Category Archives: Arts & the City

Three-Alarm Fire Nearly Destroys Historic Snowdon Theatre

Snowdon Theatre Fire - March 26th 2016
Snowdon Theatre Fire – March 26th 2016 – credit to Eric Zaidan

That was a close one.

According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…

It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.

The Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace (CDN-NDG herein) borough currently owns the building and quietly put it up for sale back in January. They’re accepting bids until May 1st, though all bidders must be able to put up a $10,000 guarantee just to be considered.

Here’s where things get interesting: local journalist Kristian Gravenor filed an access-to-information request last fall to find out what the borough feels are necessary repairs to make the building usable again.

That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.

Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”

As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.

My guess is it’s likely the former.

Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.

Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.

Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.

So for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.

So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?

The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.

It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?

And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.

Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign
Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign

What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.

Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).

The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.

The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s
The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s

What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.

So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?

It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.

Contact:

Borough Mayor Russell Copeman

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand

City Councillor Peter McQueen

City Councillor Lionel Perez

City Councillor Magda Popeanu

And on a final note, any Montrealphile with an interest in this city’s once grand collection of ‘movie palaces’ ought to purchase Dane Lanken’s book on the subject post-haste.

The odd saga of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s entrance

Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.
Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.

A few years ago I was at O’Hare with an hour and a half to kill between flights and after a quick bite and a coffee I was keen to go have a smoke. Unsure of where the exit was located, I approached two TSA agents and asked “how do I get outside?”

Annoyed, one replied “you go out through the front door.”

Indeed.

Whether notoriously complex to navigate Mid-West international airports or a stately fine arts museum, every good building needs a well-designed, fairly obvious, and effectively welcoming entrance.

Though this may seem obvious, consider there’s been considerable controversy concerning how Montrealers accessed their fine arts museum. The issue of access has led to a major renovation of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Hornstein Pavilion (the neoclassical structure on the north side of Sherbrooke Street), as well as the subsequent ‘permanent closure’ of that building’s massive wooden doors for nearly a decade. And when the museum sought a major expansion in the 1980s, what was ultimately completed was focused on yet another entrance.

I say this because I remarked last weekend that the MMFA’s entrance on the south side of Sherbrooke has been closed for renovations and that patrons were instead to enter through the portico, passing the immense marble columns and oak doors just as Montrealers had done a century ago when the Hornstein Pavilion was a brand new addition to Sherbrooke Street, the crown jewel of the Square Mile.

The front doors of the main pavilion were closed in 1973 when the museum undertook a three-year renovation. They’d remain closed after the MMFA re-opened on the 8th of May 1976 because it was thought the neoclassical styled entrance was elitist and ‘undemocratic’. This wasn’t a uniquely Montreal phenomenon either; several other major North American arts museums were closing the old doors and building new entrances to better connect with the public.

In the case of the MMFA, this move was likely a consequence of the MMFA’s historic attachment to Montreal’s Anglophone elites and the changing political climate of the day (it also happened that the MMFA was an entirely private endeavour up until 1972, at which point it began receiving funding from the provincial government, which in turn helped secure the expansion plan).

To coincide with the opening of the new pavilion built further up Avenue du Musée, architect Fred Lebensold closed the main doors and inserted a new double-ended entrance under the monumental staircase. In lieu of ‘being uplifted physically into a temple of art’, visitors instead went through revolving doors located under bubble domes on either side of the staircase, and down into a main lobby. Organized in this way, visitors would walk through the museum – and the history of art – chronologically, with the oldest items in the museum’s collection located at the lowest level.

There was a practical concern as well – Lebensold argued the opening and closing of the main doors too radically altered humidity levels within the museum. The grand re-opening of the front doors came about in the summer of 1983 to coincide with a major retrospective on the works of William Bouguereau; it would signal the beginning of a new era for the museum, one of large-scale and very popular exhibits, along with new plans to expand.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.

The Bouguereau exhibit and the desire for a major expansion of the MMFA came at around the same time as Bernard Lammare was appointed president of the museum’s board of directors. He was the major driving force, along with Paul Desmarais, to build the museum’s third pavilion, across from the original pavilion and aforementioned 1976 addition (now known as the Stewart Pavilion). What would become known as the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion (completed in 1991), is known to most people today simply as the primary means by which one enters the MMFA. It’s an immense arch made of the same Vermont marble quarried for the original building’s columns and façade, and is located on the south side of Sherbrooke. Standing on Avenue du Musée looking down, it’s just about all you see; the archway defines your path as always leading back to art. From other points on Sherbrooke, it blends into the background a bit better.

Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1990
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1990

I’ve always been intrigued by Moshe Safdie’s Desmarais Pavilion because the most obvious and monumental portion – that of the glass-atrium entrance – isn’t a gallery and doesn’t really involve any art. It’s more like a foyer, a controlled and separate environment where a combination of environmental effects give the impression of grandeur without drawing your eye to any one particular element. You’re simply standing in a deceptively large room that leads to anywhere and everywhere. I feel this impression is emphasized by the notorious staircase that forces visitors to move at half-speed. The galleries, bookshop, restaurant and assorted offices and classrooms are all ‘hidden’ behind the white-marble ‘entrance cube’ and the adjacent remaining façade walls of the New Sherbrooke Apartments, built in 1905 and integrated into the Desmarais Pavilion after a fair bit of lobbying on the part of heritage activists like Phyllis Lambert.

Top: Safdie's first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel built in 1905.
Top: Safdie’s first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel.

Lamarre initially wanted to have the remnants of the New Sherbrooke razed so that Safdie could have a clean slate and create something modern and monumental. Opposition to this idea came not only from heritage activists like Lambert, but also from then-new mayor Jean Doré, who had promised greater public consultation when it came to major urban redevelopment projects. Ultimately, with the excellent examples of Maison Alcan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture perhaps providing some additional motivation, it was decided the new pavilion would integrate the façade of the New Sherbrooke, despite the additional complications of having to work around supporting beams. The end result was widely praised, a nice balance of the modern and innovative combined with the protection and renewal of the antique; new inserted into old without much disturbance.

In the span of 20 years the MMFA changed its front entrance three times, but with the Desmarais Pavilion, it finally had something people seemed to really like. Attendance began to rise steadily and has been high ever since. For the past two years, the MMFA has held the title of most-visited arts museum in all of Canada.

So who knows, maybe there really was something to be said for putting the entrance at street level and closer to the people. If the museum’s attendance numbers continue to rise, I suspect they may need to open more doors.

Sabotaging Viger Square

Rule no.1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase drew shady characters, install better lighting.
Rule number 1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase draws shady characters, install better lighting.

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

A city builds a park costing x millions of dollars with the intent to rehabilitate a given sector of its urban environment and cover over an exposed highway trench. It hires leading landscape architects and local artists to develop a master plan for the park and then sets about building it. At some point in time between the beginning of construction and the new park’s opening day, the city changes fundamental aspects of the master plan and eliminates others with an aim to lowering overall projected costs, claiming the initial vision developed by the relevant experts was too expensive.

Smart politics: a park gets built and various officials make claims they got the job done under budget.

The park opens and then for the better part of the next thirty some-odd years the city a) stops fully maintaining the park and b) actively sets about removing the park’s infrastructure – benches, garbage bins, picnic tables, fountains, lighting etc.

At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square,  I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.
At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square, I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.

After thirty years the city proposes to demolish the old park and replace it with an entirely new park costing y millions of dollars because the park has become undesirable in the intervening thirty-year period. The city argues the park is considered undesirable because a semi-permanent homeless population now lives there, and that the solution to both the park’s undesirability and (somehow) the homeless camp is to spend public money on building a new park (and not a new homeless shelter).

The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.
The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.

This is the situation with Viger Square; the city of Montreal intends to spend public money building a new park to replace the one they – for lack of a better word – sabotaged. Though Denis Coderre seems to have backed off a bit after considerable public outcry from preservationists, urbanists and the family of one of the people responsible for Viger Square’s design, there’s little doubt in my mind the political intent is fundamentally misdirected. As of this writing the proposal presented at the beginning of June has been rejected, more or less at the eleventh hour, after Coderre decided the project was unsatisfactory. Still, he qualifies the park as ‘a bunker.’

Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.
Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.

Up until quite recently the city’s plan called for the destruction of a significant work of homegrown landscape architecture and sculpture to replace it with something banal and unimaginative at a cost of $28 million. This is your money. It was your money that financed the extant Viger Square as well. The idea that we should pay a considerable sum (think of how many new elementary schools $28 million could build) to tear down a fine example of local landscape architecture and sculpture so that the CHUM can have a nondescript ‘front yard’, and then further to lay the blame for the park’s disfunction on its design, rather than the city’s perpetual disinterest in adequately maintaining it, is simply inexcusable.

Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.
Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.

Without question renovation and rehabilitation is the best way forward for Viger Square, but this doesn’t mean starting from square one. Elements of the original design, such as a café kiosk, or a public market, could be easily integrated into what’s already built, and would serve to draw new interest to the square.

Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.
Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.

But what drives me up the wall is that the simplest and least expensive solution would be not to add anything at all; fixing Viger Square is as straightforward as making the fountains work, re-installing park furniture and picking out the weeds. While there’s considerable debate concerning the application of the ‘broken windows theory’ by law enforcement, the idea that a well-maintained urban environment serves to dissuade petty criminality and attract respectable public usage is fairly sensible. If we don’t want our parks and public spaces to become open air drug markets and homeless camps, then we need to ensure these spaces are well-maintained as a bare minimum. It’s common sense.

Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.
Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.

As is, Viger Square is roughly as well-maintained as Place des Nations, which is to say the grass gets cut and that’s about it. As I mentioned previously, someone had the bright idea to remove all park benches and cover over all the garbage cans. No wonder people don’t go there to relax and read a book. Neither of the large fountains, arguably the main attractions to the square, work, nor do the smaller drinking stations. Weeds grow through the cracks of uneven paving stones, metal drains are broken, a waterfall, long since deactivated, has been painted blue. The only flowers I noticed were planted along the periphery; inside the square there are no gardens to speak of. And the periphery is probably the square’s single greatest problem – cement walls disconnect the squares from the street and provide too sharp a distinction from the surrounding urban environment. Removing these could do a lot to change the park’s fortunes.

There's no good reason for this wall. Removing it would  improve pedestrian access to the square.
There’s no good reason for this wall. Removing it would improve pedestrian access to the square.

But if we want a sustainable solution to Viger Square’s homeless population, then the city should consider acquiring the former CHSLD Jacques-Viger, located in the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute at 970 René Levesque East (a stone’s throw from Viger Square and the CHUM). The building is a threatened heritage site that was originally built as a convent and hospital complex, and was then used as a long-term care facility. This would be an ideal location for the CHUM’s public outreach programs, and could easily serve as a homeless shelter, and that’s ultimately what’s needed to make Viger Square inviting again. Closing the square for renovations will force the displacement of the homeless temporarily, but without better services and more beds to get the homeless off the streets, we’re either just delaying the inevitable return of homeless camps to Viger Square, or are displacing them to another public space.

This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?
This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?

Rehabilitating the square is a good idea, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do need to look beyond the mere aesthetics of the park, however, and address the core problem of lacking services for the homeless and transient population. This is why we should start thinking of Viger Square and the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute as inter-related urban rehabilitation projects. As inexcusable as bulldozing Viger Square without acknowledging the city’s role in its demise is, it is unconscionable for the city to displace the only people who have made any use of it, leaving them to continue sleeping outside when a usable building stands just up the street.

Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.
Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.

Mehta, Mahler and the Maison Symphonique de Montréal

Not Mehta or the OSM, but Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Close enough…

Confession: I was neither familiar with Mahler’s Third Symphony, nor the city’s new concert hall, until last night. I know… for shame.*

First off, seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was a treat in and of itself (read Claude Gingras’ spot-on review in La Presse). Mehta was the conductor of the OSM from 1960 to 1967, at the time a major step in his early career and a coup for our city. Mehta then went on to become the musical director and chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later became Musical Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic. He is one of the greatest and most renown living conductors, and the thrill of the experience was palpable amongst concert-goers and musicians alike.

Second, the OSM, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the OSM’s women’s choir and Montreal and McGill children’s choirs did a superb job performing such a demanding and complex piece. The choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony was brilliant, especially given that this was a benefit concert, as (in my opinion) it allowed the OSM to demonstrate its versatility, not to mention the excellent acoustic qualities of the new concert hall. Further, as The Gazette’s Arthur Kaptainis points out, it’s the kind of piece that will appeal to the critical and impress the unfamiliar. I fall in the latter category, though I’ve been developing a greater appreciation for classical music of late.

Third, if the purpose of Tuesday night’s performance was to encourage locals to go to the symphony more often, mission accomplished… you won’t have to tell me twice. What I saw was a world-class orchestra eager to impress a living legend, and in so doing brought the house to its feet. The performance concluded with what felt like a ten minute standing ovation.

That said…

This was my first experience with the new concert hall and I’m feeling a bit let down.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine building; it’s comfortable, modern, well-lit and sounds fantastic too.

However, on the outside it’s dull to the point of being insulting to the OSM and citizens alike. Put it another way, the building’s overall aesthetic qualities don’t match the quality of the orchestra performing within. To me it looks more like Place des Arts’ music school, or a UQAM pavilion, than the home of a major symphony orchestra.

The interior of the concert hall is elegant though the ornamentation seems to me to be trying too hard to be postmodern and ‘fun’. The general aesthetic of the whole construction is of stripped down minimalism common to most projects involving Quebec government funding of late, and while it fits within the greater scheme of both Place des Arts and the Quartier des Spectacles, I still feel it’s too much of the same thing.

Perhaps my discomfort with the new concert hall is in the vein of medium and message being less than congruent; I can’t imagine a tourist would happen upon the concert hall without prompting (i.e. the location isn’t evident, being somewhat on the backside of Place des Arts) and there’s little about the building which says unequivocally what purpose it serves. It doesn’t invite the spontaneous engagement with the city’s culture, and doesn’t say anything about our own cultural values either. This is not to say that all buildings should necessarily be so explicit, but I don’t think it would hurt in this particular case.

After all, we want the OSM (and the other classical music ensembles who makes use of the space) to be cherished by the citizenry and further want a concert hall that is both distinct and recognizable for citizens and tourists alike.

It would also be nice for the most successful elements of Place des Arts to be eventually ‘unpackaged’ and re-distributed elsewhere in the city. The Quartier des Spectacles is without a doubt a successful (though somewhat contrived) urban branding initiative, but it would be unwise to distinguish one particular neighbourhood as cultural nucleus. Disingenuous too. Most of the housing within immediate proximity of Place des Arts isn’t exactly within the price range of most local artists.

In any event, I think it’s just a matter of time before the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal seeks out a new location, and there’s been talk of building an opera house since the Drapeau Era. Perhaps a larger and more distinct concert hall would follow. Were this to happen, new venues should go up outside the Quartier des Spectacles, though not outside the central core of the city.

Incidentally, I think the old Forum site at Atwater would be a great location for a large performance venue… although you’d run into the same problem trying to balance out the various requirements of what would need to be a multi-faceted, somewhat multi-purpose facility. But I don’t know enough to argue whether an opera hall could easily double as home to the OSM and serve the needs of touring Broadway productions simultaneously.

Closing notes: the interior aesthetic of the concert hall, from the audience’s perspective, is marred by the red neon emergency exit signs. It clashes with the woodwork and seems almost like an afterthought designed and installed by hurried bureaucrats. I know it’s absolutely necessary to have emergency signage, but surely it could have been a bit more subtle?

On the other side of the spectrum, the artist’s entrance at the corner of Boul. de Maisonneuve and St. Urbain has all the charm and intimacy of a loading dock office at a pharmaceutical company’s distribution warehouse. This is where the stars of the show enter the building, yet again, their entrance seems like an afterthought, far removed from the main entrance and wholly inappropriate in context given just how unimaginative it actually is.

* (In truth, now that I think about it, I had heard the symphony before, though had forgotten. I won’t forget it now and encourage you to take a listen. It’s well worth it.)

The CBC should consolidate its operations in Montreal

Maison Radio-Canada
Maison Radio-Canada

Recently announced cuts to the CBC/Radio-Canada got me thinking: why is this particular crown corporation’s operations split between three different major Canadian cities and why is the CBC/SRC trying to rid itself of potentially lucrative real-estate?

I can’t fathom why the CBC and SRC aren’t located in the exact same place. As it currently stands, French media is consolidated in the Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal, English media consolidated in the Canadian Broadcast Centre in downtown Toronto, and corporate operations located in Ottawa.

Perhaps this was necessary in the past, but is it still necessary today?

Consolidating all of the CBC/SRC’s major operations in a single location is far more efficient and, perhaps most importantly, would allow a greater degree of cooperation between the two halves of Canada’s public broadcaster.

Quite frankly, the CBC could learn a lot from Radio-Canada. The latter is far more successful than the former in terms of creating interesting, engaging, high-quality programming.

To put it another way, I’d like to watch an English version of Tout Le Monde En Parle.

Or put it this way: 19-2 is a successful police procedural/crime drama set in Montreal created by Radio-Canada that, beginning this year, will appear on the CTV-owned Bravo Canada as an English-language equivalent. An idea created by the public broadcaster succeeds in French but is then sold to private interests for English language development. Why the CBC didn’t develop the English-language version of 19-2 is beyond me; it makes absolutely no sense.

Further, there’s been a plan in place for a few years now for CBC/SRC to sell the Maison Radio-Canada for redevelopment. According to the corporation’s public documents, they’re not supposed to invest in real-estate, and this is why they’re looking to rid themselves of an absolutely massive piece of purpose-built broadcasting property. Apparently, it’s too expensive to invest in upgrading existing facilities, and so they’ll sell the land to become a tenant. Whatever money is made from the sale, if it follows an unfortunate trend established by the Federal Tories, will likely not be equal to the actual and/or potential value of the property. Moreover, whatever money is made from the transaction will ultimately disappear paying the rent.

It’s illogical, in a time of constrained budgets, to limit a crown corporation’s ability to develop long term wealth. There is no wealth, no value, in leasing.

It’s also illogical to spread out a corporation’s major operations in three locations when one could easily be expanded to accommodate the whole.

What’s worse, one of the driving forces behind this proposed sale and redevelopment is that the Maison Radio-Canada has too much space for Radio-Canada’s current needs. In a sense I agree – the parking lots are a huge waste of space begging for redevelopment. But it’s the space inside the building which is thought to be superfluous. If that’s actually the case, why not sell off the corporate HQ in Ottawa and the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto and put the whole operation in the Maison Radio-Canada? Proceeds from the sale of those properties (particularly the latter) could finance the modernization of the MRC for just such a purpose. If they were to go a step further, they would use their real-estate holdings for the purposes of generating revenue to fund a public broadcasting trust, much in the same manner as the BBC has. I’m in favour of the plan to redevelop the expansive Montreal property with residential buildings, commercial and green spaces, but I think a far greater value could be derived over the long term by maintaining ownership of the Montreal site. There’s more money in the long term owning several condos, apartment blocks and commercial spaces than simply selling off the property. The undeveloped property is less valuable than a developed property.

Concentration and consolidation make a lot of sense to me, mostly because I firmly believe it will lead directly to greater cooperation and operational efficiency. I think it would accomplish the task of making our public broadcaster ‘leaner’ due to resource sharing, not to mention the fundamentally lower operating costs and greater quality of life offered in Montreal (as an example, and quite unlike Toronto’s Canadian Broadcasting Centre, properties within walking distance of Maison Radio-Canada are still affordable and there’s an established community of people who work in media located nearby, not to mention a concentration of competition). But to top it all off, if the CBC were to consolidate here with Radio-Canada, maintain ownership of their property and redevelop it, they could potentially get themselves back in the green sooner as opposed to later.

A closing thought. Shame on Heritage Minister and Tory cheerleader Shelley Glover for doing fuck all to help the CBC.

It’s a line anyone interested in Canadian politics is likely to hear time and again as Tory ministers dodge any and all kinds of responsibility for their own portfolios: ‘the (insert vital national interest here) operates as an arms-length government agency and thus we’re not responsible for it’.

Well what the fuck are you good for then?

The whole idea behind crown corporations is that they serve the interests of the people, either by providing a necessary service or by generating revenue for the federal government to lessen the tax burden. In some cases they can do both, but the key is that, if the crown corp is in the red or otherwise not accomplishing its goals, the peoples’ recourse is to elect individuals with plans to make these organizations succeed.

The Tory political playbook goes in the other direction, distancing government from crown corps in an effort to both deny any responsibility (breaking the public’s indirect involvement in the direction of the corporation) in an effort to prime it for privatization. Both the Harper and Mulroney administrations have a bad record of selling off major assets for next to nothing. The end result has almost always been the same: worse service, higher costs to the consumer, less competition. I have no doubt at all the Tories would like nothing more than to privatize the CBC, though for the moment they recognize the negative consequences.

Thus, their policy is that the CBC should die a death from a thousand cuts, a ‘creeping normality’ strategy that makes it impossible for the CBC to compete at all but would ultimately serve to facilitate its dismantling and privatization. If the problem, as a spokeswoman for Ms. Glover puts it, is that “the CBC (needs) to provide programming that Canadians actually want to watch” then why did the Fed not step in to protect the CBC’s lucrative monopoly on sports broadcasting rights? Why isn’t the Fed encouraging the CBC to develop a trust whose value is derived from the corporation’s real estate and infrastructure assets as a means to generate revenue?

And why is the minister responsible for our nation’s cultural heritage blaming the CBC for its shortcomings rather than coming up with a plan to make the CBC a focal point of our cultural identity?

What are we paying her for? To find fault or find solutions?

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.