Mo’ Métro blues…

Azur Métro train rendering

The first Azur Métro train is set to start rolling Sunday at 10:00 am on the Orange Line.

Huzzah!

The Quebec government awarded the contract to build 468 MPM-10 (Azur) Métro cars (forming 52 nine-car trains) to the Bombardier-Alstom consortium back in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion.

Deliveries were expected to begin in 2014, and one prototype was delivered to begin in-tunnel testing. This led to the discovery of unexpected complications, namely insufficient electrical power. Prior complications included the discovery a 200-meter section of the Orange Line was a touch smaller than the rest, requiring renovations to prevent the new Azurs from ‘grinding’ against the tunnel walls or ceiling.

In January of 2015 work on the project was suspended for six months in order for the consortium to work out problems with the trains’ automated switching software.

And now, one completed train has been delivered for entry into service. It is the first new Métro train in forty years and the third generation of trains to operate in the system. The Azurs will operate on the Orange and Blue lines, displacing the second-generation MR-73 trains onto the Green and Yellow lines. The MR-73s entered into service in 1976 and were refurbished in 2005-2008. The MR-63s currently operating on the Green and Yellow lines are fifty years old and the first trains to ever operate on the Métro.

According to a Bombardier spokesman, five more completed trains will begin operating soon and the company expects to have five or six more trains completed by the end of this year. All 52 trains are expected to be delivered by 2018, lest Bombardier-Alstom risk the wrath of the STM and Transport Quebec…

As to replacing the MR-73s, that’ll have to wait until the 2030s because, well, much like the MR-63s, they were rather well-built. There’s also no current plan to build the several hundred additional Azurs that would be required on top of the 468 currently on order.

On the same day the STM made their triumphant announcement, La Presse reported Transport Quebec discovered in mid-January the initial cost estimates concerning the extension of the Métro’s Blue Line by five stations to the east will now cost roughly twice as much ($2.9 billion).

Two years ago the AMT’s cost evaluation put the figure around $1.5 billion, but since then a Federal election occurred and the swarthy new prime minister has announced a major infrastructure spending spree. Mass transit projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions will almost assuredly get federal funds.

It should be noted that, as recently as a year ago, provincial transport minister Robert Poeti and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre both seemed favourable to extending the Blue Line above-ground by using light-rail, though neither offered any particulars on how two different mass transit systems would be linked. Poeti indicated a Blue Line extension wasn’t even a priority, at the time. How things have changed! Coderre, who had previously argued Métro extensions were too expensive, is now very enthusiastic and argued it’s vital to the development of Montreal’s eastern sectors. He said this in the same breath as he mentioned several other transit dossiers which include a light rail system for the Champlain Bridge (and possibly other parts of the city) and a new West Island/Airport express train.

Of course none of this is particularly new: the plan to extend the Blue Line east goes back forty years at least. The map above dates back to when the City of Montreal was playing a more direct role in the development of the Métro, (my guess is 1976 given most of the Green Line stations are correct but the planning names of the western Orange Line stations are still listed. You’ll also notice the western extension of the Blue Line from Snowdon towards Ville Saint-Pierre, and that the eastern part of the Blue Line goes up towards Montréal-Nord), and as you can see back then bigger plans were in mind.

But herein lies the crux of the problem: Métro extensions are not planned by the City of Montreal or the STM, but pêle-mêle by a provincial government agency. Same story vis-à-vis the Azurs: the purchase was made by the provincial government for the STM.

It still boggles my mind that the future of high-speed mass-transit in Montreal will be decided by a provincial government agency, and apparently if and when the Fed decides to spend money on transit infrastructure. Montreal should be doing this on its own, and should further be setting its own development pace and priorities.

The question is whether expansion would be a priority for a local planning agency, especially when it comes to the Blue Line, currently the least used of Montreal’s four Métro lines. Connecting the Blue Line to the Mount Royal Tunnel, modifying the Green and Orange lines to accommodate a higher rate-of-service, or even re-designing the stations of the Blue and Yellow lines to accommodate nine-car Métro trains could all be seen as greater priorities if the ultimate aim was to increase ridership.

Ostensibly this is the underlying justification of the Blue Line expansion, but I have my doubts this is the best possible use of three billion dollars in new infrastructure spending. What I don’t doubt is the new figure likely has far more to do with the Fed’s newfound interest in urban mass transit than the actual costs of building a five-station Métro extension.

And on a closing note, don’t expect to see the Azurs operating on the Blue Line anytime too soon. A Bombardier spokesman told me the Azur train sets are only available in a nine-car configuration, though the stations on that line currently use MR-73s in a six-car configuration (again, owing to low use). The platform lengths of the Blue Line stations are the same length as all the other Métro stations, but also all have barriers on account of the shorter trains. The Bombardier spox indicated that the Azurs can’t be shortened and wouldn’t be operated on the Blue Line until the stations are modified.

So far, no indication the STM will go through with those renovations, nor is there any idea of how much that will cost.

Public consultation can’t replace vision

If it weren’t for the fact that it’s apparently a great excuse for a lot of infrastructure spending, would anyone really care about the 375th anniversary of the founding of Ville Marie, which will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017? Are these dates important to us for any other reason than that politicians can use them as focal points?

There’s interest in renovating and redeveloping Montreal’s Old Port as part of this anniversary, and to that end the city has authorized renovation projects both for Place Vauquelin and Place Jacques Cartier. There was a public consultation at the Montreal Science Centre held on Thursday of last week that was apparently well-attended, and the intention is that a master plan will be completed by next year.

Note: the plan is only expected to be completed by 2017, there’s no word on any specific projects or what, if anything, might actually be improved/renovated by then. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear either what precisely needs to be done in the first place.

Dawn Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

Also worth noting, though this CBC article seems to have missed the point, is that the Old Port does not actually belong to the City of Montreal, but to Canada Lands Corporation through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation. Ergo, while Montreal may be interested in developing the Old Port, the Fed is still ultimately responsible and they have no interest in ceding ownership of the land to the city. Mayor Coderre has argued that it’s vital for Montreal to take ownership of the Old Port in order to fully realize it’s revitalization.

As far as renovating the Old Port is concerned, the last time there was a significant investment was 24 years ago when Montreal was celebrating its 350th anniversary.

Since 2012 the operating agency has spent $14 million on new installations and activities, though the general manager of this same agency called the Old Port ‘tattered’ in a Montreal Gazette interview from a few days ago. An investment of $125 million back in the early 1990s gave the Old Port its modern form after the area spent much of the 1980s as a bit of a no-man’s land.

City from the Harbour - Summer 2015

Just to be clear on what we’re talking about, the Old Port is a very specific part of Montreal. It essentially consists of the long linear park running immediately south of Rue de la Commune, as well as Windmill Point and the four principle quays. Everything north of de la Commune is Old Montreal, and as things go in this city, despite the intimate relationship between these two sectors they administratively have nothing to do with one-another.

Why the Old Port needs to be ‘renovated, rejuvenated and revitalized’ doesn’t seem to be clear either. For the six million or so tourists who visit it every year, there doesn’t seem to be much complaining: it’s a park with various attractions next to the city’s premier tourist destination; what’s not to like? And either way last week’s public consultation wasn’t about what tourists want, it was about what we want.

Clock Tower Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

I had registered to go and say something but then decided not to when I realized the crux of my argument – as a Montrealer – was that the last thing the Old Port needs more of is tourists or tourist-attractions. It seemed counter-intuitive to me as I can’t imagine this is what the operating agency wants to hear. They want to make money, point finale.

I’d argue strongly the investments made in the last few years – notably the beach you can’t swim at, the zip-line, haunted house and pirate-themed jungle gym – are all terrible and not worth the money spent on them. Moreover, I’m fairly certain these ‘attractions’ were only brought in after public consultations and/or market research indicated the Old Port was lacking in things to do. They all feel like the terrible ideas only a group of otherwise unemployable market research study participants can come up with.

Silo No. 5 - Montreal, Spring 2015

From a completely historical point of view, even calling it the Old Port seems misleading: the new attractions have absolutely nothing to do with the area’s history and the entire space has a decidedly modern feel to it. Jacques Cartier did not zip-line his way into Montreal in 1534, we’ve never had a serious pirate problem and, if we do have a haunted house in Montreal, my guess is that it’s probably one of the places where CIA-funded mind control experiments were conducted, and not an assembly of brightly coloured former shipping containers.

If the Old Port has a serious problem, it’s that it’s trying way too hard to be all things to all people, again, another problem stemming from public consultations.

I’m generally indifferent to all the Old Port’s crap because I know I’ll never be involved with it. I’m never going to buy any of the overpriced tchotchkes, knock-off handbags or t-shirts that say ‘Federal Breast Inspector’ on them from the spaced-out teenagers sitting in the nifty new container kiosks. Nor will I ever dine in the Old Port, given the food is overpriced and of low quality; this is a gourmand’s city, something which is not reflected in the Old Port or much of Old Montreal for that matter. I think I’ve been in the Old Port well over a hundred times in the last decade and I don’t think I’ve spent more than $20 in that entire time.

Attractions, Old & New - Montreal, Summer 2015

I also don’t think I’m alone. As far as I can tell, most Montrealers in the know know better than to waste their money in our city’s various tourist traps. And the Old Port is the biggest tourist trap we have.

Now all that said, I still thoroughly enjoy going to the Old Port, and will continue to do so regardless of whatever the city or Canada Lands Corporation comes up with. It’s a big space, there’s only so much damage they can do. The best parts of the Old Port, at least in my opinion, are either technically off limits or otherwise far from its central and most touristy part. There’s a look-out at the end of Alexandra Quay that offers amazing views of the city an the river, not to mention the grounds around Silo No. 5, which actually look like there was once a park located there that’s been since closed off to the public.

Abandoned Park - Montreal, Spring 2015

Assuming the majority of Montrealers do indeed agree the Old Port is ‘in tatters’ then why not just do the simple thing and fix it up? Fresh paint, new uni-stone, update the landscaping, improve the lighting. Whenever I go to the Old Port, this is typically what I notice first and foremost.

I feel there’s a prevalent belief in this city that we need to reinvent the wheel all the time, and that we won’t be truly happy with our city until it’s completely unrecognizable but teaming with tourists.

Obviously this isn’t what we want. If the powers that be want to best represent the interests of the citizenry, perhaps they should consider how Montrealers typically use the most successful of our public spaces (on top of what makes them so successful in the first place). Consider: the tam-tams are completely spontaneous and the city isn’t involved one iota. Most of Mount Royal Park is attraction-less and most Montrealers seem to be able to enjoy the mountain without having to spend much money. The lookouts are free, the trails are free, lying in the sun is free (etc.)

Windmill Point - Spring 2015

Rather than occupying public space in the Old Port with activities and attractions, why not just leave it open and accessible and let people figure it out for themselves?

On a closing note, I really hope they don’t do anything with Silo No. 5 – it’s a monument in its own right, and fascinating to explore. My main concern at this point is that CLC through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation will either try to redevelop the site into condos or some kind of half-assed attraction (like that virtual-reality thingamajig that was up and running for a few years on Sainte Catherine Street near McGill College… I think it’s a watch store or a Five Guys now).

Second closing point: though it’s outside the realm of the Old Port, I’d argue the single best thing the city could possibly do is to convert Bonsecours Market back into a public market (à la Atwater or Maisonneuve markets) and – by extension – use the market as a transiting point between Old Montreal and the Old Port. I think this would entail ‘opening up’ the Rue de la Commune side of the Bonsecours, such as with vendor stalls and additional doorways (etc.), but the point is if we want these tourist-driven parts of the city to still be attractive to locals, we need to offer a little more of what makes Montreal such an exquisite city in the first place. I’m sure the 3,000 or so citizens who live in the area would certainly appreciate access to a proper market, and the tourists would have better dining options (at least) as a result.

Montreal to end generations of low self-esteem in women with new Barbie Museum

The new Chador Barbie is a big hit in countries where women  can be stoned for witchcraft
The new Chador Barbie is a big hit in countries where women can be stoned for witchcraft

The Disneyfication of Montreal continues unabated.

New for February of 2016, the world’s largest permanent exhibition of Barbie dolls is set to welcome tens, possibly dozens of people when it opens next week somewhere in the shopping mall that was once a luxurious hotel.

Five-thousand square feet of Les Cours Mont-Royal will be dedicated to a collection of 1,000 Barbie dolls, most of which will be exhibiting haute-couture from some of the world’s leading fashion houses.

According to the recent Simone de Beauvoir Institute graduate I interviewed panhandling outside Peel Métro, “…that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The museum (and my aren’t we throwing that word around a lot these days) will have free admission, as organizers felt it would be inappropriate to charge North American children to see what more productive Chinese children spend their days ‘creating’.

In lieu of admission fees, Barbie Expo® will be asking the visitor(s) to donate to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, though apparently will not be able to grant wishes such as: ‘I wish my kid’s doll was a better role-model’, ‘I wish Barbie’s proportions were physically possible’ or ‘I wish my schmuck kid stops begging me to come here.’

Les Cours Mont-Royal has followed the precedent set by the Montreal Eaton’s Centre in turning spaces left vacant due to exceptionally high rents into ‘museums’ designed to inspire young minds. Their Grévin Wax Museum features life-size replicas of the heroes of New France, as well as noted children’s enthusiast Michael Jackson and the lesbian chansonnier Justin Bieber.

The new museum will be promoted by the Quebec and Montreal tourism offices as representative of Montreal’s dynamic and well-respected cultural scene. Barbies will not only be featured in designer clothing, but also in unique dioramas, such as ‘Barbie at Waterloo’, ‘Barbie exiting the Apollo lunar module’ and ‘Babushka Barbie in Dealy Plaza, Nov. 22nd 1963.’

Though he could not be reached for comment due to an official policy of ignoring local journalists, Mayor Denis Coderre was imagined stating “Montreal’s back motherfuckers!” when asked what, if anything, the Barbie Museum will contribute to the city’s cultural vitality.

The odd saga of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s entrance

Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.
Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.

A few years ago I was at O’Hare with an hour and a half to kill between flights and after a quick bite and a coffee I was keen to go have a smoke. Unsure of where the exit was located, I approached two TSA agents and asked “how do I get outside?”

Annoyed, one replied “you go out through the front door.”

Indeed.

Whether notoriously complex to navigate Mid-West international airports or a stately fine arts museum, every good building needs a well-designed, fairly obvious, and effectively welcoming entrance.

Though this may seem obvious, consider there’s been considerable controversy concerning how Montrealers accessed their fine arts museum. The issue of access has led to a major renovation of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Hornstein Pavilion (the neoclassical structure on the north side of Sherbrooke Street), as well as the subsequent ‘permanent closure’ of that building’s massive wooden doors for nearly a decade. And when the museum sought a major expansion in the 1980s, what was ultimately completed was focused on yet another entrance.

I say this because I remarked last weekend that the MMFA’s entrance on the south side of Sherbrooke has been closed for renovations and that patrons were instead to enter through the portico, passing the immense marble columns and oak doors just as Montrealers had done a century ago when the Hornstein Pavilion was a brand new addition to Sherbrooke Street, the crown jewel of the Square Mile.

The front doors of the main pavilion were closed in 1973 when the museum undertook a three-year renovation. They’d remain closed after the MMFA re-opened on the 8th of May 1976 because it was thought the neoclassical styled entrance was elitist and ‘undemocratic’. This wasn’t a uniquely Montreal phenomenon either; several other major North American arts museums were closing the old doors and building new entrances to better connect with the public.

In the case of the MMFA, this move was likely a consequence of the MMFA’s historic attachment to Montreal’s Anglophone elites and the changing political climate of the day (it also happened that the MMFA was an entirely private endeavour up until 1972, at which point it began receiving funding from the provincial government, which in turn helped secure the expansion plan).

To coincide with the opening of the new pavilion built further up Avenue du Musée, architect Fred Lebensold closed the main doors and inserted a new double-ended entrance under the monumental staircase. In lieu of ‘being uplifted physically into a temple of art’, visitors instead went through revolving doors located under bubble domes on either side of the staircase, and down into a main lobby. Organized in this way, visitors would walk through the museum – and the history of art – chronologically, with the oldest items in the museum’s collection located at the lowest level.

There was a practical concern as well – Lebensold argued the opening and closing of the main doors too radically altered humidity levels within the museum. The grand re-opening of the front doors came about in the summer of 1983 to coincide with a major retrospective on the works of William Bouguereau; it would signal the beginning of a new era for the museum, one of large-scale and very popular exhibits, along with new plans to expand.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.

The Bouguereau exhibit and the desire for a major expansion of the MMFA came at around the same time as Bernard Lammare was appointed president of the museum’s board of directors. He was the major driving force, along with Paul Desmarais, to build the museum’s third pavilion, across from the original pavilion and aforementioned 1976 addition (now known as the Stewart Pavilion). What would become known as the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion (completed in 1991), is known to most people today simply as the primary means by which one enters the MMFA. It’s an immense arch made of the same Vermont marble quarried for the original building’s columns and façade, and is located on the south side of Sherbrooke. Standing on Avenue du Musée looking down, it’s just about all you see; the archway defines your path as always leading back to art. From other points on Sherbrooke, it blends into the background a bit better.

Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1990
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1990

I’ve always been intrigued by Moshe Safdie’s Desmarais Pavilion because the most obvious and monumental portion – that of the glass-atrium entrance – isn’t a gallery and doesn’t really involve any art. It’s more like a foyer, a controlled and separate environment where a combination of environmental effects give the impression of grandeur without drawing your eye to any one particular element. You’re simply standing in a deceptively large room that leads to anywhere and everywhere. I feel this impression is emphasized by the notorious staircase that forces visitors to move at half-speed. The galleries, bookshop, restaurant and assorted offices and classrooms are all ‘hidden’ behind the white-marble ‘entrance cube’ and the adjacent remaining façade walls of the New Sherbrooke Apartments, built in 1905 and integrated into the Desmarais Pavilion after a fair bit of lobbying on the part of heritage activists like Phyllis Lambert.

Top: Safdie's first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel built in 1905.
Top: Safdie’s first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel.

Lamarre initially wanted to have the remnants of the New Sherbrooke razed so that Safdie could have a clean slate and create something modern and monumental. Opposition to this idea came not only from heritage activists like Lambert, but also from then-new mayor Jean Doré, who had promised greater public consultation when it came to major urban redevelopment projects. Ultimately, with the excellent examples of Maison Alcan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture perhaps providing some additional motivation, it was decided the new pavilion would integrate the façade of the New Sherbrooke, despite the additional complications of having to work around supporting beams. The end result was widely praised, a nice balance of the modern and innovative combined with the protection and renewal of the antique; new inserted into old without much disturbance.

In the span of 20 years the MMFA changed its front entrance three times, but with the Desmarais Pavilion, it finally had something people seemed to really like. Attendance began to rise steadily and has been high ever since. For the past two years, the MMFA has held the title of most-visited arts museum in all of Canada.

So who knows, maybe there really was something to be said for putting the entrance at street level and closer to the people. If the museum’s attendance numbers continue to rise, I suspect they may need to open more doors.

City hypocrisy re: wood burning ban?

Fire pit, Place Jacques Cartier - January 2016

I snapped the photo above in Place Jacques Cartier a few days back. It is a fire pit, one of several located near Rue de la Commune and intended to provide a place to warm up for all those out enjoying the many and diverse activities on-going throughout the Old Port and Old Montreal this winter. It was a quaint scene, doubtless intended to remind tourists of our hearty Colonial past. Nearby, a calèche driver enrobed in a buffalo hide stood next to his massive, steaming steed, educating passersby that his was the original Uber. Adirondack chairs of fresh-cut pine surrounded the flaming hearths. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

So naturally the powers at be want this to end… or so I thought. The city has plans to ban fireplaces and other wood burning stoves and fire pits because they pollute.

While the ban is still two years off, I was a touch perplexed. This was all happening within eyesight of City Hall and both major parties seem to be really gung-ho on expediting the ban. Wouldn’t they have at least thought about ensuring there aren’t any fire pits at public events in the lead-up? What kind of message does this send to the people? Are they bad for the environment or can fireplaces distinguish between private use and public? Perhaps burning wood emits less particulate in the context of being decorations to support our tourism industry?

Banning things is, unfortunately, just about the only thing municipal and provincial governments seem to be good at these days. In addition to the fireplace ban, the province recently decided to ban cigarettes from outdoor patios and e-cigarettes from anywhere indoors. E-cigarettes, by their very definition, do not involve any burning tobacco whatsoever.

The bans are all intended to improve air quality and make us healthier, but they’re illogical when put in context of what’s causing far, far worse air pollution. Even if everyone in Montreal decided to light up a smoke and their fireplaces simultaneously, the pollution still wouldn’t even come close to what’s produced by all the cars, trucks, busses and airplanes going in and out of our city every single day. You and everyone else living in this city could get cracking on being pack-a-day smokers for the rest your lives and it will wouldn’t come close.

This type of legislation tends to get near unanimous approval from other politicians and, even though people do grumble and complain these bans are invasive and unnecessary, it’s unlikely public opposition will be so strong there’ll be any street protests.

In other words, it’s a safe bet everyone will go along with the plan and whomever’s in power looks like they’re doing something productive.

Banning cars and trucks, no matter how effective a solution to the air-quality and smog problem, would be political suicide. So that’s not going to happen.

In the end, what we really need is the political will to secure massive investments in public transit, like a new light-rail system and (not or) a major expansion of the Métro.

It would also be great if all the highway trenches were covered over too, given much of our local smog is generated by ground-up salt and sand used to clear the streets after snowstorms. Covering over the Decarie and Ville-Marie Expressways wouldn’t just ensure they’d be permanently clear and unaffected by the elements, but further wouldn’t require snow clearance. And the exhaust within can be sucked out and cleaned too.

But in order for any of this to be possible, we have to get comfortable with the knowledge small, bandaid feel-good solutions won’t do an iota of good to improve our local environment and cut down on smog.

The idea that your fireplace is a major contributor to environmental degradation is, apparently, not even really taken seriously by whichever city department was responsible for setting up these hearths.

Iconic Montreal Architecture – Complexe Desjardins

A quick summation before my screed. Here’s why I think Complexe Desjardins is an exceptional example of Montreal architecture:

1. It’s balanced without being symmetrical. The four towers are of different heights, ascending clockwise like a giant staircase. The tallest tower is built on the lowest ground, the shortest tower is built on the highest. The illusion this creates makes the towers seem shorter when viewed from the north, and taller when viewed from the south. Finally, the four towers are each offset from the centre of the podiums they’re set on. The arrangement was intended to give the impression of a city within the city, buildings in harmony without much indication it’s a single common development.

2. It occupies a pivotal and central section of the city’s Underground City, as well as a central ‘institutional axis’ running north-south from Sherbrooke all the way down into Old Montreal. It connects provincial and federal government offices with housing and hotels, office and retail space to university buildings, an arts museum, concert hall and diverse other performance venues, Métro stations and parking garages to a convention centre and the World Trade Centre. Few other buildings in Montreal connect as many diverse services and purposes as Complexe Desjardins.

3. The large central atrium is essentially a public city square, protected from the elements and inclement weather by massive glass walls. The natural lighting emphasizes the interior volume without making it feel heavy – which is difficult to do with so much concrete. Combined with captured body heat cycled through between the Métro stations, not to mention the fountain and plants, the atrium has an almost tropical feel, especially in the dead of winter. Complexe Desjardins was the only ‘superblock’ built in that era with a public space at its centre and further, specifically designed to facilitate pedestrian traffic and draw it in off the streets.

Complexe Desjardins, August 1976 - Archives de Montréal. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cité complex is under construction.
Complexe Desjardins, August 1976 – Archives de Montréal. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cité complex is under construction.

If you don’t know Complexe Desjardins already, just wait for a cloudy night and look towards the city centre. The hazy green light hanging low in the sky will lead you right to it. Complexe Desjardins completed a facelift recently that involved adding a massive lighting installation that now bathes the complex’s office towers in a brilliant emerald glow. The lighting scheme devised by Lightemotion projects a ‘luminous pathway’ drawing attention to the Quartier des Spectacles from afar and identifies the buildings as belonging to the Desjardins Movement by using their trademark colour. It’s excellent advertising, but I hope it doesn’t catch on. Two beacons are enough.

I feel this new lighting scheme is appropriate, like we’ve established a kind of balance to our city’s night-lights. The Royal Bank of Canada, the nation’s largest bank, has a rotating beacon atop their head office at Place Ville Marie. The Desjardins Movement, North America’s largest credit-union, now also commands a place in our night sky.

I make mention of this comparison between PVM and Complexe Desjardins for a reason – the latter was built to ‘balance’ the former.

Together, Place Ville Marie and Complexe Desjardins form useful ‘bookends’ of Montreal’s ‘edifice complex era’ – a period in time in which urban development was almost exclusively of massive scale and often intended to include all manner of activity within an ostensibly cohesive mega-structures. Between 1958 and 1977 Montreal got its Métro system, hosted Expo 67 and the 1976 Summer Games. Massive multi-purpose complexes occupying entire city blocks were constructed all throughout this period – Westmount Square, Place Alexis-Nihon, Place Victoria, Place Dupuis and the La Cité complex in Milton-Parc to name but a few.

Complexe Desjardins and Place Ville Marie are arguably the best overall examples of the then popular ‘superblock’; though they are nearly opposite constructions in terms of their form, both managed to greatly surpass expectations in terms of the functions they play within Montreal’s urban environment. These are complimentary structures; dissimilar, asymmetric and yet somehow harmonious and balanced as well.

The first ICAO Headquarters, upon completion in 1949. In the background, the office tower and annex of Bell Canada. At far right, part of CN's Central Station
The first ICAO Headquarters, upon completion in 1949. In the background, the office tower and annex of Bell Canada. At far right, part of CN’s Central Station

In the late 1950s and early 1960s several large buildings were constructed in quick succession in proximity to Montreal’s largest and most important train stations. Canadian National Railways owned a considerable amount of land along a north-south axis running from Saint Catherine Street down to Saint Antoine between University and Mansfield, and by the end of the last war there was considerable interest in developing it to relieve congestion in Old Montreal.

There were other reasons to develop CN’s land. For much of the 20th century, the land north of René Lévesque Boulevard was a large open pit with Central Station’s rail yard at its bottom. Beginning in the late 1940s CN began to develop the site, first building a permanent home for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) then followed by the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and CN’s head office. By mid-decade CN had turned its attention to the pit and endeavoured to build an office complex of several buildings of different heights, set around a public plaza, and integrated into the Central Station complex. The undertaking was absolutely massive: the pit was so large there’s an amount of space underground equivalent to all the rentable space in the tower and buildings above. Place Ville Marie was Montreal’s first ‘city within the city’ styled developments.

By 1962 the cruciform tower of Place Ville Marie had been completed, a massive ‘tear’ in the urban fabric had been mended, and a new modern city centre was taking shape in the far western districts of the city. The Royal Bank of Canada was involved from the start and became the tower’s anchor tenant. Not to be outdone, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce decided to build their own Internationalist-styled tower just two blocks further west at the same time, the projects competing against one another in terms of height (and on this note, though today neither are Montreal’s tallest towers, they each held the title of tallest in Canada and the British Commonwealth between 1962 and 1964. Both are often mistaken for Montreal’s tallest to this day: the CIBC Tower is slender and features a prominent antenna, while PVM is built on higher ground than any other skyscraper in the city).

Montreal early 1960s, with CIBC Tower, Place Ville Marie and CIL House under construction.
Montreal early 1960s, with CIBC Tower, Place Ville Marie and CIL House under construction.

In a matter of a few years a tectonic shift had occurred in Montreal, re-locating the city’s central business district from Saint James Street in Old Montreal to the environs of Dorchester Square to the northwest. By 1970, several other major developments had taken place within the vicinity of the city’s main train stations, including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s CIL House at the southeast corner of University and René Lévesque, Terminal Tower at 800 René Lévesque, Place du Canada and the Chateau Champlain hotel across from Windsor Station on Peel Street and Place Bonaventure, the city’s first purpose-built convention centre, immediately south of the Central Station complex. These buildings were connected directly not only to the city’s train stations and commuter-rail network, but also to each other and to Montreal’s new Métro system, giving us the very first iteration of our Underground City.

Complexe Desjardins evolved to provide a counter-weight to this development. Whereas the aforementioned buildings were largely financed and driven by the city’s Anglo-American business community, Complexe Desjardins would become the physical manifestation of the ascending Francophone middle-class and Quebec, Inc. By the mid-1960s the Desjardins Group had grown to become one of the nation’s largest financial institutions and was looking for a new head office in downtown Montreal. The Quebec government was also looking for modern downtown office space, and the City of Montreal was keen to ‘pull’ the business centre back towards the east, closer to the seat of municipal power and the traditional ‘centre’ of city affairs.

Finishing touches to Complexe Desjardins, 1976. Dufferin Square had become the parking lot at bottom centre.
Finishing touches to Complexe Desjardins, 1976. Dufferin Square had become the parking lot at bottom centre.

What was created was essentially the opposite of Place Ville Marie. Whereas PVM exploited the aerial rights over a train yard, Complexe Desjardins evolved out of what was once parts of Chinatown and the Red Light District (slum clearance initiatives from the 50s had left the area in near ruin). Consider as well, PVM’s main tower is essentially four skyscrapers gathered around a central service core with its plaza offset, whereas Complexe Desjardins is composed of four separate towers organized on pedestals around a glass-atrium covered plaza. PVM is defined by its tallest tower, a look emphasized by the much smaller buildings gathered around it. Complexe Desjardins’ towers ascend like a staircase – its tallest being just seven floors shorter than PVM 1, and appearing shorter than it actually is. Whereas the former dominates the skyline on high ground, the latter assembly of buildings seems far more balanced, working with one another rather than placed in obvious opposition to each other.

Complexe Desjardins is also, complex (ahem), in terms of what jobs it performs in the context of Montreal’s urban environment. It’s a private commercial property conceived as a public space. The complex forms the central section of Montreal’s eastern institutional axis, beginning with UQAM up at Sherbrooke, then moving through Place des Arts and then on to Complexe Guy-Favreau and the Palais des Congrès & World Trade Centre in Old Montreal.

Integrated, international business services in the west, integrated, local civil services to the east.

Balanced.

We haven’t really built anything like Complexe Desjardins in 40 years, and this isn’t altogether a bad thing, though some insist a lack of construction of this magnitude is a sign of economic weakness. Edifices like Complexe Desjardins come from a specific moment in time responding to the needs of a particular era. That it continues to serve in its intended role, that it has evolved with tastes and maintained its presence and importance within the urban environment is a far better indicator of the project’s success than any attempt at emulation.

Montreal Journalist