A new Planetarium at the Big O & what will come of Chaboillez Square?

I believe this is a model superimposed onto an actual photograph, likely used in Dow's publicity for the sponsored Expo 67 gift. Not the work of the author.

This is Chaboillez Square, or rather what remains of it.

Technically speaking Chaboillez Square is now the small park in front of the Dow Planetarium, where parking spaces have been placed in the publicity shot featured above. The Planetarium itself was a gift from the Dow Brewery (located behind the Planetarium and currently being converted into condominiums) for Expo 67. With a seating capacity of 375, it is still the largest Planetarium in the country, though the operations are to be moved to a new facility, sponsored in part by Rio Tinto Alcan. While the decision to build a new Planetarium is not an issue of contention, the decision to place the new facility in Maisonneuve Park, adjacent to the Big O, Saputo Stadium, the Insectarium, Biodome, the Botanical Gardens and other diverse diversions is leading some to question whether it is wise to concentrate so many public education and entertainment facilities in the same place. The City is insistent that this plan makes sense as it groups together some of the city’s premiere science-themed museums in one central location, doubtless with tourists and families clearly in mind, not to mention the population balance for the metropolitan region, for which the location is exceptionally well-suited.

But is too much concentration a good idea?

And will a new Planetarium be enough to reverse the fortunes of this still somewhat blighted area? And what underlies this reactionary feeling against placing cultural institutions ‘in the East End’?

The blue star indicates the new site of the Planetarium - not the work of the author

It’s discouraging that so many major cultural venues have been moved here, a still somewhat disconnected island of high-density and urban modernism detached from the city, and painfully so. The Olympic Stadium and the grounds around it always seem cold, sterile and lifeless to me, and you can’t help but feel you are in the presence of a somewhat well maintained monument to a bygone age when walking around the site. Sure, there are times when it looks good and it works, but those times don’t come nearly as often as they used to. There are oft-repeated claim that centralizing these institutions and entertainment venues will have major economic spinoffs for the community, though they hardly seem to have been fully realized as the Olympic Stadium and Maisonneuve Park facilities are, to a degree insular, and appear to have little interaction with the built environment around them. The Olympic Stadium alone was supposed to act as the focal point for a major East End renovation and spurn the gentrification of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; what seems to have occurred instead is the gradual recycling of lands once set-aside for new civic institutions and the centralization effort – a use it or lose it situation doubtless a result of the Big O’s big debt. What’s certain is that whatever happens at this site (on the whole) tends to have little impact on the surrounding community, and the reach of Montreal’s downtown urban tapestry has yet to extend this far East. Imagine if all this was concentrated to the West of the CBD – say in NDG, Lachine or LaSalle? I can imagine it would look about as hopelessly disjunct as it does where it is. So the question is, how do we better integrate the Olympic Stadium and its related facilities into a new, more cohesive urban tapestry? A well-designed Planetarium may, at the very least, provide some proportion and a new focal point for orientation within the greater sphere of the design. I suppose that would be rather a pro pos of a Planetarium, and certainly of the ‘orientation through exploration’ design of the greater portion of the city.

Of course there’s not too many places to put large facilities such as these, but it feels as though the density of this sector of the City is still quite imbalanced, and perhaps a city effort to increase residential density with new medium and high-income high-rises in this sector may subsequently trigger at least a partial gentrification or a more proportional sense of scale. A better surface link to the rest of the City, as was attempted, in a manner of thinking, with Corridart.

Then there’s the issue of Westside Montrealers getting the shaft, losing another cultural venue ‘to the East’ as it were. It’s unfortunate that most of the complaining comes from West Islanders who aren’t even citizens of Montrealers, but the fact remains that there are over a million people living East of the Main. The Big O location is surprisingly central, though many loudmouths would like to convince you that East Enders don’t go to museums. The racism I’ve seen in various comment sections is wild – hard to believe some people still think so poorly of Francophones in this day and age.

There is a practical concern however, in that a balance needs to be established between cultural concentration (as you might find in the sprawling, multilevelled Quartier des Spectacles & Place des Arts complex) which is easily accessed and integrated into a high-density urban tapestry, as opposed to the Olympic Stadium site, which seems accessed for the most part via the Pie-IX Métro station and lacks other key services around the site as you might find downtown. It’s tricky, but consider the distribution of universities and how they anchor four distinct parts of the city, or how the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts defines what remains of the Golden Square Mile. Moving the MMFA to any other location seems irresponsible, perhaps inasmuch as moving hockey away from the Forum led to a prolonged, highly localized depression on Ste-Cat’s West.

The situation at Chaboillez Square (the historic name for the large open space where the Dow Planetarium was built in the mid-1960s) is fascinating and particular. While Heritage Montreal has listed the building as threatened and historically valuable, the neighbourhood around the square changes and modernizes dramatically. In an area once defined by industry and poverty, new institutions and neighbourhoods have sprung up. The Quartier des Multimedias, ETS and new residential developments on Notre-Dame and St-Jacques are slowly transforming the area immediately south of the Central Business District, and this area will likely become highly gentrified over the next few decades. The focus on high technology jobs and recycling old buildings has given the sector a noticeable aesthetic, one which is particular to Montréal. That being said, there is a dearth of cultural space, community infrastructure (such as public schools, parks, playgrounds etc) and large, open green spaces. Chaboillez Square, or perhaps a heavily remodelled version making use of space above highway on and off ramps, could support these activities for a new neighbourhood.

Consider it for yourself: here is a link to a bird’s eye perspective from Bing Maps. Compare the area being redeveloped with the large public spaces to the East and North and ask yourself what the future of Chaboillez Square ought to look like.

Then attend the public consultation meetings. Your opinion matters.