Scenes from the City – Downtown Montréal

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.

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