The 60s: Montreal Thinks Big

Edited by Andr Lortie. Montreal: CCA; Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004. 216 pages, $55.00. Review by Elsa Lam.

The Quebec pavilion that welcomed visitors to Expo 67 was a shimmering composition of mirrored glass, described by its designers as “consciously open and assertive, clear and light, independent and original.” The design reflected the confidence of Canadiens welcoming the world, with Montreal as its especially capable host.

Published to accompany an exhibition at the CCA, this book chronicles Montreal’s urban and architectural re-imagining of itself through the 1960s. During this pivotal decade, Montreal underwent radical urban transformations marked by monumental projects–the building of a new downtown, new roadway networks, a new subway, and the hosting of Expo 67. More than a simple architectural history, the book sets these physical transformations against the backdrop of the social and cultural changes that simultaneously revolutionized Montreal’s public realm. The ensemble of these forces sought to both develop the province’s identity in Montreal–and prepare the city for expansion as a preeminent world metropolis.

Three scholarly texts form the intellectual backbone of the volume. Sociologist Marcel Fournier discusses the social and political upheavals of the Quiet Revolution, exhibition curator Andr Lortie explains the urban planning processes that shaped the city, and a discussion between architectural historians Michael Sorkin and Jean-Louis Cohen examines the conditions of emergence and the impact of specific architectural aspects of Montreal in the sixties.

Interspersed between these essays is a series of sixteen visually rich vignettes that address focused elements within this historical panorama. Topics ricochet among a survey of literary perceptions of the city, speculations on metastructural aspirations in Expo 67 pavilions, and an assessment of the new metro’s impact on real estate strategies.

The overall effect of the mix of topics and materials is dizzying. The compilation of episodes hints at a wide-reaching range of cultural, sociological and political concerns, highlighting the intricacies of the period. City-making is rendered as a complex cultural phenomenon.

Like the decade that it portrays, the book itself “thinks big”–and as a result remains necessarily fragmentary, leaving out detailed plans of buildings and passing quickly over issues such as the destructive legacy of urban renewal. The book is more successful in immersing the reader in the upbeat, energetic spirit of the era through its whirlwind of idealized renderings, heroic personalities and large-scale models.

Yet hovering over this heady mlange is a sense of sober reflection captured in the elegant photographic essay by Olivo Barbieri. Seen from a low aerial view, Montreal’s landmarks from the sixties look like bright toy buildings, the city like a huge scale model of itself. It is from this slightly detached perspective, viewing the city as a project, the city as a dream of itself, that the work of this volume is most meaningfully absorbed.