent artists (Rose-Marie Goulet), landscape architects (Claude Cormier, Cardinal Hardy, Daoust Lestage), designers (Bosses Design) and urban designers (Atelier Braq, Urban Soland) with a 16 16 inch box, 24 inches deep, made of MDF and topped with frosted glass. Then ask them each to create an installation in their box that answers the pressing questions: “What makes a public space really public? What makes someone say ‘this is MY place’ here, but not there?”

Formally the boxes are a varied lot. They are mounted at eye level in groups of four on steel stands, and lit from above by pairs of black desk lamps. The participants work with videotapes and video monitors, photography, chalk (both on the gallery walls and in the boxes), and lots and lots of mirrors. The most unusual material is chewing gum, which NIP Paysage use in a Gilbert & Georgeish questioning of the effect of the Wi-Fi revolution on the public realm. The slightly chewed, or at least kneaded gum, is arranged in small wads on a plane that rises to the back of the box, which is filled by a blow-up of a Bazooka Joe comic. The gum has an evocative smell, which somehow simultaneously makes palpable and symbolizes the electronic waves emanating from the access points in the city’s wireless broadband network.

The results show the great difficulty that even accomplished designers can have in addressing and representing ideas when they have no professional props: no program, no site, no client–and essentially no budget. Some of the boxes are excruciating, or rather, full of the hesitations and sophomoric thinking you’d expect at a student art show. Some ideas are simply pass: the obsession with cell phones and hyperreality seems done to death. (Didn’t anyone read the OMA issue of Wired?) Looking at these often cartoonish constructions, we seem a long way from the heady days of “paper architecture,” when Bernard Tschumi, Lebbeus Woods and Daniel Libeskind exhibited well-crafted, theoretical work that set the agenda for much of today’s professional practice.

Still, the range of responses is wide enough that you’re sure to find at least one box that confirms your own sense of what’s good and bad about urban space today. The architects known as MEDIUM use a block of crumbling concrete, some newspaper clippings, and deadpan humour (at least I think it’s supposed to be funny) to suggest how cars impinge (literally!) on scarce park space in the city. And sculptor Armand Vaillancourt’s contribution, a box which overflows with a collection of gun stocks, is equivocally ominous: is the public realm under attack? Anything missing? Well, none of these creators seem worried about sustainability–which means the show is surprisingly LEED-free.

With conceptual shows like “C’est MA Place,” Galerie Monopoli is trying to show off the playful and speculative side of architecture and urban design. More interesting, and possibly more enduring than any of the boxes, is the gallery’s larger struggle to carve a place for thinking and speaking critically about architecture in the city’s public life. Its laudable mission, to provoke debate about architecture and the city among the lay folk, is a tough job. But greater miracles have happened in humbler places.

David Theodore is a regional correspondent for Canadian Architect. “C’est ma place (publique)!” is on until May 31, 2004, at Monopoli, galerie d’architecture, 372 Ste-Catherine W. #516, Montreal.