Category Archives: Montréal Architecture

Perspective stasis

Notre-Dame Basilica

Notre-Dame Basilica, viewed from Place d’Armes, unchanged since 1843, with the Sulpician Seminary next to it, renovated and expanded in 1701.

Old Royal Bank Tower, viewed from in front of Centaur Theatre

Thankfully they tore down that awful looking parking garage which would have obstructed this view, effectively unchanged since 1927. On the left is the former Canadian Pacific telegraph offices, which I believe still has the remains of a pneumatic tube mail system within.

Looking west-north-west from the Hall Building

Ok, so there are a few more modern buildings in this pic, but unless they build a Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the parking lot, this perspective hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years, although admittedly, it wouldn’t really be possible sans the Hall Bldg.

Concordia students reject sketchy Faubourg acquisition project

The Faubourg Ste-Catherine

Now that Concordia students have voted against the Concordia Student Union’s proposed student centre at the Faubourg, let us take a step back and consider this project objectively, as I’m certain this issue will be back on the table with the next CSU general election. I had the privilege of being elected by the students of Concordia back in 2006 when I ran with the Experience slate, and the Faubourg project was a major motivating factor in my resignation from the CSU in October of that year. Since then I’ve completely abstained from any involvement with Concordia student politics, as I’ve yet to see any change in the culture of nepotism and self-entitlement that was so painfully apparent back in 2006. Keep in mind, this culture has been stimulated by the Concordia administration for years, and projects like the Faubourg are so rife with inherent corruptions and conflicts-of-interest, they stand more than anything else as a testament to a shared political impotence on campus. If something isn’t done soon, any hope of maintaining an institutional memory of self-criticism will be lost, as the Faubourg project already demonstrates. Perhaps it will be the job of future generations of Concordia students to form a critical opposition from scratch, but I would hope we could avoid the intervening years of navel-gazing.

To begin with, the entire scheme reminds me of the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ – why are the indebted students being asked to provide the funds for university real estate? Whatever money the CSU has collected through fee-levies – an estimated $7 million so far – is literally a drop of water in an immense bucket when compared to the long-term acquisition, renovation, reparation and maintenance of a major piece of downtown property. And let’s not mince words – there are no other properties being considered. Aside from the fact that a proposed student centre would require a generally large and continuous piece of property, it would necessarily have to be within the Quartier Concordia. There are few empty lots within the neighbourhood, so new construction is pretty much out of the question (not to mention, if it costs an estimated $50 million to renovate the Faubourg, a new building would be entirely prohibitive based on cost alone). That said, if there are few open lots for new development, there are fewer buildings whose owners are seeking to self-off their property for total re-development. So if the CSU or Concordia administration ever tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the students again by insinuating there are multiple pieces of property under consideration, you’ll know this is bullshit – categorically.

Since we know the Faubourg is, for the time being, the only property being considered by the university, let us consider it. It’s a very old building, originally constructed in the 1920s as a car dealership. It was thoroughly renovated between 1984 and 1986, at which time the Faubourg tower was constructed. Originally, it was designed as an urban market in the same vein as New York City’s Fulton Seaport Market or Baltimore’s Harbour Place. The neighbourhood needed the Faubourg at the time, and it stimulated the renaissance of the Shaughnessy Village, in conjunction with the development of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the LaSalle College building and Concordia’s Library Building. The new project featured office space, a 200-room hotel, condos, a fitness centre, cinema, an international market and many restaurants. Since about 2005 however, the Faubourg hasn’t quite been itself and it seems as though the current owner is quite motivated to sell it off. Enter Jonathan Wener, the man who has been pushing the CSU to acquire the Faubourg ever since he proposed the project to the CSU executive at his ostentatious summer home in the Laurentians back in 2006. I don’t know if Mr. Wener will receive a commission for his role in securing the sale, though I think he’d be remiss not to pursue one. Besides, he made a pretty penny selling the old student centre to Jacques Villeneuve – a bad precedent was set years ago. As he explained it to us four years ago, the student centre could be whatever we wanted it to be, insofar as all student activities were concentrated in this space. Also, the retail space would have to be maintained as is, with the CSU and administration apparently splitting the profits. It was not entirely clear what would happen with the Faubourg Tower, in which Concordia rents considerable space. According to the new plan, the university would also maintain administrative offices in the Faubourg, so whatever space is left over for the students would probably end up being quite small when compared with the overall surface area available in the building. Regardless, we were encouraged to imagine all the potential of this space, which was proposed to us in a manner designed to encourage special interest groups on campus. As I was going through the blueprints for the new Faubourg student centre, I was puzzled to see a large space labelled ‘Muslim prayer space’. Then it became quite clear what was going on – we were not being asked to consider a real estate project as much as we were being told how to sell it to the diverse political organizations on campus.

The university has diligently crafted a new image for itself since the Netanyahu protest got our Hall Building on CNN back in 2002. The new word on the street is that Concordia is the United Nations of universities, where people come from all over the world and participate in the shared pursuit of objective truth blah blah blah. I like the fact that this is generally true, but when it comes to the politics of multiculturalism, we couldn’t be more behind the times. While university spokesperson de jure Chris MoTa likes to point out all the different nationalities and cultures on campus by referencing the clubs sanctioned by the CSU, she does the university a disservice when she applies the same spirit of disingenuous tolerance when performing verbal and logical gymnastics necessary to defend the presence of Scientologists in the Library Atrium. The fact is that we are hardly a unified or cosmopolitan university, we are instead highly divided and played against each other, every single year, during the CSU election. The parties each have their base of special interest groups on campus, and preach messages that would appeal to their base. There are few organizations that can truly claim to be inherently multicultural and open to all students, despite the fact that all campus organizations must be that way according to our own bylaws. Instead, we have excessive division, and those groups that are truly open and engaging are often in the minority and on the side of the political ‘left’ on campus. And so when it comes time to discuss a student centre, the exclusive special interest groups are appealed to with promises of special space in a special building just for them. Enter the Muslim prayer space. The MSA is by far one of the largest and best-organized student groups on campus, so much so that winning their vote is crucial to winning the CSU election. Is it any wonder we were encouraged to speak often about this space (I guess its more realistic to put a large prayer space for the MSA in the basement of the Faubourg than it is to ‘suspend’ a thousand-person auditorium on its roof)? What the students ought to be looking for in a student centre is a space for shared experience, cultural exchange and intellectual openness, and not a gallery proving our ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ of one-another. As a favourite South Park character once pointed out, you tolerate a cold; cultures are meant to be embraced, they’re meant to be inclusive. How the CSU and the university treat the MSA is simply repugnant, and disingenuous to the open spirit of Islam, as they are both complicit in a divide and conquer method of managing the student body politic.

With this in mind, we become aware of the danger of allocating limited student space to a specific function for a specific group. And if the student centre is supposed to cater to all the specific needs of all the specific groups on campus, well, you realize just how quickly we’d render the limited space in the Faubourg quite useless. Its utterly futile to think everyone an be pleased all the time, and therefore, all student space must be, by its very nature, designed to encourage and foster a new collaborative spirit. So, multi-religious prayer space is fine, and the MSA can sign up with the Wiccans, Rastafari and Evangelical Christians on campus to share it. And of course all of this is aside from the fact that we ought to be more focused on the inherently open and objective arts and sciences than the various dogmas of different religions. By providing prayer or meeting space for any religious organization on campus we are tacitly supporting division between students in general, and a divided student body is much easier to control, far easier to please with bread and circuses.

I think a student centre is, in the long-run, a genuinely good idea, but the students should not be asked to pay for it, neither should we make any money off of it – let us be free of this corrupting influence. Whatever new plan is put forth by the university administration, we should be quick to counter any element of the plan designed to divide the student body and foster the development of special interest groups, as the building must reflect the spirit of the student body through form and function. And if the politically inclined on campus ever want their university to reflect a more progressive nature, a more philanthropic character, we can start by getting a lawyer to help the CSU free that seven million dollars for the student centre and have it used instead to provide thousands of poor Montrealers full university scholarships. The university is filled with people who can all talk a good political game, but its time for the self-congratulatory rhetorical auto-fellatio to stop. I’d recommend putting our money where our mouth is instead.

Cultural Synthesis

Church of St-Micheal and St-Anthony, Montréal

This is a picture of the Church of St-Micheal and St-Anthony, in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montréal. Originally built for the largest anglophone parish in Montréal, the church initially served the Mile End’s original Irish working-class population. Completed in 1915, the church is particular for its generally Byzantine-style architecture, undoubtedly an homage of sorts to the Hagia Sophia, with a large copper-clad dome and a minaret. However, upon closer inspection you’ll notice traditional Irish symbols, most notably the ubiquitous shamrock, which take the form of reliefs and windows, among other things. In 1964, the church opened a Polish mission to reflect the change in local religious demographics. Today it serves a primarily Polish/Italian congregation.

So to recap: Montréal has a beautiful church built for an Irish population, in a Byzantine style heavily influenced by a massive cathedral/mosque in Istanbul. It serves a predominantly Polish and Italian congregation with additional services in Ukrainian, and is strategically located in Montréal’s Jewish/Greek/Hipster neighbourhood.

You gotta love how we do cosmopolitanism…

Slated for renewal – Grain Silo No. 5

Montréal's Grain Silo No.5

Montréal’s historic Pointe-du-Moulin and Grain Silo No. 5 has recently been purchased by the Canada Lands Corporation, and I for one am rejoicing, as this is a major step towards seeing a major renovation of several large properties in the Griffintown/Cité-du-Havre area. The CLC’s plan can be found here – this would be one of five sites destined for renovation. As iconic as this building is, the space is generally dead, and the South-Central re-development, which began in earnest ten-fifteen years ago in the Sault-aux-Recollets neighbourhood, needs to be propelled West to assist with the transformation of Griffintown, and later, Pointe-St-Charles. But I would hope that every effort is made to integrate Pointe-du-Moulin with the rest of the urban core, so public transit to this area will need to be ameliorated, if it is to become an extension of the city, as opposed to a segregated wasteland. Moreover, such a location seems ideal for a major tourist destination, and I know the idea of a multi-purpose museum (including ‘traveling’ exhibits from the city’s principle museums – I’m glad this didn’t go too far) at the site was batted about a few years ago. Spacing Montréal provides some analysis and some great shots of the complex, and Héritage Montréal has considered the site to be threatened for some time – I think it’s pretty clear the prominence of the site, and our fascination with the rugged beauty of it, the juxtaposition of an island of rusting industrial calm surrounded by the polished facade of the Old Port – a dark and quintessentially modern Montréal aesthetic. In sum, I’d hate to see condos here, but what’s for certain is that a massive industrial ruin is far from ideal given it may impede development around it. However, if it was a functioning building that retained the aesthetic of an industrial ruin, well, I could certainly live with that. For the time being, the CLC could do the city a favour and allow more access to the site. Public consultations next year won’t be worth much if the people don’t have a good idea about what’s feasible here, and what this space is like, up close and personal.

A Modest Proposal { No. 3 } – Windsor Station & The Forum

Windsor Station, with John A. Macdonald memorial in foreground, Place du Canada

The last thing Brian Mulroney ever did as Prime Minister was to officially break ground at the site of the Molson Centre, now the Bell Centre, current home of the Montréal Canadiens. It was one of those great photo-ops, as ‘the Chin’ heralded in a new era for his favourite city’s favourite sons. Progress, development, and a PM delivering a gift to the city (though of course he had nothing to do with it officially, but given his method of slime-based business practices, it wouldn’t surprise me if he made some backdoor profits). What he didn’t know is what it would cost us in the future, as Canadian Pacific would vacate Windsor Station, its home for over eighty years, four years later. In addition, the placement of the Molson Centre immediately to the west of the station severed it from CP track, which now stops at an open platform on the east side of the venue. I doubt Mulroney had any notion rail travel would be so important seventeen years later, and that if the city has any real interest in expanding service and operations, another station would be necessary. What makes the Molson/Bell Centre so infuriating is that it added nothing to its surroundings in terms of business development, as a stroll down the south side of St-Antoine will attest to. So we got a state-of-the-art venue, but we lost the functionality of a landmark, a major corporation, and by extension, the move from Atwater further led to the detriment of the neighbourhood (let’s face it, the Pepsi Forum is an eyesore and the whole western edge of the city has slowly eroded since 1996).

Pepsi Forum, an 'entertainment complex'...

There’s no doubt the Bell Centre is a success unto itself; it’s an excellent hockey rink which has sold out every game for the last four years – certainly the Habs have a lot to do with it, but if the building weren’t well designed and an experience unto itself, I’m certain more people would stay home to watch the game. Moreover, it’s also a half-decent music venue, attracting the overwhelming majority of the city’s big-name acts. This last point is contentious, as many hard-core concert goers have told me the acoustics could be better, but I digress. The question is – is the Bell Centre replaceable?

I’d argue that it is, that its probably already being discussed and that the further inconvenience of its placement is justification alone to demolish it and have the Habs play somewhere else.

Architecturally, I’d say it offers nothing to the cityscape. It is a purely functional building with a design and style thoroughly influenced by commercial concerns – it’s not a landmark, it’s already beginning to look dated, and has all the soulful expression as a highway 40 turnkey warehouse built by Broccolinni!

So perhaps its time to move hockey back to Atwater?

Montréal Forum, 1970s, from a postcard

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Atwater area is in dire need of a major overhaul and renovation, especially considering that this used to have a very different aesthetic and character – it was upscale, a prestige address. With the Montréal Children’s Hospital set to vacate their Cabot Square address in a few years when the Super-hospital is completed, the area is going to need a few new anchors to inject new revenue into the area. Recycling the existing Pepsi Forum into a new sports and entertainment venue seems logical, given the attachment the area has with such diversions. Moreover, the Forum block is a very large piece of property, one of the few within the urban core capable of supporting such a large building. Ideally, a new Forum would be built to accommodate some of the current tenants, while others could be moved to Place Alexis-Nihon, or integrated into an expanded Atwater Underground (why the Forum isn’t directly connected to the Metro never made any sense to me, this could be fixed).

Now, with the Bell Centre demolished, Windsor Station could be renovated into a fully functional train station, meaning that Central Station could move some of its VIA operations to make room for additional AMT operations, allowing for the expansion of Montréal’s rail capacity by having a segregation of services between two dedicated stations, each connected to the other, the Underground City and four Métro stations. The concentration of services, hotels, connections etc between the two stations is exceptional, and a fully functioning Windsor Station could provide the necessary localized economic spin-off an insulated building like the Bell Centre could never offer.

Food for thought – I think we had it right back in the day, and this is something worth reconsidering.

Where’s the pork? New bus shelter to cost 16k per unit!

Proposal for new bus-shelter design

Andy Riga of the Montréal Gazette reports on the STM’s new design for bus-shelters, part of the transit society’s new, and so far successful, branding and design campaign. However, each new bus stop, and the current figure is 400, will cost 14-16 thousand dollars per, with the total project costing somewhere in the area of 14 million. This project is supposed to be implemented by 2013, which means there must be a degree of modularity and/or production-line assembly if they’re to be installed so quickly. The last design cost 6-8 thousand per, though they were admittedly simpler. The new ones are to come complete with motion-sensor lighting, electronic display screens, anti-graffiti treatments and, perhaps best of all, sleek, modern design, worthy of our UNESCO City of Design status. There will be no heating installed, which makes me wonder how these bus stops are as expensive as a small car. Moreover, at prices like this, it makes me think perhaps the cost is inflated, an indication of our province and city’s never-ending problem with getting ripped off by unions, the construction industry, other levels of government, or any combination of the three.

Personally, I like the design, and the features of each stop, though for the price I would hope we’d be able to get more than 400 built. Now, if the 14 million dollar price-tag is paying for the project to be completed on-time – that is by 2013 – I’d have to grudgingly accept its probably worth it.

But that I’m suspicious of a potential inflated cost and, further, that part of the cost may simply be insurance that the project comes in on-time, reminds me that this city has a problem sustaining development. The list of stalled, delayed, and defunct projects in this city is long and growing, and it ultimately rests with the voting public to insist on self-correction. If not, the paralysis of inertia may swallow us whole.

On purely aesthetic grounds though, I have to say well-done. Not outstanding, but superior to what we currently have. Unfortunately, a bus-shelter is hardly an artistic statement, and I think the STM knows that despite the potential for an aesthetic justification of cost.