Perspective on the City { No.12 } – Phillips Square

The King Edward VII Monument, (built 1914) in Phillips Square - work of the author, Summer 2009

Having a close friend who happens to live right next to Phillips Square has allowed me to experience this space with a fair degree of regularity. It has been a public space since Thomas Phillips granted the land to the city in 1842, though at that time it would have served as a focal point and common green for a residential area developing well to the West of the urban environment. The character of the space began to change in the late 19th century with the construction of Morgan’s department store (currently The Bay’s Montréal flagship store), followed by the construction of the Birks Store, the new Birks building and the Canada Cement Company building, seen in the background of the photo above.

The retail-commercial nature of this space became quite evident in the 1890s, though the Art Association of Montreal occupied a spot towards the Northeast corner of the square from 1877 until it moved to its Sherbrooke Street location and became the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1912.

The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to the “Roi Pacificateur” or the Pacifying King, somewhat ironically in 1914; the monument was unveiled just as the First World War was commencing. As is typical of public monuments of that era, its construction was sponsored by the Birks Family and was designed to impart various ‘kingly’ ideals and a specific vision of the king, the empire and the dominion. The figures at the base of the monument are highly symbolic in nature; among others – at rear a sculpture symbolizing Edward’s first act as king – to officially abolish the tradition of Catholic persecution by the British Royal Family. On the West side, the four majority nations of Canada – English, French, Scottish and Irish – a kind of Edwardian-era vision of multi-culturalism. The East side figures represent bounty and the progress through industry and education; and on the front – a figure representing ‘armed peace’. For more details, check out the City of Montréal’s website detailing public art, here.

I’ve always found the juxtaposition of the values presented in this monument and the reality of the values demonstrated by the services offered in and around this space rather striking. I think I’d prefer various institutions gathered around this space, something more akin to the way it would have been back before the monument was constructed. I suppose the square offers more-or-less direct access to Christ Church Cathedral and St. James Church, which are cultural venues by necessity, but it would be refreshing to see this space used for something aside from mere commerce. As an example – take a walk through this space on a Friday or Saturday night anytime after 9pm and you’ll see how it becomes a kind of gathering point for drunken fools. A real pity too given that it has also made Raoul Wallenberg Square unpleasant at times for similar reasons.

There’s a Canderel proposal for what to do with this space here:

Parking lot area right next to Phillips Square, behind the Hotel - not the work of the author

There proposal is this:

Canderel's proposal for a potential office tower at 1215 Phillips Square - not the work of the author

Not sure how this is going to affect the space in total, but given the trend towards densification of the urban environment, it makes sense that this area would become yet another pole for high-rise commercial office towers; perhaps its the necessary next phase of evolution? I’m not crazy about Canderel since they’re responsible for the Forum fiasco, but I’d be willing to forgive if this particular structure was externally and internally well-designed, environmentally sound, and served as a kind of hub for an expanded Underground City – namely, connecting the Quartier des Spectacles and Paper Hill/Little Dublin area with the retail and entertainment sector concentrated around McGill College. If it breeds better growth in this area, I’m all for it. I just hope it doesn’t end up looking like the Centre du Commerce Electronique!

What interests me is the prospect of linking McGill Métro station to Square-Victoria by means of underground tunnels running from 1080 Beaver Hall Hill to 500 René-Lévesque, then to this new structure and finally hooking up under the Square and further accessing the Bay, providing another North-South axis in the Underground City.

On a final note; consider the pathways you take through the city, and just how often you pass large open tracts of land which serve, either officially or unofficially, as meeting places and focal points. Our city happens to be almost galactic in nature, with multiple poles pulling a wide variety of activities towards them, providing links between a variety of defined-activity quarters.

Now is this good planning, a complete fluke, or the realization a past fluke was fortuitous and thus so happened to be worked into our urban tapestry?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.