Rethinking Viger Square’s Rehabilitation

Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.
Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.

This is a bit late, but there’s a petition circulating I urge you to sign. We need to save Viger Square for demolition, as the city now intends to do.

In point form, here’s why:

1. Viger Square’s reputation isn’t reason enough to demolish it.

2. Demolishing the existing square doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

3. It doesn’t make any sense to spend $28 million to demolish the square and build a new public space when the existing square could be rehabilitated at a lower cost.

4. Rehabilitating the square is an opportunity to fully realize the original artistic vision of three prominent Quebec artists.

5. Doing so would likely eliminate all the factors that make Viger Square so generally undesirable to all but the homeless.

6. Improving sight-lines across the park by eliminating the outer walls of parts of the square, in addition to better general upkeep and better lighting is a subtler way of improving security and making the area more inviting. The original plan also called for permanent park fixtures, such as a café and public market.

7. Once the CHUM superhospital opens there will be a significant increase in the number of people living and working in the area, and the only reason why Viger Square became ‘homeless park’ in the first place was as a result of poor city planning resulting in local depopulation. In terms of serving as an important urban focal point, the new hospital will be as important as Gare Viger was a century ago.

8. To my knowledge, there’s an abandoned former convent up on René-Levesque which could be used as a large homeless shelter (it’s outlined in red in the photo above). Viger Square and Berri Square have the same problem – semi-permanent homeless populations that give both spaces poor reputations. Clearly what’s needed most is additional shelter space and social workers to help get these people off the streets, not an entirely new (but ultimately less interesting) public space.

For more information on what was originally intended, check out this video featuring the voice of UQAM architecture professor Marie-Dina Salvione:

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Viger Square, it’s a bit of a local anomaly.

It’s underused public green space, a park many try to avoid in a city that generally values (and uses) its public spaces.

It’s also a radical re-thinking of landscape design, and the creative effort of three noted Quebec artists. That it has developed a poor reputation as a result of being associated with homelessness and drug use is not reason enough to destroy it: reputations can be rehabilitated.

The Coderre administration’s plan to spend $28 million to demolish Charles Daudelin’s Agora is shortsighted and unnecessary. Worse, it neglects the sad fact that the square was never completed to the original design.

Had it been, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Viger Square is a historic public green space; it’s been used as such since the mid-19th century, with its present boundaries taking shape in 1892. At the turn of the 20th century two major institutions took up positions on either side of the square – the École des hautes études commerciales on the Viger side (today a provincial archives building) and Place Viger (Canadian Pacific’s eastern Montreal passenger station and hotel, today a mixed-used residential, commercial and retail space) on the Saint Antoine side. At the time the area would have been bustling with activity, its immediate surroundings supporting a growing French Canadian middle and upper-middle class community.

Place Viger as it appeared in 1900
Place Viger as it appeared in 1900

The area’s high point occurred during the period 1898 (when the station/hotel opened) to 1935 (when the hotel closed) as Place Viger interacted closely with the park across the street, the hotel inviting guests to stroll ‘it’s vast gardens’. The train station would close in 1951 and the building was then sold to the City of Montreal to be used as office space. What destroyed the neighbourhood, so to speak, was the construction of the Ville Marie Expressway in the early 1970s. For whatever reason the decision was made to sacrifice the entirety of the park for the highway trench and then to build a new, modern, park atop the exposed trench.

This work was started in the late-1970s and completed in the mid-1980s. Modern Viger Square was designed as a public square in three distinct parts, set atop the highway to reclaim lost space. Have a look at Kate McDonnell’s photos of the site today.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Montreal never got the public space envisioned by Charles Daudelin, Claude Théberge and Peter Gnass.

The idea they came up with was to create an urban oasis, a place of refuge in the heart of the city. The original design included permanent fixtures, like a café and a small public market, as well as a comprehensive lighting scheme, and vegetation chosen to best interact with largely concrete structure.

None of this was ever implemented. The end result was perceived as cold and uninviting. Daudelin’s Mastodo fountain (in the western square) broke after a few months and never seems to have been repaired. Claude Théberges’ Forces fountain (in the central square) hasn’t been turned on in years. In the late 1980s the redesigned Viger Square began to attract a semi-permanent homeless population, one which exists to this day (the great irony being that the square would indeed serve as a refuge, albeit in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of way for the homeless).

For too many years Viger Square was the public space the city tried its best to forget about, but now that the CHUM superhospital is taking final form and the surrounding land values have increased there’s increased interest to invest in city beautification projects in this specific area. I suppose the city is trying to avoid the embarrassment of an opening-day ceremony taking place next to the city’s premier homeless camp…

Thus, the Coderre administration has come up with a plan to knock down Agora (the collection of raised concrete ‘boxes’) and radically transform the Daudelin and Théberge sections of Viger Square. Conceptual renderings of the proposed new space can be seen here.

This is a terrible idea.

For one the new design is completely uninspired. Whereas Daudelin, Théberge and Gnass came up with an original (though not fully realized) idea for an urban sanctuary, the proposed redesign is flat, banal and too open. Though the city intends to keep the Mastodo sculpture, it looks like it will be moved and decontextualized. As originally conceived, the Mastodo fountain arrangement was supposed to fill a channel with water, collecting in a pond adjacent to a ‘water wall’. In a similar vein, the Forces fountain was to demonstrate water ‘breaking’ through several granite pillars. It’s all quite avant-garde for landscape design, but because the city doesn’t want the homeless bathing in public fountains none of us get a chance to appreciate it as originally conceived.

And this is what brings us back to square one – bulldozing Viger Square and transforming it will make it a less desirable location for local homeless, but it does nothing to solve the homeless problem.

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