Expo 67 happened 45 years ago; could we do it again?

Though of poor quality, this is still an exceptional photograph of Expo 67, specifically Place des Nations – fully operational as it was intended. You’ll notice there doesn’t seem to be anything going on in the square, and yet people fill the benches and bleachers rising around. All sorts of activity is happening here, at this crucial transit point, as the fair ground expand out in all directions, a festival of truly epic proportions.

Fifty million people came to visit Montreal and see Expo during the Summer of Love. It was an outstanding achievement, as it was the raison-d’etre for a wide variety of city, government and corporate development projects, all coming together in time for opening day. The project, despite delays, was completed on time and on budget. After six months, the fair had paid itself off in admissions and concession sales. What Expo 67 did for international consumer confidence in Montréal, Québec and Canada is incalculable, though it certainly permitted Montréal enough credo to survive armed insurrections, separatism, terrorism and two referendums on national sovereignty in which Montreal was the primary battleground. Expo bought us confidence and an internationally recognized (and enduring) image of modernism, stability and innovation. We haven’t exhausted that confidence yet, though we would be wise to out-do ourselves as quickly as possible. The amount of free publicity for the city the fair generated made subsequent tourism marketing a synch, not to mention the fact that the facilities were operational for several years afterwards as a semi-permanent exhibit, encouraging repeat visitors and locals. Today, though almost all the original pavilions have been torn down and the grounds re-developed into a gorgeous park, we as citizens still retain a massive fair-ground, and we use it every year to our advantage and shared enjoyment.

Expo’s legacy is that it is always preferential for a large city to distinguish itself from other large cities by demonstrating it’s importance in a globally and culturally significant manner. This is precisely what Expo did for our city inasmuch as our province and country. I would argue that it benefitted Montréal perhaps the most given that it resulted in net increases to the common standard of living. We all got to benefit from the Métro, inasmuch as the numerous remaining attractions at Parc Jean-Drapeau. Moreover, ask yourself if we would have had an Olympics without Expo, or whether we would have bothered to protect Old Montréal if not for the reaction it produced in tourists. Thinking big allowed us to secure investment for many years, and it provided new opportunities for growth and development. It kept people employed and made ourselves available to host the world – what power we once had, and all because we dared to dream.

Place des Nations – Overgrown and Underused, 2007

Dominion Square, 1907

A postcard featuring a colourized photograph of Dominion Square from the tower of Windsor Station, circa 1907. In this view we see, from left to right: Windsor Station (towards the bottom-left corner), Saint George’s Anglican Cathedral, the Windsor Hotel, the crest of Mount Royal with McGill and the mixed commercial and middle & upper-class residential area near the centre point. The red brick building is the city’s first YMCA, built in the early-mid 1850s, and adjacent to the Knox Presbyterian Cathedral (both buildings would be demolished by 1913 for the development of the Sun Life Building). Finally, occupying most of the right side of the photo, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral.

Consider that back then, the square would have been exceptionally important for all Montrealers. Imagine standing there facing South, looking towards the industry of Griffintown and Goose Village and the rail stations closer to the square. To the West and Northwest, the newest portion of the Square Mile, featuring many large homes on low-density plots, in addition to many protestant churches, since demolished. To the North, the retail district, McGill University and the homes of the urban middle class while to the East the commercial and mercantile centre. All these forces and contributing factors would have found common ground and a necessity to use this crucial urban focal point. Railway stations, churches and social institutions, a luxury hotel and the Bishop’s Palace, all occupying the same space. In time, Dorchester Square would become the new corporate ‘front yard’ of the city.

Note the tram line along Peel going up towards what was then Dorchester Boulevard, and how the southern end of Dominion Square is almost totally bare when compared to the thickets of trees that now define the more ‘rustic’ Place du Canada. Also, consider the layout of walkways, as they lead from all sides and corners towards an elegant centre. There would have been about a dozen churches and cathedrals within eyesight of the square back then, though remarkably few benches for a place so much foot traffic. Some things never change, though by the look of things, the city’s planning a fountain for the southern end – something we’re sorely missing in this city. Judge for yourself:

Montréal from Mount Royal in the Late 1950s

For obvious reasons, I did not take this photograph. I found it on Flickr in the “Vanished Montreal” group, something I highly recommend you check out. It was mis-labeled as being from the 1930s, but this is impossible given the presence of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, among other buildings. It’d put it somewhere between 1958 and 1960. The tallest building in this photograph is the Art Deco Royal Bank Tower, at 22 floors. Building heights in the urban core largely range between 10 and 20 floors, though the Sun Life Building, just out of frame to the right, would have dominated the skyline large to due to its impressive massing. Within two to four years of when this photograph was taken, the immense form of Place Ville-Marie would dominate the centre of this space, rising to more than twice the previous norm. Within ten years about half a dozen buildings of similar height and prominence would come to dominate the skyline. In addition, much of the centre of this photograph was heavily densified in the 1970s and 1980s, with many new office buildings rising to between 15 and 25 floors, particularly in this area.

It looks so quaint.

Scenes from the City РDowntown Montr̩al

Decided to go out and take care of business yesterday, and profited from the pleasant weather we’ve been enjoying. I can imagine Winter’s going to come back and slap us around a little more. What I’d give for an early Spring.

The sidewalks, almost universally, are covered in that awful combination of road salt, sand and gravel that stains the snow brown, and eventually black. Sometimes I wonder why we don’t pay the fire-department to hose down all the roads and sidewalks during a thaw to clean things up a bit. Anyways…

All that to say that the air was perceptively warmer than usual and walking around was thoroughly delightful. The afternoon was a little dimmer than what I had expected; the clouds hung low and thick. I snapped this shot from Phillips Square, looking up towards the new Altitude Condo project and PVM rising behind it. Place Ville-Marie celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its completion this year.

Here is the elegant Royal George Apartment building, integrated as it currently is into the Concordia Library Building on Bishop Street. Forcing residents out caused a bit of a stir back in the mid-late 1980s, though there was a case to be made that the building, aside from having a beautiful facade, was in poor shape when acquired by Concordia. Though an effort had been made to protect the building as a heritage site, it for some reason never extended past the facade, which in turn was all that was saved.

Of note, a preliminary design of the LB Building featured a library stacked in roughly equally-sized ‘blocks’ rising from the corner of de Maisonneuve and Bishop, wrapping and rising around the Royal George like a massive staircase. This design featured multiple large outdoor terraces on the roofs on each block, the idea being that the expanding urban university should have an appropriately urban solution to limited open-air green space. Moreover, in conjunction with the planned atrium, sunlight would be able to reach the apartment building inasmuch as the interiors of the Library. The final design incorporated some elements of the original design, though the terrace component was never fully implemented. One of the consistent obstacles preventing green-space development on the upper levels of Concordia University buildings is the apparent fact that university students are an insurance liability, and thus rooftop cafés and gardens, though often discussed in development plans, never come to fruition. This is the line I was tol and I have reason to believe it. It doesn’t inspire much faith in insurers though, or the university for that matter. Con-U students could really use the space.

Rue de la Montagne, looking south from Boul. de Maisonneuve. Moving up from Boul. René-Lévesque Ouest, the street features the Centre du Commerce Electronique, Le Crystal de la Montagne, a house John Wilkes Booth may have stayed at some point in 1864 (today an Italian restaurant, if I’m not mistaken), the Novotel and many other restaurants and boutiques. It is largely defined today by its many prominent hotels. Academie Bourget and O’Sullivan College are locate below Ste-Catherine’s, as is Ogilvy’s Department Store, the Loews Vogue Hotel and the Hotel de la Montagne. Upwards towards Sherbrooke, condos, boutiques, office space and then the Ritz-Carlton.

Drummond Street, with the Bell Centre in the background, and the Drummond Medical Building at centre. Conceptualized and built in the late-1920s and early-1930s, this building symbolizes an interesting solution to the problems of urban multi-levelled parking. Back in the 20s and 30s, the city enacted laws designed to prevent the construction of above-ground parking garages (because they wanted to limit the number of cars in the city and thought parking garages were ugly, go figure). Thus, a multi-level parking garage was built behind an eleven-floor medical office building. The idea of a purpose-built medical office building was an architectural and design innovation typical of the era. Elements of the design, including floor layout, elevator placement, waste-disposal systems and building services were all incorporated so as to benefit a building specializing in private medical care. The parking garage would serve to provide the building with a constant source of income to defray building maintenance and renovation costs.

It’s funny, I’m reading Richler’s Son of a Smaller Hero and just read a passage where the young adulterous couple, Myriam and Noah, walk up and down the streets of the city one night, and the visible stretch of Ste-Catherine’s you see in this photograph features prominently. There’s as much neon today as there was back then, it’s just far subtler now (back in the 40s and 50s, a lot of signage was designed to protrude outwards and perpendicular to the building). But Ste-Catherine’s has indeed lost its former character as the city-spanning entertainment and night-life thoroughfare. Today’s its character is principally retail oriented. Gone are the once numerous theatres, night-clubs, diners and cocktail bars which left such an indelible impression of the city’s character. I wouldn’t mind seeing the street evolve in such a fashion that an equilibrium is struck between what it was once famous for and what it is today. There’s no denying how important and interesting this street actually is.

The CIBC Tower, also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The 45-floor tower was built on the former site of the original Windsor Hotel, the Southern wing having burned down in 1957. It is particularly slender for a modernist office tower, but benefits immensely from a far more ornate facade, which includes the use of Green Slate as well as other stones in the spandrels between glass curtain-walls. It’s position on the plot in relation to the intersection and Dorchester Square makes it extremely prominent without being imposing.

It’s too bad – the building once had an observation deck on the top floor, which was closed in the 1970s. If I’m not mistaken, it features prominently in a scene in Jésus de Montréal.

What can I say, I’m glad Global and the Gazette are in the same building – if only they collaborated and focused on developing local original content together. Could you imagine what that might do for the local entertainment and news-media industries, and in turn what this beautiful building would come to symbolize?

Somewhere I have a USB-key filled with images I scanned at the CCA, pertaining to the ground-breaking 60s: Montreal Thinks Big exhibit back in 2004. Among others I found a massive number of projects and proposals that never got off the ground, including a plan by Mies van der Rohe to demolish the Dominion Square building, replacing it with a street-spanning overhead plaza and two tall office towers. I like his work, but I’m glad it never panned out.

The Dominion Square building was one of the first in the city to feature an indoor shopping arcade – it’s original design, much like the Mount Royal Hotel, featured numerous retail spaces with interior and exterior access points. The ‘mirrored-E’ design of the upper floors allows for many interesting layout possibilities, numerous corner offices and an exceptional amount of sunlight for a building of its era.

The Kondiaronk Belvedere atop Mount Royal, viewed from Rue de la Montagne. With the candelabra communications tower rising, always menacingly, behind. The belvedere and Mount Royal Chalet were constructed during the Depression as a city-sponsored ‘make work project’ to replace the previous look-out, which by that time had become dilapidated. One key feature of the old look-out was that it was a) accessible via a funicular railway, b) covered and c) it projected out from the mountain’s side, offering a wider panoramic view. The new belvedere, by contrast, is far larger, and the openness of the space is appropriate given the majesty of view beyond.

A perspective that won’t last much longer – the Tour de la Bourse viewed from the grounds of a former orphanage adjacent to Saint Patrick’s Basilica, through the space soon to be occupied by the Altoria Condominiums. The building currently being demolished used to be an important local print shop, and if not mistaken, this building had an infamous history in the local gay community, given that a raid on a party located here resulted in Montréal’s equivalent of the Stonewall Riots, the Sex Garage Raid. As party-goers exited onto Rue de la Gauchetiere, they were met by the SPVM, ID tags removed, batons in hand. The subsequent beat-down and two days of protests and additional mass ass-whippings put too many in the hospital with too few SPVM officers indicted for assault. What did change was public sentiment towards the local gay and lesbian community, as video footage of the SPVM using excessive force against unarmed civilians interspersed with images of Mohawk blockades and stories of bloody beatings by SQ thugs in Oka. It was a perfect storm for local media that drew the public’s attention in a heretofore unseen fashion, focusing on numerous local civil rights abuses at the same time. I would argue video footage played a significant role in turning public opinion away from the established authority and pushed support for the minorities and oppressed in our society.

I stood here a couple days ago and watched this machine rip pieces of wood, brick and plaster from the building as a small crowd gathered below to watch it happen. This has been happening a lot – crowds gathered to watch demolition or construction work.

Makes me wonder why we don’t use explosives to quickly demolish buildings as opposed to systematically ripping them apart. I suppose the latter option poses fewer problems to surrounding buildings, yet we regularly use dynamite when clearing the foundation – I heard some go off near the Le Chateau Apartments just a week ago. I’d really like to find out what the rules are with regards to this.

It’s too bad this place is pretty much exclusively used as a cathedral – something tells me it could be an excellent performance venue. Maybe not, I don’t know what the acoustics are like inside, but if I had to guess I’d say they’re probably quite good.

That and I can imagine opera and theatre could make excellent use of the interior for some very interesting experimentation.

I like knowing that I have this image, and I’m trying to get a little collection going of short-term perspectives on the city. Soon, a thirty floor glass curtain-wall condo tower will make this view impossible, yet also bring new life to the old Paper Hill sector. I can only hope that the resulting building is worthy of its location on Square Victoria, and that the ground-level floors in some way reflect the earth-tones of late-19th and early-20th century buildings in the area.

Separatism 2.0 – Toews, Trudeau and the New Canadian Culture Wars

Justin Trudeau

Because this would invariably get blown out of proportion by the Harperites, in government and national media, let us connect straight to a reliable source. Though he’s now being lambasted for apparently supporting the independence of Québec, the point many seem to be missing is Trudeau’s qualifying statement – that things would have to be going wrong in 10,000 different ways, that Canada would have to become the ultra-right wing nightmare progressives have reason to fear in order to push Québecois back into seriously considering national independence. Trudeau’s comments seem to be indicative of his belief Canada is heading down the wrong path, and I tend to agree with him. We’ve allowed a cabal of defeatist, regressive individuals – representing a generally minority viewpoint – to take the reigns of our once internationally beloved nation, and move it instead in a direction reminiscent of all that has led to the extreme divisions in contemporary American society. We’re diving headlong into another culture war, though this one of far broader significance.

Judge for yourself;

Even if Québec never realizes its independence, the people of Canada are all free to come and go as they please. Make Canada a lesser nation, a more contemptible nation, and people will simply pack up and go. We were once a nation with open doors and open minds. Today, it’s difficult for the middle-class in Canada to keep their children here, as opportunities abroad lead young Canadians to consider opportunities on an international scale. We were once a place of refuge for all the world’s abused peoples. Today we’re a place one comes from. Unless we make Canada an attractive option for our youth, we cannot assume they will stay here. We’ll have nothing left of our nation if this worrying trend continues.

And so the Harperites would be wise to do all that they can to actually try and work to the benefit of the greater good. They’d be wise to implement plans, strategies and initiatives that benefitted the people who live in ridings that didn’t vote Tory last May. But much like Québec’s reviled Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale government during the Grand Noirceur, Harper and crew punish those who don’t fall in line in step with the party. I suppose I could go along with this if the party weren’t so goddam abrasive to begin with.

And then Vic Toews opened his mouth to equate not wanting to give the feds the ability to read your emails with directly supporting the production and distribution of child pornography.

If this is the state of our political discourse, I don’t want to live in this country anymore. And there’s nothing anyone could do to force me to stay here. If I want to leave my country of birth and establish myself elsewhere, it is still entirely within my right to do so.

For the moment…

Vic Toews

Vic Toews might not care much about me or any other young progressively-minded socialist up and bouncing off to some distant locale. Perhaps I’d even be doing him a favour. But if enough disenfranchised, dispirited and over indebted Canadian youth begin thinking along similar lines, then you have a real problem. And given the widening education-generation gap between today’s youth and the Baby Boomer establishment, many more young Canadians feel they are completely un-represented and consistently taken advantage of. Better opportunities and higher standards of living exist elsewhere, and, while we’re still generally welcome abroad, many young Canadians may wish to take advantage and escape the burdens of living in a nation governed by a minority of morons. Vic Toews’ statement, to say nothing of his actions, is precisely the kind of regressive, dystopian legislation that is killing Canada from within, and it is designed specifically to limit the freedoms of those most vocal and inclined to organize against the Harper regime. We’re becoming North America’s DPRK one small step at a time. By the time we realize we no longer recognize our own country, it will simply be too late; there won’t be a country worth saving.

Final note.

A recent Brock University study suggests that there is a direct link between low IQs and a personal propensity towards social-conservative politics and a bigoted perspective of other races.

Social conservatism is the politics of ignorance. If this country’s conservative government keeps appealing to the dumb, unwise, foolish and prejudiced few among us, then it really is seeking to destroy the idealist nation we once were. What neo-conservatism will mean for Canada, long-term, is not something I’m overly interested in finding out about.

Something tells me Toews will regret his highly manipulative and egregiously offensive remarks. If he is merely given the Santorum treatment he should consider himself lucky. I have a feeling his aggressive stance will be met in kind.

Wipe the hardrives Vic, you’re public enemy number one.

Unite the West Island {Part 1}

Baie d’Urfe, quintessential Old West Island – unknown author

This post has a lot to do with the West Island, as you might suspect from the title, but the West Island is fundamentally an important component of metropolitan Montreal, and thus I feel it has a place here. In my opinion, in order for the West Island to become all it can be and provide for itself long-term, it must unite into a single amalgamated city. It is beginning to mature in such a fashion that a discernible local character and culture has developed here, largely as the result of the development of common goals and aspirations for the people who live there. The people who live here have common needs which have heretofore largely been the responsibility of either the City of Montréal or the Province of Québec; otherwise, the West Island today is merely a collection of small municipalities with little mutually beneficial long-range planning. This must change if we want to increase our standard of living, together. This must change if we truly want solutions to the myriad problems and difficulties that we’ve all become acutely aware of over the last few years. Problems with traffic gridlock, declining population, lack of local investment capital, over-crowded hospitals and lack of public transit access – all of this can be better dealt with by a new, united West Island city.

Ask yourself, what can a city of 235,000 people do for itself? How quickly can it double its population? What opportunities can it provide for its citizens? What resources could it share and benefit from, and what could we guarantee for to promote our unique society and culture? Finally, what can 235,000 people do to increase property and house values and median income across the entire West Island, simultaneously?

There is a lot more to the West Island than residential housing projects and strip malls, though you might not know it to first look at it. In too many ways the West Island is the defective prototypical North American sprawl mega-suburb. But it has a unique character nonetheless and I would dare say the makings of at least its own identifiable sub-culture within the larger subgroups of Montréal culture and the Québecois middle-class. We are distinct as a whole in many ways, but we refuse to see our points of commonality, and thus our community remains an ineffective collection of cities without much common planning. Our bondage is our lack of cooperation. Moreover, we have unique needs with regards to education, healthcare, public works & transit and emergency services, yet we are overly reliant on outside forces to supply these services. As long as this is the case we can’t do much to improve the bare essentials of our shared services, and further have very little hope to collect the investment capital needed to fund our own improvement programs.

So why not unite?

If the eight de-merged municipalities were to combine with the four merged communities along the north-western edge of the island (which would be advantageous for the City of Montréal, but I’ll address that later), we could quickly form a new community of roughly 235,000 people, a community of roughly equal size to other Canadian cities like Kitchener, Burnaby, Regina or Windsor. All of those cities manage to provide their own public transit and emergency services, not to mention universities, museums, performance venues and sports stadiums. Ultimately, this is not about limiting the individual sovereignty of the constituent West Island communities, but rather about recognizing our common needs as citizens in a suburban conurbation with over 300 years of shared history and inter-related development. Throughout much of the 20th century development was more or less haphazard, driven largely the market trends in post-war suburban housing construction common throughout North America. But this in turn has lead to a large number of people with a common appreciation of shared green spaces and the rustic charm which is emblematic of the region, and a general desire amongst said residents to see what remains of Montreal’s last remaining wilderness (a semi contiguous area of Eastern Great Lakes lowland forest in the Northwest sector) preserved and promoted. In other words, there’s a reason why people live there together; they appreciate many of the same services and aesthetics, and they choose this region as an ideal location to raise a family and develop important middle-class wealth. We think similarly and have broadly similar aspirations, so why do we continue to plan like 17th century hamlets?

If we unite, we can plan on a large scale, limit low-density residential construction while promoting higher-density alternatives. We could build a new city centre akin to examples you would find in Toronto’s inner-ring suburban areas, like North York. By increasing density we could provide diverse housing styles for new residents, and establish a civic core for the West Island as a whole. Moreover, we could seek to develop new higher-density retail space and commercial office space as well, to attract necessary local services. New capital and investment could be obtained in a far more efficient manner, and provide on a greater scale, through the lobbying efforts of a single new medium sized city.

But we simply cannot do it alone, as individual communities, this must be an achievement for our own societal evolution. We must ask ourselves what our future holds and whether or not we will grow old here, with our children.. If West Island residents want better schools & hospitals, better opportunities and greater options, then we must provide for each-other en masse. If the older generations want their children to raise families here as well, they must be given reasons to stay. Uniting the West Island into a single community could allow us to accomplish many things for each other, not to mention establish a better working relationship with the other major cities of the Montréal Archipelago. We owe it not only to ourselves to put ourselves in a stronger bargaining position with the City and the Province, and we know both Ottawa and Québec City will look favourably towards this new community. We must lead by example, to unite so as to encourage better thinking in the future, better design and a better standard of living, here inasmuch as anywhere else in Canada.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, I’m guessing this might be a three-parter. More later. But before I go, if you lived in the West Island or live there now, ask yourself what life would be like if a new combined community suddenly had the capital to construct a sophisticated performing arts venue, a bilingual liberal arts university, a surface tram network or an art museum. What dreams could we realize for the greater good?