Westmount Square – Five Easy Pieces

Some pics I snapped walking around Westmount Square a few weeks back.

Westmount Square - Tower 3: work of the author, June 2011

The Westmount Square complex was designed by Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1967. It is composed of two residential towers, an office tower and a large squat building with additional commercial office space, all of which is centered on a pedestrian plaza which is further linked to an underground shopping concourse. Access to Atwater Métro station is provided by means of a link which further accesses Place Alexis-Nihon.

Interior Plaza, Westmount Square - work of the author, June 2011

Back in the day, Westmount Square was a prestige address sans-pareil. It also anchored the extreme Western edge of what’s considered downtown Montréal, further providing an interesting link between the commercial aspects of the cities of Westmount and Montréal. The success of Westmount Square doubtless led to the construction of Place Alexis-Nihon’s towers in the mid-1980s, in addition to the gentrification of Greene Avenue and the further development of several high-capacity residential towers around the site. Nowadays the entire area (focused on Atwater Métro) is in dire need of a renaissance, and Westmount Square is no longer the busy beehive of activity it once was.

Interior plaza - Westmount Square: work of the author, June 2011

Evidence of this can be found in the plaza, which is starting to look a little worse for wear. It could use a clean-up, a spruce-up, new vegetation and it would be nice if the fountain was operational – something to draw people into the interior plaza, or possibly, something to serve as a focal point in the middle of the plaza to draw people’s attention towards walking across the plaza. Unlike other more successful examples, such as the plazas at PVM or Place-des-Arts, Westmount Square doesn’t seem to be able to draw many pedestrians into its centre as a means of diffusing traffic away from the street. Perhaps this is a result of fewer people working at Westmount Square, and fewer still are both employed and live in the area. One can tell by walking around the plaza that it would have at one point in the past had significantly more thru-traffic.

Métro access at Westmount Square: work of the author, June 2011

It’s fascinating to note that the site has many access points, including a Métro access on Greene Avenue and another on Wood, pictured here. I wonder if other Atwater Métro access points were developed later, or if at one point there were simply more Métro users living in Westmount. These obviously high-capacity entrances always seem to be devoid of people.

Church across from Westmount Square: work of the author, June 2011

In terms of future planning, both the City of Westmount and the City of Montréal would be wise to collaborate on a design master plan for the entire Atwater/Cabot Square/Westmount Square/ Greene Avenue area. It’s already well connected to the Métro, and has a wide variety of diverse spaces – including institutional, medical, educational, commercial and residential. That being said, the area seems to lack a major anchor, something the Forum once provided. A major cultural space in the area, coupled with new apartment or condo towers, may just do the trick, but there would have to be a sincere effort made to diversify the types of units available. In other words, concentrating on expensive condo units won’t work in and of itself. In addition, a cohesive design scheme, one that would identify the entire area as a distinct neighbourhood/community would be ideal, but again, this would require a heretofore unknown degree of cooperation between these two distinct communities.

Food for thought – most of the work is already done, but Montréal and Westmount need to keep up with the pace of development and urban renewal taking place elsewhere in the downtown. An area like this ought to be an unparalleled focal point for diverse activities and economic activity, but this won’t happen as long as development is done piecemeal, which is kinda how this area feels. Westmount Square stands head and shoulders as the true gem of this collection of tall buildings, but when viewed as part of the whole, stands out for its uniformity and coherence in a neighbourhood seemingly developed according to market whims, rather than good urban planning.

3 thoughts on “Westmount Square – Five Easy Pieces”

  1. Westmount Square was never a “destination”. It was the stores you wanted in the neighborhood, and in part simply replaced what had been on Green Avenue and St. Cathereine Street before they disappeared to make room for the square.

    So one could take one’s allowance over there every Saturday and buy a book at Classics. You could go and see a movie, if you didn’t go to the theatre across the street. You could get a magazine, or buy chocolate at Laura Secord. I can’t remember what else there was, but it was different, and busier, and didn’t have the same medical emphasis. I can’t remember if the food area was there originally, I don’t think so, but you could do your groceries at the Steinber’s on Greene Avenue, or the Steinberg’s in Alexis Nihon Plaza.

    Access to the Atwater Metro has not changed since the beginning.

    Westmount Square was there when the Metro began or shortly after. One of the first, if not the first, instances of housing having direct access to the Metro (and likely to stores below too). The real beginning of “the underground city”, since if you lived there, you could go places without ever going outside, so long as it was connected to the Metro. The tunnel between Westmount Square and Alexis Nihon Plaza may be the longest tunnel connected to the Metro without commerce (the single store in that tunnel has been empty for most of the decades the tunnel has been there). Certainly for a long time there weren’t such long tunnels in private ownership. I can’t remember if the tunnels around the Bonavenutre Metro were public or private.

    The builders of Westmount Square saw value in making that tunnel, maybe for no other reason than they could say “we are on the Metro”.I wasn’t very worldly when the Metro or Westmount Square opened, but I think it was a trendsetter, rather than follower. It helped to set the tone of those that followed.

    I don’t think the commercial area of Westmount Square has access on three sides to make Metro access easier, I think it was to get people into that area. People complain about complexes that don’t have many access points, well Westmount Square has it on three sides. And then the tunnel is there for the people in the building and the neighborhood, not really to provide Metro users access to Westmount Square.

    In some ways it wa a long time ago, but since it’s within my lifetime, I can remember when it was a different thing.

  2. There were theatres at Alexis Nihon (next to where the Target is, ie where the shoestore is now), in Westmount Square (enter via Greene Avenue, and the theatre entrace was to the left, where the “newsstand is now) and of course one on Greene Aveneue, in that section where the Jean Coutu is now.

    The only place I remember the Picadilly is at the cusp of Westmount to the West, in that medical building just before Grey Avenue. There’s a Uniprix now, it recently changed from some other pharmacy chain.

    I don’t remember the sequence, but it was a porn theatre at some point and a rep house. I can’t remember if it ever showed first run films. The Pharmaprix across the street had been a theatre I think the Claremount, back then (becoming a Kane’s, then Cumberland, then Jean Coutu before becoming a Pharmaprix, I hope I got that sequence right)

    In the mid-seventies I did see some films at the Picadilly when it was a rep house. I can’t remember if it was connected to another rep house or not. And I can’t remember when it faded out, I’d say by the early eighties, though if it became a porn theatre I would have just treated it as background noise and not really noticed when it disappeared and became what it became.

    Michael

  3. Some great pictures here with good a deal of historic data and a look iforward to the future of the square.
    I am originally from NDG but graduated from Westmount High School. During my years at Westmount, I used to frequent the square using it as a weather shelter to get to Alexis Nihon Plaza. However, from time to time, I used to take in a movie in the square. There was a movie theatre not mentioned here called the Piccadilly. I would very much like to know what became of it if anyone has information. It’s more sentimental than anything else and it was a small theatre, nothing grandiose by any stretch of the imagination, accesed by the Greene entrance on your 1st left.

    Kind regards,

    Karl

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