Pointe-à-Callière Going Underground

Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal - photo credit to Derek Smith
Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal – photo credit to Derek Smith

The Pointe-à-Callière historical and archeological museum is going underground and expanding for the city’s 375th anniversary.

Perhaps borrowing a cue from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (whose pavilions are connected underground though unfortunately still not directly accessible from the RÉSO/Underground City), P-a-C’s expansion program seeks to link several pavilions together via an underground passageway stretching the length of Place d’Youville. An antiquated sewer running from Place Royal to McGill Street in Old Montreal shows evidence of six distinct epochs in Montreal history dating back to the founding of Ville Marie in the mid-17th century and will developed to act as the ‘historical/archeological’ spine and foundation of the expanded institution. The current museum is centred on Place Royal at the intersection of Rue de la Commune and Rue du Place d’Youville. By 2017 it will stretch all the way to the Customs House on McGill, effectively linking Old Montreal with the Vieux Port along a linear axis.

What can I say? This is brilliant.

The underground expansion will bring people directly into contact with the veritable foundation(s) of the city.

Getting a better frame of reference and knowledge of this city’s history will be as simple as walking about ten minutes in a straight line, in the climate controlled comfort of the next evolution of our Underground City.

The expansion is novel in its use of disused infrastructure (such as the William Collector and the vaults of the Customs House) as part of the expansion, rather than building a large and entirely new above-ground structure. Thus there’s no direct interference with the city above ground, no dramatic altering of local built environment.

It’s cheaper than the alternative and won’t leave any major visible trace other than Place d’Youville’s conversion into a something that looks more like a park and a lot less like a parking lot.

And best of all, it is so quintessentially Montreal to recycle old buildings, basements and tunnels for the purposes of better connecting the populace with its history. Our history is literally underground and so, for that reason (and keeping in mind P-a-C’s role as both archeological and historical museum), this expansion project is particularly well-conceived.

The new Pointe-à-Callière will include a total of 11 pavilions and several buildings of historical value. In addition to the post-modern main pavilion (Éperon, 1992), there is Place Royal (the site of the first public market, circa 1676), the Old Customs House (designed by John Ostell 1836-37), the converted former Mariner’s House and the d’Youville pump house (1915).

Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering
Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering

The westward expansion will grow along the old William Collector, a sewer that was once the Little Saint Pierre River. No longer used for such purposes, the sewer will serve as a tunnel allowing access to other underground locations where history and archeology blend so perfectly together. Among the new pavilions connected to this subterranean passageway: the original Fort Ville-Marie (1642), Saint Anne’s Market (and former Parliament – 1832), the firehouse (1904), the old general hospital/ Grey Nun’s Motherhouse (1693/1747) and a new pavilion located in the underground vaults of the Customs House on McGill Street (1916).

This is an exciting and well-deserved expansion, in my opinion, and further proves the ‘Underground City’ is a lot more than just a series of interconnected shopping malls. It’s imaginative and unique and is wonderfully appropriate given that it will pull so many distinct historical periods, places, ideas and characters together in a rather straightforward manner. Places and times plugged in to one another along a route – in essence, a life source – that has been at the centre of life in our city since Day 1.

I really can’t imagine a better way to tell our story than to literally go directly to place where it all started. I’m also keen as to how it reinforces this notion that Montreal is a city both literally and figuratively attached to its history, growing as we do from our roots and with traces of our history and presence so integrated into our consciousness.

Under ideal circumstances the underground passageway would be open to the public as a branch of the RÉSO. Under really, really ideal circumstances they’ll continue expanding underground – albeit in the opposite direction – so that you could walk from Place Royal to Place d’Armes by way of Notre Dame Basilica, eventually leading to the Métro station and RÉSO access point at the Palais des Congrès.

(Yes, I think it’s weird that Place d’Armes is not connected to Place-d’Armes; it’s really not that far and the ground underneath the square was partially excavated long ago for the former public toilets. Plus, climbing up the hill from the Métro to the square in winter is a pain in the ass).

Place Royale set up as a kind of 'living history' temporary exhibit - photo credit to McMomo, 2009
Place Royale set up as a kind of ‘living history’ temporary exhibit – photo credit to McMomo, 2009

Also, Place Royale looks like a sarcophagus or a crypt. It’s bare and unappealing. If I could make one recommendation, it is that Place Royale be given something of a make-over as the eastern entrance to Pointe-à-Callière. Some planter boxes, trees, benches etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge renovation, just something that attracts people to the area. It was once the focal point of colonial era life in our city and today it gives the impression of sterility and stillness. This should change. The museum’s underground expansion is excellent, but it still needs to engage and interact with a broader public (i.e. tourists) that may not be familiar with the rather expansive museum operating beneath their feet. Ergo, I think a more ‘traditionally’ welcoming Place Royale would serve the museum, and Old Montreal generally speaking, quite well. A little more green to contrast with the dull grey and the provision for park furniture to encourage this space’s use wouldn’t cost much.

But of course, what would be really wild is if the space was used as a seasonal open air market, just as it was originally used. This, to me, would be the ‘icing on the cake’ vis-à-vis the historical ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of the museum’s mission. As great as it will be to interact with the remnants of historical eras as the museum intends it, I’m keen to see spaces of historical value used for the purposes that made them historically valuable in the first place. Thus, the site of the city’s first public market ought to be a public market. That way the link with the past is inescapable and the function of the public space remains true to its form. Place Royale’s purpose was to bring people together; today it seems to be generally unoccupied even at the heights of the tourist season simply because there’s nothing in the space to accommodate people. Adding some plants and temporary vendor stalls could turn all this around and potentially further serve to drive more people to this deserving and innovative institution.

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