Quel Fromage!

Bright pink columns rise around me, branching out into concrete limbs above, a rhythmic array of bold colour that fills the long gallery. This is the Lipstick Forest, the installation by Claude Cormier Architectes Paysagistes gracing the north lobby of Montreal’s new Palais des Congrs. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it piece about which everyone has something to say: after some initial skepticism, I’m gradually falling in love with it. This much is certain: it’s a flight of fancy that’s more at home here than in any other part of the country. There’s something about Quebec that accepts, even embraces, a sensibility that leans towards the eccentric monument, one might even say, towards the kitsch.

It’s almost a platitude to speak of Quebecois kitsch. It pervades the culture–from patriotic folk songs deployed at festivities, to widely popular home-grown soap operas, to advertisements employing titillation in a manner shockingly forthright to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility. The sense of kitsch certainly extends to the built environment, though defining kitsch architecture is a slippery task. Kitsch architecture has a definite scale (large, or of exaggerated proportions), and colour sensibility (bright, bold) and an exuberant ambition that hits a nerve. Fortunately, that nerve often happens to be your funny bone. In Quebec, there is an openness of spirit that fosters those more subtle qualities–the iconic design, the playful irony, and the sense of wilfulness–that make kitsch architecture not only possible, but plausible.

The iconic quality of kitsch is most evident in Montreal’s poster child of the genre, the Orange Julep outlet located on the Decarie Expressway. I went on a pilgrimmage to the famed monument recently, finding an immense round orange planted in the middle of a parking lot. As I approached the orange, the urban traffic and surrounding city quickly receded, held at arm’s length by the expanse of asphalt. A slit in the base of the plywood-and-plaster construction acts as a service counter, where you can order burgers, poutine, and orange julep. I opt for the monument’s namesake, and was presented with a waxed cup filled with a substance one part orange juice, one part sugar, and one part foam. It’s a little too saccharine for my taste, not unlike the architecture.

Just across the intersection, I notice a kitsch gem that appeals to the more exotically-inclined. Ruby Foo’s is a modernist-meets-Oriental building of the late sixties; a complex that offers 200 rooms and four restaurants behind white fibreglass shoji-screen panels, the whole sheltered by a pagoda-styled roof. The ensemble rests on pilotis, a caricature of a traditional Japanese pavilion. At a somewhat crass level, Ruby Foo’s pretends to be an exotic locale, a kind of Oriental refuge for the traveller. The illusion is carried out more subtly in the reception hall, where Oriental motifs blend into a more updated interior design, but from its exterior form, the hotel hints at exotic escapism in a brashly kitsch manner.

Both the giant orange and Ruby Foo’s have an iconic quality that makes them kitschy. The orange is monumental kitsch, a bona fide roadside attraction in the middle of a city; Ruby Foo’s employs a theme-park treatment of Oriental architecture to present itself as a distinct icon.

Quebec is particularly receptive to the idea of icons. Churches conceived of as monumental stage-sets and their accompanying religious icons were essential components in the region’s Roman Catholic tradition. An aesthetic sensibility tending towards the monumental has consequently shaped religious architecture in Quebec, producing great churches as well as shrines that are powerfully kitschy in their own right. While the icons of religion point (with greater or lesser finesse) towards high ideals, a giant orange is a low-art incarnation of the icon, a monumental je ne sais quoi. Here, the concept of kitsch as engaging a playful irony, a sense of humour in the face of the incongruous, becomes key. There is a strong security of identity in Quebec and an accompanying free-spirited disposition that appreciates the ironic gesture, permitting both high-art icons and low-art icons to coexist.

Amongst the industrial outlets and pawn shops at the east end of St. Catherine Street, the temple of the Ordre bouddhique vietnamien mondial is an odd apparition. A red temple gateway leads into a courtyard dominated by an enormous white effigy of Buddha, presiding from the middle of a lotus-shaped fountain. Smaller white statues line the courtyard; at the back, a bright red pagoda completes the quadrant. The unquestionably kitsch effect of the whole is unintentional on the part of the designers, but interpreted as kitsch through our own cultural lens.

The humour of kitsch is pervasive in la belle province, moving beyond unintended irony or obviously kitschy commercial roadside attraction. Slipped into the midst of my own residential neighbourhood, one particular apartment block takes on notable Byzantine pretensions. The typical walk-up typology is transformed into a wildly spiralling staircase, set off by a pattern of alternating bands of burgundy and cream stone making up the faade of the building. The whole is capped by pointed metal finials, faintly reminiscent of a chteau roofline. It’s a total integration of kitsch on a typical residential structure. And strangely, it’s not out of place–it’s certainly different, but not necessarily gaudy in the tradition of intended kitsch detail.

The construction of kitsch is not a task for the faint-of-heart. It is daring and imbued with a strong will to build a giant orange or an apartment-block-cum-Byzantine-palace. Here, we might consider the purported European influence in Quebec. In terms of architecture, this influence is both a propensity for risqu ideas, and an accompanying stubborn streak that allows them to be carried out. Kitsch projects share a wilfulness to push a sometimes wacky idea to a final note of irony.

But potentially wacky ideas can also become great ideas. The characteristics of kitsch–a strong iconographic idea, a sense of irony and playfulness of spirit, and a stubborn will to execute the work–are the same qualities that are found in projects such as the subway stations of Montreal, the Lipstick Forest, or the colourful Palais des Congrs itself. The precise means by which the ideas, humour, and tenacity underlying kitsch may lead to creative, original architecture is more rightly the subject for another article. But it is certain that the openness of a society to kitsch will allow for colourful, innovative ideas in architecture to be entertained on the same stage.

“La qutaine, il y en a!” my architect friend Pierre tells me when I ask him about kitsch. He proffers a list of kitschy places that he thinks I should check out, but also provides a list of fine architecture in the same areas to look at en passant. There’s undeniably great architecture in la belle province, and maybe kitsch is its necessary sibling, and actually a sign that the creative spirit is alive and well. After all, one could sip orange juice from a square box, but isn’t drinking julep from a giant orange a more interesting idea?

Elsa Lam is a graduate architect and writer living in Montreal. Contact her at elsa.lam@mail.mcgill.ca