Nonuments

(artist unknown); from the foot of Mount Royal facing northeast, upon the introduction electric light
Crystal Palace (Montreal ca. 1879 – artist unknown); from the foot of Mount Royal facing northeast across Fletcher’s Field, upon the introduction electric light in the city.

If I may be so bold as to coin a term, nonuments.

Broadly defined, a former monument that, for whatever reason, no longer serves any real purpose. An ex-landmark, no longer on anyone’s horizon. A kind of de-facto folly. Broader still, the realm of monuments that never were, conceptualized and forgotten. I would consider such breadth of a term only because, even if never actualized they often left traces of themselves; shadows of what could have been.

I think you’d find nonuments in most cities – hell, some cities could be described as nonumental (such as Downtown Detroit – there’s a definite intersection between my idea of a nonument and urban decay, such as has been seen in the de-industrialization of the Great Lakes/Saint Lawrence/Hudson River conurbation; example). And of course, as you might imagine, I’ve compiled a list of sorts of notable local examples.

There’s something I find particularly sad about these nonuments – it’s the idea a close-knit social group, such as a city, would lose a bit of its prestige, of its demonstrable wealth, the built environment as tribute to local success. I suppose it’s the loss of something that once inspired many people, often simply by looking at it, or the idea that we’d forget the significance.

But perhaps I’m being overly sentimental. Most of these examples could be revived in one way or another.

In any event – enough pontificating. Some Montréal nonuments for your consideration.

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Alcan Aquarium as it appears today as an underused pavilion at La Ronde

Top spot goes to the Alcan Aquarium, operated from 1967 to 1991. The Aquarium was once considered to be among the very finest in the world, and it sported an extensive collection of species, in addition to performing dolphins and a colony of penguins in a reconstructed Antarctic habitat. Back in the day the city was far more directly implicated in the operation of local attractions and as a result of a city-workers strike in the early 1980s several dolphins perished due to neglect, their care-takers apparently unable to gain access to tend to these poor mammals. Attendance pretty much nose-dived after that.

The two buildings still exist, though they are now part of La Ronde. I’d love to have another Aquarium, though I’m not sure if the former facilities could be re-used for that purpose, given that they’ve had their interiors re-modelled for vastly different purposes. This is part of the trouble of these nonuments, it’s not always possible to resurrect them in any meaningful way, and Parc Jean-Drapeau has an unfortunate number of examples. Ergo, it would likely be simpler to build a new aquarium in the most modern and sustainable fashion, and locate such a facility in a more convenient location, either in the Old Port or Cité-du-Havre.

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Montreal’s Crystal Palace, in it’s last location in what is today’s Parc Jeanne-Mance

Next, Montréal’s Crystal Palace. Built for the Montreal Industrial Exhibition of 1860, it was based off the plans of its namesake in London, and was used for similar purposes, albeit on a smaller, more provincial scale. Its original location roughly corresponds with Palace Alley downtown, as it was moved in 1878 to Fletcher’s Field as noted above. It would continue serving as a kind of multi-purpose exhibition space until consumed by fire in 1896. The move to Fletcher’s Field would play a significant role in the development of modern ice-hockey, as McGill skating and hockey clubs used the Palace as a natural indoor ice-rink in winter months. The first known photograph of a uniformed hockey team playing on an indoor ice-rink was taken at the Crystal Palace in 1881 in a location somewhat ironically currently largely used for beach volleyball in the summer.

Facilities of this type aren’t much in fashion anymore, and we’re not running short on exhibition space. The idea of having a large, public, interactive cultural space in this part of the city still seems attractive to me, perhaps as either a public market or museum of local natural and social history.

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SS France

Our third entry never made it past the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, the funnels were too high.

Mayor Drapeau had this idea back in the mid-1970s that Montréal would acquire the recently decommissioned ocean liner SS France and use it as the Olympic Village for the 21st Olympiad (still a novel idea IMO). He further proposed that the ship could later be used as a permanently moored floating casino, hotel, resort and conference centre. Again, not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. The SS France had already stayed in Montréal during Expo Summer, as an extension of the French Pavilion.

The story goes that the ship would have had a hard time getting under the Québec Bridge, though it had managed to do so in 1967, and ultimately the mayor would have his arm twisted into constructing the Olympic Village we know today. The Olympic Village was, much like the beleaguered Stadium, inappropriately designed for the local climate and neighbourhood, becoming a city within it itself as opposed to the centre of a residential revival in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Petite-Patrie areas.

If we ever host another Olympiad, we should seriously consider purchasing an ocean liner and use it as a floating convention centre, hotel, resort and casino after the games. It would add a lot of life to the Old Port and, given that it would be a cruise ship or ocean liner, would of course come equipped with everything needed to begin operations, immediately. Not to mention it would look good too, and could give the Old Port and Old Montreal a year-round tourist-driven economic activity generator.

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Montréal-Paris Tower, proposal mock-up

Our fourth entry is the Montréal-Paris tower, designed to be the principle Montréal pavilion (of sorts, in the end the city would not have its own pavilion at Expo 67, or if you’d prefer, the city was the exhibition) and the culmination of Mayor Drapeau’s desire that Montréal have an iconic tower. He would eventually develop the Olympic Tower, delivered late in 1987 and aesthetically unimproved since, a veritable static time-machine, though our existing tower pales in comparison to what he had intended in 1964. The land intended for the tower is today a vast parking lot at the easternmost tip of Ile-Ste-Hélène.

I’m still a fan of our mountain serving as the best view in our city; would love to see this space redeveloped into a vast parkland of sorts, it’s a nice place for a picnic. The amount of land dedicated to cars at Parc Jean-Drapeau and vehicular traffic is far too high, in my opinion. I can imagine an integrated, automated parc-centric mass transit system, such as the former Expo Express easing the dependency on automobiles at the park and, if suitably connected to the downtown, potentially serve to better unify the diverse collection of activities on the islands.

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Expo 67 Opening Ceremonies at Place des Nations

At the other end of Ile-Ste-Hélène, the abandoned Place des Nations, once the great entrance to Expo 67, a place in which roughly fifty million people passed through over six months in 1967. It was the first stop along the Expo Express LRT after the ‘Expo pre-game show’ along Avenue Pierre-Dupuy in the Cité-du-Havre. This is what the Cité-du-Havre looked like in 1967:

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This was once Montréal

Place des Nations was a large public plaza attached to a major transit station, with regularly-scheduled performances and ceremonies. It wouldn’t be of any use in this function today given it’s no longer attached much to anything, no longer serves as the entryway to tomorrowland, but the area is nonetheless rather picturesque, especially along the water’s edge. I enjoy this space very much, as there are typically so few people around, and you can enjoy the tonic of Montréal’s river weather and feel someone alone standing in the midst of a roaring river, surrounded on all sides by examples of our urban reality. The trees have grown up and the whole area has the feel of a kind of post-modern ruin. I’d say a must see as it is, but it wouldn’t be so bad if this public space were renovated and actually used by the public. Of all the nonuments on this list, Place des Nations could easily be made to be something worthwhile again, I think it’s just a matter of giving people a reason to go there, and find its purpose.

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The gutted interior of the Montreal Forum

Our final entry, though i’m sure I’ll think of additional examples later on, is the saddest entertainment complex I can think of – the former Montreal Forum.

The winningest team in pro-hockey’s greatest shrine is an underused shopping mall, multiplex cinema and poorly conceived entertainment hub. It could have been transformed into anything and I’d argue it still can. The Pepsi Forum (or whatever it’s called today) doesn’t really work, and there’s an absolutely massive quantity of unused space within the building.

I’ve always felt that the location is ideally suited for a major performance venue. I think it’s all that’s missing from the Atwater/Cabot Square area – a socio-cultural anchor that draws in large quantities of locals on a regular basis for the purpose of seeing a show of one kind or another. Something that would help stimulate the development of a ‘Western Downtown’ entertainment hub centred on the new Forum, with ample bars, restaurants, bistros and the like.

Today the area has a bit of a ‘has-been/once-was’ reputation I think is directly attributed to the loss of the forum as our city’s principle sports and entertainment venue. Re-developing the building has certain advantages, in that there’s not much to preserve of the physical building aside from it’s shell, and there’s a vast amount of space within the current building which is completely unused. Ergo, it’s possible current tenants could be relocated within the building’s basement with a new performance space built on top. A major re-design of the façade would be required because, quite frankly, it’s an eyesore as is.

A concert hall/ performance venue of 2-5,000 seats would certainly attract a lot of small business opportunities, let alone stimulate additional residential development. Furthermore, an ideal redevelopment of the Forum would involve a direct extension of the Underground City between the Forum, Alexis-Nihon and Atwater Métro station. Considering our limited downtown space options in terms of large-scale, high-capacity performance venues, reviving the Forum as such a facility could have the desired effect of returning its status as lieu de mémoire and securing a wealth injection for an otherwise somewhat downtrodden part of the city.

I think there’s something worse reconsidering here.

We should never have lost those dolphins…

6 thoughts on “Nonuments”

  1. As I remember, city workers regularly tried to feed the dolphins, but because they were not the usual workers that the dolphins knew, the dolphins refused to eat.

  2. That is one sexy-ass picture of Cite du Havre.

    Is it possible to disable the captcha if a cookie from a previously validated visitor is detected? Those things are such a pain in the ass.

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