You’ve probably heard this factoid once before – Montreal has the world’s largest underground city. It’s true, though an unfortunate number of American tourists routinely come here hoping to see some kind of super-sized subterranean lair replete with cave-dwelling French Canadians only to find an elaborate mass-transit system and shopping mall complex instead.
That’s the complaint I hear from most Montrealers – much of the Underground City seems to be nothing but a massive and irritatingly homogenous mall stretching between Métro stations. It seems boastful, maybe even delusional to call it a city.
That was certainly my first, and somewhat extended, impression of the RÉSO, as the Underground City is officially known.
But as we barrel down head-first into winter I recall my sincere appreciation for the RÉSO – the warm-cut. There are some 32 kilometres of pedestrian tunnels and 120 exterior access points concentrated in a 12 square kilometre area that roughly defines Montreal’s Central Business District. Some 500,000 Montrealers use the RÉSO every day on average, and it represents a unique component of the city’s public transit infrastructure.
If Montréal were to be compared to the human body, I see the Métro as the city’s circulatory system, the RÉSO as the lungs and the Place Ville-Marie/Gare Centrale complex as the heart.
And I’m but a red blood cell travelling through the system.
Or at least that’s the way I see it. Once I’m in the RÉSO, I feel a tangible connection to a vastly larger system. I feel like I move faster when walking through the tunnels, as though the tunnels were encouraging me to trot at a swift pace. I feel like everything’s only a five minute walk away, regardless of the actual time it takes. I like that there’s always an entrance nearby, that warm-cuts are a thing, that because so much of the city’s commercial office space and corporate infrastructure (convention centres, hotels, sports venues, etc.) is interconnected tens of thousands of white collar workers have abandoned their cars and cabs and now use a combination of foot power and public transit for their daily transportation needs.
I like that you can walk around underground for over an hour and still not see all of it.
I like that I can plan my routes architecturally, functionally – enter at university, walk through a massive performance venue, find yourself passing a fountain in a cave-like shopping mall, go down the escalator and down the hall to the government offices, follow the signs and meet me in the convention centre by the lipstick forest and we’ll stop by the café next to the reflecting pool in the atrium of the horizontal skyscraper.
Yeah, my directions are crystal clear…
In any event, the RÉSO is a testament to some fascinating modernist-era urban planning ideas about how space is rationalized, how urban functions are aligned, connected and integrated and what interactions people and cities should have with their immediate environment. The Underground City was in part a response to our city’s meteorological and climactic realities but it also drew inspiration from architects and planners who were envisioning self-contained future cities. Montreal benefitted in having a very large area of the urban environment ready for a major transformation (in our case, the massive open rail-yard trench where Place Ville-Marie stands today) as early as the mid-1950s, and within a decade planners were already looking beyond cars as the ecological damage caused by carbon emissions began to become evident. The expansion and development of the RÉSO has given us a veritable city within a city, one in which, increasingly, it is possible to live a completely insulated, integrated urban lifestyle.
Montreal’s Underground City may come off as a bit banal today, but I’m confident, as usage increases, so too will our imaginations with regards to what we can do with it, and how we interact with it. I’d certainly love to see all those new condo projects linked up, so that we can boast of an actual urban population who calls this underground city home. I’d further like to see more open, public spaces – the idea of a small underground park has always appealed to me. And if only we could get the annual weeklong Art Souterrain project to evolve into a permanent display of art throughout all facets of the underground city. Some ‘street’ vendors wouldn’t be half bad either.
While this kind of lifestyle might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can easily imagine this appealing to a new generation of young urban families. To put it another way, I don’t think it will be too long before we see condo towers with two or three bedroom units, medical clinics, 24hr pharmacies and daycare services. Condos are about branded living experiences, it’s just a matter of time before all the yuppies graduate from their ‘urban chalets’ to something more age and family appropriate. As the dream of affordable suburban home ownership is pushed farther and farther away from the city by rising on-island real estate prices, an entire generation of young families won’t have much of a choice but to stay in the city, close to work and without the added expense of a car.
But I’ll expand on that another day, until then I’ll leave you with the list you came for.
1. The Forum.
Despite the fact that there’s a tunnel stretching across Saint Catherine’s Street to Cabot Square, Place Alexis-Nihon and the Atwater Métro segment of the RÉSO is not connected to the most hallowed venue in professional sports history (even if all it is today is nothing but another shitty mall). I wonder if it would be a better mall were it connected. I wonder if it would be anything else if it were connected for that matter.
2. The CLSC that’s actually sitting directly on top of the St-Mathieu exit of Guy-Concordia Métro.
Yes, I get that it’s but a mild inconvenience to have to step outside to get back into the building you just stepped out of. That’s exactly why they should’ve been connected in the first place – it’s inconvenient otherwise. I don’t understand why all the apartment towers around this Métro entrance aren’t also connected by their own tunnels – this would be one very appealing reason to live here (and there aren’t many others).
3. McGill University.
It’s just weird that McGill University isn’t directly accessible from McGill Métro station, this despite the fact that both the Bronfman Pavilion and the McClennan Library are both just across Sherbrooke Street from the Mount Royal Centre and Scotiabank Building, which are themselves connected to both Peel and McGill stations. Worse still, McGill apparently has a large, rather intricate network of tunnels criss-crossing campus, but most are closed and/or off-limits. This is quite unlike the Université de Montréal, which boasts both a network of inter-connected buildings, but direct access to the Métro as well.
4. The Telus Building, formerly CIL House.
Diagonally across from PVM and just a touch north of the Square-Victoria’s northernmost entrance, it’s a prime real estate office tower with, I’m guessing a couple thousand people moving in and out every day, yet it’s disconnected despite its proximity to the absolute mega centre of the RÉSO network.
5. The Sun Life Building and Dorchester Square
A similar situation, the Sun Life Building has three full underground floors and sits just across the street from PVM and yet remains after all these years disconnected. In fact, several prominent buildings on Dorchester Square remain outside the underground realm, and the square itself has no chic Art Nouveau entrance, such as you might find in Square Victoria. I find this particularly odd given that Dorchester Square is quite literally in the middle of four Métro stations and is surrounded by branches of the Underground City. Perhaps this is because planners wanted people to step out for fresh air once in a while… not a bad place to force this to happen.
6. Tour CIBC, the Sheraton Centre and 1100 Boul. René-Lévesque Ouest
These three buildings are all quite literally located across the street from a direct connection to the RÉSO through 1250 Boul. René-Lévesque, also known as the IBM-Marathon Building. I would have figured the hotel, at the very least, would have been connected some time ago.
7. Cité du Commerce Electronique.
Just a short walk up from Lucien-L’Allier Métro station, but same old same old, not connected and no one seems to have even considered it. I’m hoping the multiple new condo developments going on all along the boulevard changes this, but from what I’ve heard the city’s got no one in charge to push such a project through. At the very least you’d figure somebody in the planning department would have this as some kind of a priority.
8. The Montreal Museum of Fine Art
The four, soon to be five pavilions of the MMFA are interconnected with subterranean passageways stretching across both Sherbrooke and du Musée. With the construction of the new pavilion the museum will stretch farther south along Bishop Street, putting it within range of being connected to Concordia’s recently expanded segment of the Underground City. This means that, if the museum were to be connected, one could theoretically walk from above Sherbrooke all the way down to Saint Catherine’s and Guy without freezing or getting your feet wet.
And that’s not half bad.
I wonder if any of those old Métro wagons could be used to extend the underground tunnel network…
Wouldn’t it be fitting?