Renewing the Urban Fabric: Social Housing in Montreal

Montreal has long enjoyed a reputation as one of North America’s better urban environments–a city where people live and work in downtown neighbourhoods and where streets are animated, architecturally interesting, and safe. As the physical expression of firmly rooted social and political traditions, Montreal’s quality of life has persevered while economic cycles have come and gone. The latent potential of this unique urbanity is finally being realized and the city is presently undergoing a major housing boom. As opposed to larger North American cities where mediocre commercial projects circle the core, Montreal’s second ring has benefited from economic stagnation as an inadvertent agent of preservation. For more than two decades, Montreal has bravely presented a smile with mostly missing teeth, but today the gaps–parking lots, abandoned gas stations, and empty lots–are filling in.

While activity in the condominium market is an indicator of consumer confidence, an accurate measure of a city’s collective commitment to a better urban environment is its social housing program. These programs give physical form to a city’s social and political convictions, their sense of their own urbanity and their ability to accommodate and shelter their inhabitants. The superior quality of social housing in European cities, for example, is more a reflection of political sophistication than the presence of talented architects. As the major urban centre of a province with a long tradition of benevolent social democracy, Montreal is the North American city that comes closest to emulating the European leadership in social housing.

Social housing projects in Montreal are organized by three forms of tenure: habitation loyer modique or HLMs which are administered by the para-municipal housing authority of the Office municipal d’habitation (OMH); projects developed by independent non-profit corporations (organismes sans but lucratif, or OSBLs); and housing cooperatives. As the ubiquity of acronyms suggest, bureaucracy is a fact of life in housing and all three forms of tenure are further regulated by the Socit d’habitation du Qubec (SHQ) and the Housing Service of the City of Montreal. For more than 25 years, the construction of new HLMs was the most important contribution to the social housing stock, but in 1994 the reorganization of federal and provincial financing brought an end to its construction. Today, social housing is principally funded by the Accs-Logis program, a provincial initiative, and the Logement abordable Qubec program, a fund established in 2002 with assistance from the federal government. With the objective of delivering 5,000 new units, officials at the SHQ and the City of Montreal have put considerable effort in recent years into reforming their programs, including a move towards smaller, less institutional projects and an accompanying semantic shift from “social housing” to “affordable housing.” In order to help meet this demand, the OMH recently resumed the construction of new HLMs after a ten-year hiatus.

As a body of architectural work, Montreal’s new social housing projects stand in sharp contrast to the buildings produced up to 1994. The apparent stylistic differences are in fact the reflection of shifts in social values and in our basic understanding of the city. Recent projects show a greater understanding of the following aspects of their architecture: urban design, respect for traditional housing types, insertion into historic contexts, environmental performance and interpretation of program. Regrettably, the same forces that have generated greater sophistication in the areas mentioned above have also contributed to a general decline in standards of construction.

The most striking difference between the projects of the pre-1994 period and today’s new projects are their response to urban design. The archetype of the 1970s and 1980s HLM was a 200-unit mega-block unrelated to its urban context–not only were the height, volume and density of the projects foreign to surrounding neighbourhoods, but street alignments, materials and architectural vocabularies responded only to the requirements of the HLM itself. Few projects made an effort to relate to their surroundings, and those that did (Blouin & Associates’ housing for the elderly on Chapleau Street or Pierre Boyer-Mercier’s projects on Notre-Dame Street) stand out more as exceptions to the rule. Montreal is marked today by the presence of these anomalous HLMs – heads of blocks opening onto main streets which cry out for urban solutions but are instead served up as quaintly landscaped no-man’s lands with a blank faade set back 30 feet.

The adoption by the City of Montreal of its first comprehensive master plan in 1992 made such basic urban design criteria as street alignment, building height and project density part of the municipal building code. For a city of its stature, Montreal had been alarmingly slow to codify and regulate its urban design, and we are lucky that our urban fabric was not further compromised. Two projects that closed the OMH’s building program in the early 1990s–Raouf Boutros’ Plaza Laurier and Dan Hanganu’s Habitations Crmazie–pointed the way to a new HLM sensitive to urban design and distinctive architectural expression.

With its arbitrary street alignments and awkward volumes, the HLM of the 1970s and 1980s became a recognizable building type that identified social housing as an institutional rather than a domestic type. The bureaucratic imperative had become an architectural language unto itself and social housing was disconnected from the legacy of Montreal’s domestic architecture. A significant improvement in the design of today’s social housing projects is the recovery of this connection to traditional housing types. The OMH’s most recently completed project in Montreal North reinterprets the classic Montreal multiplex in its urban design, its circulation, and the use of such elements as exterior stairs and steel balconies. The project is not about mimicking vernacular architecture (whose craftsmanship would in any case be unattainable), but rather it is about reassessing the accumulated wisdom of the plex model and its 150 years of creating urbane interfaces between public and private domains.

A corollary to the renewal of interest in urban design and traditional housing types in the early 1990s was the integration of a culture of architectural heritage into both the municipal decision-making process and the design professions. The heritage movement had previously been composed of an assortment of watchdog groups more often parachuted into situations of crisis than invited to participate in policy-making. Many of the HLMs now on the drawing boards make a conscious effort to create a dialogue between historic and contemporary structures. The Saint-Eugene Housing Block, a 75-unit project designed by ABCP Architects, wraps itself around an historic church to create both a dynamic relationship between old and new and a generous public outdoor space.

The introduction of principles of sustainable development into the production of social housing is a logical consequence of an old idea that has returned involving the social dimension of sustainability. The new green architecture is actually anything but new–for three centuries Canadians had by necessity lived on sustainable family farms, and the loss of environmental bearings brought on when industrial society superseded an agrarian way of life is a comparatively brief digression that is now being corrected. What does distinguish the new sustainability from the old is its collective imperative–we are linked today by networks of interdependency completely foreign to the family farmer of generations past.

The Benny Farm project, a 250-unit public housing ensemble ironically named for a family farm it occupies, has been Montreal’s theatre for the playing out of these new ideas of collective sustainability. Built by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation after the Second World War as veteran’s housing, the aging complex had reached a crossroads by 1990 an
d the federal government was prepared to demolish the buildings and sell parcels of the land to private developers. A series of proposals and counterproposals followed that involved stakeholders from all shades of the political spectrum. Perhaps the most sustainable aspect of the process has been the sheer perseverance of the project architects, Mark Poddubiuk and Danny Pearl, in defending their particular vision of the project: accountability to grassroots community interests and environmental responsibility in the recycling of existing structures. Over more than 12 years, the architects have weathered all manner of political skirmishes, including a period when the project was under the tutelage of Alfonso Gagliano, then Minister of Public Works, with his attendant interests.

Some of the most interesting new work in social housing in Montreal has been in housing cooperatives. Designed for specific groups with particular needs, the cooperative distinguishes itself from other forms of social housing by its creative interpretation of program. The generic one and two bedroom units with areas and dimensions rigidly controlled by housing officials get their comeuppance in the more adventurous cooperative projects. A veteran of navigating the housing bureaucracy, architect Colin Munro of the Groupe CDH creatively bent regulations to create the LeZarts Cooperative, a 33-unit artists’ cooperative in a recycled textile factory. As well as providing affordable living and working spaces specifically tailored to the needs of artists, the project includes exhibition space and an artists’ centre. It has also made a significant contribution to the revitalization of its neighbourhood.

Issues of social housing are actively debated in Montreal. Pressure groups including another acronym-labelled organization, the FRAPRU, attend to the collective social conscience with public demonstrations and media-oriented events. Nonetheless, certain preconceptions bear greater scrutiny. The idea that poor people should be housed in the most affordable buildings possible is a question that must be continuously re-examined. This was not the policy of the OMH in the 1970s and 1980s when solidly built concrete buildings were the norm. Many European cities today continue to struggle against the idea of building cheaper as the most important determinant. The best intentions of housing officials notwithstanding, a trickle-down effect of our society of disposable merchandise has been the gradual erosion of the idea that social housing should set a standard of construction a grade above the marketplace. Recovering this commitment is a major challenge for both society in general and housing professionals in particular. Building without a long-term vision is a false economy–the minimum standards and cardboard-thin finishes of today’s projects will be the maintenance headaches of tomorrow.

Evolving within this critical context, Montreal has the potential to be the Amsterdam of the Americas–a city continuously reinventing the architecture of its housing and its sense of urbanity. The four fundamental ingredients of Amsterdam’s creativity in housing–a heritage of unique housing types, a coherent urban fabric, a tradition of benevolent socialism, and a spirit of tolerance–are also found in Montreal. Montreal’s plex, with its firewalls, high-density stacking of units and exterior stairs, is a unique housing type that grew out of the specific conditions of Montreal’s history and geography. As both the fundamental historic reference and the model for new improvisations it embodies the past and the future of Montreal housing. The beliefs of the city’s two founding peoples converge on a common idea of a benevolent society–the French majority is culture-centred and paternalistic, while the English minority has a long history as one of Canada’s most politically progressive communities. Add to this the dynamic element of Montreal’s vibrant immigrant communities and the conditions are in place for the creation of challenging, cosmopolitan housing.

Gavin Affleck is a partner in the Montreal-based firm Affleck + de la Riva Architects.