Category Archives: Montréal Architecture

A modest proposal { No.2 }

Biosphere in Winter

This is the former American Pavilion, designed by Buckminster Fuller for Expo 67. See this site Рperhaps the best Expo 67 website ever created, an excellent resource. Currently, it is the location of the Biosphere of Montr̩al, an Environment Canada museum dedicated to the ecology of the St-Lawrence River Valley.

Originally, the geodesic dome was covered by an acrylic skin, which burned off in an amazing fire (no one was hurt). Fuller had the idea that perhaps large tracts of city could be placed under massive geodesic domes so as to trap pollution within, filtering it out through special ventilation systems which would clean the polluted air before releasing it into the atmosphere. As you can well imagine, such domes would trap greenhouse gases within, so if they implemented this on a larger scale in Montréal, well, winter wouldn’t be such a pain in the ass now would it?

The American Pavilion aflame, 1976

The question that needs to be asked is: should the Biosphere get its skin back? And/or – should we build a dome to cover a part of the city, perhaps a large residential area close to the downtown, and create an artificial environment within? Fuller had some far out ideas for how we should re-organize our lifestyles to anticipate future environmental concerns, and I’d have to recommend Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth as an excellent example of very avant-garde thinking. The effects of our poor long-term environmental planning are starting to manifest themselves, and any move to counter-act the carbon footprint of a major city would be a step in the right direction. And hell, if we built a large dome, people would notice, people would come and visit and ask us for help in building their own. I mean, who’s building gigantic geodesic domes these days? It’d be something…

Expo 67 was a very modernist exhibition of solutions to environmental and design problems discovered over the course of the twentieth century, and the American Pavilion was preserved because of the statement it made – solutions for future problems exist now, and people can orient themselves towards the future in order to anticipate and better react to what’s coming.

So, the second modest proposal Рbuild a geodesic dome over a part of Montr̩al, and create an artificial biosphere within. Demonstrate in no uncertain terms how such a construction can reduce the local carbon footprint, and give our citizens a tropical place we can escape to when its -30 C!

Dangerous hypocrites and their effect on architectural preservation

The Jeunes Patriotes du Québec, our very own brownshirts...

These happy looking fellows are the Jeunes Patriotes du Québec, a fascist organization dedicated to Québec independence, and apparently, saving old churches. The JPQ organized a protest over the weekend to demonstrate their belief that Québec’s religious heritage ought to be better preserved. Currently, the Archdioscese of Montréal wants to tear this 105 year-old Hochelaga-Maisonneuve church down and put up social housing on its spot.

The young patriots base their argument on the idea that our religious heritage is sacred, and that the church, for better or for worse I suppose, forms an indelible mark on the culture and personality of Québec. That the RC Church held the Québecois people under their thumb for over a century, abused countless children and kept our society in the long shadow of Norman provincialism seems lost on these thugs, who would like you to believe they are guerilas (again, its all just a guess, the rhetoric of their website is confused to say the least). Moreover, even though most of Québec society is secular – and has been better off for it – the JPQ wants you to believe that Québec sovereignty is somehow related to Vatican real-estate, and what they choose to do with it. As far as I see it, the JPQ is simply tail-hooking an issue for urban preservationists, and in the process turning a simple question about what to do with an old church into a clarion call to arms to protect Québec from … somehow, English people (?). If a broken, unused old church is torn down – perhaps even recycled – and replaced with social housing units, does that mean we’re lose something about our cultural identity as well?

So which is it – are we uniquely devout Catholics or independently secular Modernists? Or are we Enlightened hypocrites? Its tough, and I can’t come up with a simple answer. The complex one goes like this: I can’t escape the long-term psychological impact of living in a Catholic society – hopefully I can use it for good and it will colour my worldview in a unique and palpable way. Ergo, don’t tear down old churches, find new uses for them. But when common-sense sustainable urban planning gets mixed up with ultra-nationalist opportunism, the credibility of the preservation movement takes a hit. This is why casual association with this group, or any other form of extremism – even if it is only rhetoric – is anathema to the success of the broader goal of social-cohesion through good design and conservation.

But when these idiots show up, it gives the impression that we don’t know our history or culture from a hole in the ground.

Here’s a video they made of their marching band. Just because they look, sound, and act crazy doesn’t mean we should ignore them. And if Québec ever needs to become an independent nation, whoever’s in charge should make sure they’re dealt with first.

There’s little more dangerous than a self-proclaimed patriot with no idea what he’s supposed to be defending.

With compliments to an anonymous Newfoundlander

Sun Life Building - Montréal

A good friend recently asked me which building here in Montréal tops my list as favourite. Didn’t take me very long to choose the Sun Life Building, a Montréal landmark sans-pareil. Built over the course of twenty years between 1913 and 1933, the SLB is made of Stanstead Granite, and towers some 26 floors above Dorchester Square in the Central Business District of Montréal. It was, at one point, the tallest and largest building in the British Empire, a title later held by Place Ville-Marie. The building was deemed an ideal location for the storage of the British crown jewels during the Second World War, as it was widely believed the building could sustain significant damage via direct bombing without succumbing. I still hope they were right.

The interior was renovated after Sun Life moved out in 1978. A small local office is maintained by the company, which precipitated the ‘Anglo Exodus’ after the passage of Bill 101 in 1978 when they decided to uproot the operation and sail on down the 401 to Toronto. Many other major corporations followed, which only makes the list of major corporations still operating out of Montréal that much more significant (in my opinion). Regardless, the building is still considered to be a major piece of local real estate, and is well used. The building has neo-classical and art-deco elements, providing a well-proportioned monument which maintains an excellent relationship with the square in front of it. Few other buildings in the city are complimented as well – its almost as if the park was made for the building.

Starting in December, I believe, a ‘player-celesta’ dating from the very early part of the 20th century, plays sheet music piped outside by speakers, flooding the square below with beautiful music. The last few times I heard it, it was around 5pm, and was preceded by the church bells of St-George’s Anglican. The centre of the city was alive with pleasant music, and all around me I saw the weariness of a long day’s work dissipate just long enough to manifest itself in the form of smiling faces as far as I could see.