Wake-Up Call

Saturday, August 9, 2008: An 18-year-old student, Fredy Villanueva, was shot by the police in a park located in the Montreal North neighbourhood. The act was immediately denounced as excessive.

Sunday, August 10, 2008: Violence erupts in the community, cars are set on fire, some businesses are ransacked and a number of arrests are made. Stunned by the riot, Montrealers are given a taste of what some European and American cities already know too well.

Saturday, September 6, 2008: In a gesture of goodwill, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra performs its first outdoor concert ever in Montreal North. It was a meaningful moment though it did not attract the audience that it hoped to.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008: At the borough council meeting, a group of concerned citizens ask for Mayor Marcel Parent’s resignation. The Mayor is stunned, but denies any responsibility. Police presence can be felt around City Hall, while the provincial police investigate the case.

Around the world, there are cities where this series of events would have triggered an immediate interest on the part of schools of architecture eager to engage in such pertinent issues as low-income neighbourhoods, social exclusion and public space. Not so in Montreal. The killing of Fredy Villanueva happened in the borough’s northeast end, an enclave along the north shore of Montreal Island with densities twice that of Montreal North’s average–where few amenities cater to young people and where public transportation falls well short of the optimal number of routes and frequency. When combined with large numbers of recent immigrants, single-parent families and high rates of unemployment, the stage is set.

Meanwhile, at McGill University, students come from all over the world to spend three or four years in Montreal, rarely extending themselves beyond the boundaries of a very limited downtown core. A few might venture as far as the fashionable Plateau area but none will hop on the subway and exit at Sauv or Angrignon to just look around. Taking a bus into unknown territory and going as far as the park where Fredy was killed is nearly unimaginable.

McGill is not alone in this. Students at the Universit de Montral might begin their course of study with wider horizons, but they seldom choose projects in areas such as Montreal North, Pierrefonds or Laval, neighbourhoods where some of them actually live.

I suggest that our schools of architecture remind themselves that they are being subsidized by public funds and as such should start opening their eyes to the realities that surround them.

I believe that our schools might benefit from a moratorium on downtown projects, with an obligation to find sites that are accessible only by bus and not just by subway. Perhaps then, teachers and students alike will start to understand the meaning of the word “responsibility” so that we all might benefit from the vast urban realities examined by our schools of architecture. CA

Odile Hnault is an architectural critic, writer, professional advisor and occasionally teaches at the Universit du Qubec Montral (UQAM).