Covering Over Modernity

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This here’s a photo of what Montreal looked like back in the early 1930s.

To situate yourself, first you’re looking ‘Montreal east’ – that’s the Jacques-Cartier Bridge under construction, and by my guess I think the airplane was flying near the intersection of Rue de la Montagne and Boulevard Saint-Jacques, or Mountain and St. James as it was colloquially referred to back then.

This is Montreal right before the Depression really began to be felt in Canada, and right after about fifty years of considerable and near constant economic growth for our city.

This is Montreal back when Canada had but one metropolis.

This is Montreal back when it defined what metropolis meant in the Canadian context.

If you stare at this photo long enough you’ll see all that remains, and there’s a lot all things considered.

But consider as well that just about everything in the lower half of the photo is gone.

You can see the transition here (not my work, but hat’s off to the responsible party).

In the contrast you can see the effect of monumental construction projects and just how much space is actually eaten up by the Ville-Marie Expressway.

The depopulation of the central core of our city is clear, but so too is the amount of space we demand on an individual level also glaringly apparent. Back in the 1930s there was a lot more happening, so much more life, packed tighter together. At the top of the picture is more-or-less the limit of the ‘urban’ montreal of the day, and it wouldn’t have extended much father in other directions either.

This is back when NDG was the suburbs.

Montreal’s population was recorded at just under one million people in 1931, and you can imagine the majority of those people would have lived and worked in the area photographed above.

Montreal witnessed a steady decline in population between 1971 and 2001, from our all-time high of 1,766,000 to 1,583,000 at the start of the new millennium. The city lost 183,000 people, largely to suburbanization, during that thirty-year period. Concurrently, the city deindustrialized (as other major North American cities did at the time) and gave up considerable tracts of land to highways and parking lots, facilitating the new white collar workers who worked in the new corporate office towers of the urban core.

It’s unfortunate, because we’ll never have this kind of urban density again, and as a consequence I doubt we’ll ever be able to truly replicate the urban lifestyle aesthetic of our first metropolitan era.

René Lévesque Boulevard as it appeared circa 1962, looking east from about Bishop
René Lévesque Boulevard as it appeared circa 1962, looking east from about Bishop

This is downtown Montreal at the beginning of the 1960s. Here you can see the effect cars had on redesigning the city, as what was once an elegant and small street (Dorchester) was transformed into a major urban traffic artery. Dorchester, now Boul. René-Lévesque, was widened starting in the mid-1950s to make way for the new commuter class driving in from neighbourhoods located much farther away than had ever previously been convenient. As ‘Gilded Age’ mansions were torn down they were replaced with massive new buildings, such as the Tour CIBC (seen above, the slender slate-grey tower), Place Ville-Marie etc.

In all the renderings of exposed highway trenches developed for the city, they all sort of look like this - like canals in an American Venice
In all the renderings of exposed highway trenches developed for the city, they all sort of look like this – like canals in an American Venice

Hand-in-hand with the redevelopment of Dorchester came the construction of a major east-west highway, today known as the Ville-Marie Expressway. The Ville-Marie was a success in one manner of thinking because so much of it was put underground (as opposed to above ground, such as Metropolitan Boulevard north of the mountain), meaning it could be eventually covered over again. Unfortunately this took a lot longer and had a more deleterious effect than city planners had imagined. In the 1960s, when planning and construction of the Ville-Marie began, there was this idea, as you can see in the above rendering, that the new ‘sunken’ highway would take the form of a post-modern canal, stimulating new growth immediately next to it. This didn’t really happen as developers were disinclined to build right next to an open highway trench. Moreover, planners back in the 1960s failed to realize just how unappealing an open highway trench would actually be for all the people walking around above.

View of exposed sections of Ville-Marie Expressway, from the Tour de la Bourse, circa 2000
View of exposed sections of Ville-Marie Expressway, from the Tour de la Bourse, circa 2000

This is what the Ville-Marie looked like right before the first serious efforts to recover the lost land actually began. Notice that parts weren’t completely open – the tunnel roof is visible – but that for whatever reason no efforts had been made to reclaim this space. This would change at the start of the new century with the planned redesign of Victoria Square and the development of the Quartier Internationale.

The exposed section, recovered. Notice the CDP Capital building lower left corner, and the enlargement of the Palais des Congrès, over the former exposed tunnel
The exposed section, recovered. Notice the CDP Capital building lower left corner, and the enlargement of the Palais des Congrès, over the former exposed tunnel

During 2002-2003 the square was completely redesigned, concurrently with the construction of the CDP Capital Centre, the enlargement of the Palais des Congrès and the construction of Place Riopelle between the two. All of this was located atop the tunnel. The CDP Capital Centre is particularly impressive (and I’d encourage you to visit it during normal business hours) as the architect designed a building that sits atop the tunnel but doesn’t place any weight on it – the atrium is in fact located directly above the tunnel, with the weight of the building pushed off on to either side.

At around the same time, the Underground City was extended to connect the once separate eastern and western axes through this area. Arguably the most impressive and least used parts of the RÉSO can be found here.

So clearly it is possible to build on top of the tunnel/trench.

The question comes down to cost.

The last remaining exposed  part of the trench - a prime location for new construction
The last remaining exposed part of the trench – a prime location for new construction

This is the remaining open part of the Ville-Marie Expressway, between the new CHUM superhospital and the Palais des Congrès. As you can see, it’s a considerable amount of space. Mayor Denis Coderre wants to build a park atop the highway trench on the easternmost portion. Transport Quebec, the provincial transport ministry, has said, unequivocally, no. They argue it will cost too much without giving any idea as to what they think it will cost.

This is called ‘convenient political obstructionism. It isn’t the plan they don’t like, it’s that the Mayor of Montreal is planning it and, for reasons that still make no sense to me, a highway used almost exclusively by Montrealers is outside the jurisdiction of City Hall.

When the mayor can’t decide to build a park on top of a highway trench without running it through the often anti-Montreal Québec government, you know there’s a problem.

And as to the other two-thirds of the trench, well, there’s enough space here to build an entirely new Palais des Congrès (not that I’d advocate for another convention centre in the same space, but simply to illustrate just how much area we’re actually talking about).

It strikes me as odd the city, province and various private developers couldn’t get together and devise a plan to cover over this remaining section. If costs are as prohibitive as the province seems to believe, then perhaps the recovering job ought to be a public-private partnership. Get private developers to front part of the cost so that they can get the rights to build above. Something tells me this would be an excellent location both for office towers and condominiums, given that this open hole happens to be in the middle of just about everything. I can imagine living and working here would appeal to a lot of people.

The next phase - this is passed for a park on top of a highway in 1982; neat idea, poor execution, worse location.
The next phase – this is passed for a park on top of a highway in 1982; neat idea, poor execution, worse location.

And just in case there’s any doubt it can be done, it has been done before. The Agora pictured above is probably one of our city’s least used (and enigmatic) public spaces because it’s terribly uninviting. Moreover, due to its design and the relative poverty of the surrounding area for far too many years, it was taken over by local homeless people. My first apartment in Montreal was right in front of it and throughout the summer the entirety of Viger Square was a makeshift homeless campground. The single biggest problem with the public spaces created above the Ville-Marie in the late 1970s and early 1980s is that lines of sight across the spaces are blocked by walls and hedges.

I don’t want to see the Agora torn down because I think it might work very well in another part of town, but the fact remains, these places aren’t being used as best they can.

Especially considering the creation of the Ville-Marie Expressway caused the stately Viger Square to be destroyed.
Especially considering the creation of the Ville-Marie Expressway caused the stately Viger Square to be destroyed.

What I’d like to see is large, green, urban parks with clear sight lines across, much like Viger Square before it was demolished to excavate for the Ville-Marie. Given the new housing built in the area in the last decade, I think it would be wiser to create a more traditional green space in this area and move the post-modern agora a little closer to the city centre. I think the agora would work much better in an area in which thru-traffic can be guaranteed and stimulated. This is simply impossible where it currently stands largely because it’s bounded by two major boulevards and there’s not much going on in its current location to stimulate the much needed ‘ballet of the streets’.

All that said – this is our city, our highway, our public spaces and ultimately our problem. The effort to remove the scar left by our efforts to modernize fifty some-odd years ago has only been partially achieved. In order to build a more cohesive city, and further to beautify it and increase population density, we must be given the tools to be masters of our own domain.

Maitres chez nous…

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