Category Archives: Montréal public art

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.

Peter Doig – No Foreign Lands

Pelican (Stag) - 2004, oil on canvas
Pelican (Stag) – 2004, oil on canvas

For a change I’ll be brief.

I hadn’t heard of Peter Doig until I saw the announcement of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibit. Now I’m wondering whether I’ve been living under a rock my whole life. I think I’ve found the inspiration I’ve been looking for.

Doig was born in Scotland in 1959 and was raised first in Trinidad before moving to Montreal in the mid 1960s. He would grow up here and work here for a spell in the mid-1980s before eventually finding his way to London and then back to Trinidad. It’s hard to describe his work in and of itself (the wikipedia entry describes it as ‘metamodernism’) but my first reaction was that it fell somewhere between impressionism and expressionism, but executed with an almost pop art indifference regarding the medium.

In terms of artists, it was clear that Matisse, Cézanne and Munch had served as early inspirations, with Gauguin’s South Pacific paintings serving as the most direct reference.

Doig’s early work feature snowy Canadian landscapes quite prominently, but the MMFA’s latest exhibit look principally at works inspired from Doig’s current and past home in Trinidad. I found it fascinating that the early influence of the Group of Seven would come through so clearly in Doig’s expressive landscapes of lagoons, jungles and beaches. Splashes of vibrant, living colour. Quite a contrast to his earlier work, yet in a way quite in keeping with an established Canadian abstract impressionist school, and focused on a land both exceptionally different from Canada yet also intimately related to us. Peter Doig’s journey from Edinburgh to Trinidad, then on to Montreal, London and back to the Caribbean is reflected in his art – his work is so rife with reference it’s self-referential (such as the image above, which can be seen along with the work that inspired it, an earlier piece by the artist based on a photograph he had seen in a National Geographic that he had adapted to something else he had seen in Trinidad!)

But even though the inspiration is clear, the end product is still wholly original, a new way of seeing things.

The selection of Doig’s paintings and sketches put forward by the museum shows us a consistent and prolific artist who has attempted to bring impressionism to 21st century terms all the while remaining ‘true to the roots’ as it were. Though the exhibit was surprisingly small, it was well located in the historic Hornstein Pavilion though I would have preferred if more of the artist’s work had been exhibited outside the galleries so that they could contrast the elegant beaux-arts style of the oldest of the MMFA’s four pavilions (much in the same fashion as they did with the glassworks of the Chihuly exhibit). But all that aside, worth seeing a couple of times. It’s on til the 5th of May 2014.

Also – be sure to see the Stewart design pavilion as well. I made it a point of stopping by after seeing the No Foreign Lands and was surprised by the eclectic collection they’ve got going on there.

A List of Places Oddly Not Connected to Montreal’s Underground City

Credit to Michel Boisvert and Martin Gagnon from UdeM's Observatoire de la ville intérieur
Credit to Michel Boisvert and Martin Gagnon from UdeM’s Observatoire de la ville intérieur

You’ve probably heard this factoid once before – Montreal has the world’s largest underground city. It’s true, though an unfortunate number of American tourists routinely come here hoping to see some kind of super-sized subterranean lair replete with cave-dwelling French Canadians only to find an elaborate mass-transit system and shopping mall complex instead.

That’s the complaint I hear from most Montrealers – much of the Underground City seems to be nothing but a massive and irritatingly homogenous mall stretching between Métro stations. It seems boastful, maybe even delusional to call it a city.

That was certainly my first, and somewhat extended, impression of the RÉSO, as the Underground City is officially known.

But as we barrel down head-first into winter I recall my sincere appreciation for the RÉSO – the warm-cut. There are some 32 kilometres of pedestrian tunnels and 120 exterior access points concentrated in a 12 square kilometre area that roughly defines Montreal’s Central Business District. Some 500,000 Montrealers use the RÉSO every day on average, and it represents a unique component of the city’s public transit infrastructure.

If Montréal were to be compared to the human body, I see the Métro as the city’s circulatory system, the RÉSO as the lungs and the Place Ville-Marie/Gare Centrale complex as the heart.

And I’m but a red blood cell travelling through the system.

Or at least that’s the way I see it. Once I’m in the RÉSO, I feel a tangible connection to a vastly larger system. I feel like I move faster when walking through the tunnels, as though the tunnels were encouraging me to trot at a swift pace. I feel like everything’s only a five minute walk away, regardless of the actual time it takes. I like that there’s always an entrance nearby, that warm-cuts are a thing, that because so much of the city’s commercial office space and corporate infrastructure (convention centres, hotels, sports venues, etc.) is interconnected tens of thousands of white collar workers have abandoned their cars and cabs and now use a combination of foot power and public transit for their daily transportation needs.

I like that you can walk around underground for over an hour and still not see all of it.

I like that I can plan my routes architecturally, functionally – enter at university, walk through a massive performance venue, find yourself passing a fountain in a cave-like shopping mall, go down the escalator and down the hall to the government offices, follow the signs and meet me in the convention centre by the lipstick forest and we’ll stop by the café next to the reflecting pool in the atrium of the horizontal skyscraper.

Yeah, my directions are crystal clear…

In any event, the RÉSO is a testament to some fascinating modernist-era urban planning ideas about how space is rationalized, how urban functions are aligned, connected and integrated and what interactions people and cities should have with their immediate environment. The Underground City was in part a response to our city’s meteorological and climactic realities but it also drew inspiration from architects and planners who were envisioning self-contained future cities. Montreal benefitted in having a very large area of the urban environment ready for a major transformation (in our case, the massive open rail-yard trench where Place Ville-Marie stands today) as early as the mid-1950s, and within a decade planners were already looking beyond cars as the ecological damage caused by carbon emissions began to become evident. The expansion and development of the RÉSO has given us a veritable city within a city, one in which, increasingly, it is possible to live a completely insulated, integrated urban lifestyle.

Montreal’s Underground City may come off as a bit banal today, but I’m confident, as usage increases, so too will our imaginations with regards to what we can do with it, and how we interact with it. I’d certainly love to see all those new condo projects linked up, so that we can boast of an actual urban population who calls this underground city home. I’d further like to see more open, public spaces – the idea of a small underground park has always appealed to me. And if only we could get the annual weeklong Art Souterrain project to evolve into a permanent display of art throughout all facets of the underground city. Some ‘street’ vendors wouldn’t be half bad either.

While this kind of lifestyle might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can easily imagine this appealing to a new generation of young urban families. To put it another way, I don’t think it will be too long before we see condo towers with two or three bedroom units, medical clinics, 24hr pharmacies and daycare services. Condos are about branded living experiences, it’s just a matter of time before all the yuppies graduate from their ‘urban chalets’ to something more age and family appropriate. As the dream of affordable suburban home ownership is pushed farther and farther away from the city by rising on-island real estate prices, an entire generation of young families won’t have much of a choice but to stay in the city, close to work and without the added expense of a car.

But I’ll expand on that another day, until then I’ll leave you with the list you came for.

The Montreal Forum, as it appeared in 1996 prior to its conversion into architectural diarrhoea
The Montreal Forum, as it appeared in 1996 prior to its conversion into architectural diarrhoea

1. The Forum.

Despite the fact that there’s a tunnel stretching across Saint Catherine’s Street to Cabot Square, Place Alexis-Nihon and the Atwater Métro segment of the RÉSO is not connected to the most hallowed venue in professional sports history (even if all it is today is nothing but another shitty mall). I wonder if it would be a better mall were it connected. I wonder if it would be anything else if it were connected for that matter.

CLSC Métro, not connected to the Métro - not mine
CLSC Métro, not connected to the Métro – not mine

2. The CLSC that’s actually sitting directly on top of the St-Mathieu exit of Guy-Concordia Métro.

Yes, I get that it’s but a mild inconvenience to have to step outside to get back into the building you just stepped out of. That’s exactly why they should’ve been connected in the first place – it’s inconvenient otherwise. I don’t understand why all the apartment towers around this Métro entrance aren’t also connected by their own tunnels – this would be one very appealing reason to live here (and there aren’t many others).

McLennan Library, credit to McGill University
McLennan Library, credit to McGill University

3. McGill University.

It’s just weird that McGill University isn’t directly accessible from McGill Métro station, this despite the fact that both the Bronfman Pavilion and the McClennan Library are both just across Sherbrooke Street from the Mount Royal Centre and Scotiabank Building, which are themselves connected to both Peel and McGill stations. Worse still, McGill apparently has a large, rather intricate network of tunnels criss-crossing campus, but most are closed and/or off-limits. This is quite unlike the Université de Montréal, which boasts both a network of inter-connected buildings, but direct access to the Métro as well.

Tour Telus, formerly CIL House - not mine
Great shot but not my own sadly; a stately and elegant modernist office tower, under appreciated in my opinion

4. The Telus Building, formerly CIL House.

Diagonally across from PVM and just a touch north of the Square-Victoria’s northernmost entrance, it’s a prime real estate office tower with, I’m guessing a couple thousand people moving in and out every day, yet it’s disconnected despite its proximity to the absolute mega centre of the RÉSO network.

This was probably some kind of promotional postcard from the 1920s, showing the original building and the expanded tower
This was probably some kind of promotional postcard from the 1920s, showing the original building and the expanded tower

5. The Sun Life Building and Dorchester Square

A similar situation, the Sun Life Building has three full underground floors and sits just across the street from PVM and yet remains after all these years disconnected. In fact, several prominent buildings on Dorchester Square remain outside the underground realm, and the square itself has no chic Art Nouveau entrance, such as you might find in Square Victoria. I find this particularly odd given that Dorchester Square is quite literally in the middle of four Métro stations and is surrounded by branches of the Underground City. Perhaps this is because planners wanted people to step out for fresh air once in a while… not a bad place to force this to happen.

L to R: 1100 René-Lévesque, Tour CIBC, Le Windsor, Sheraton Centre
L to R: 1100 René-Lévesque, Tour CIBC, Le Windsor, Sheraton Centre

6. Tour CIBC, the Sheraton Centre and 1100 Boul. René-Lévesque Ouest

These three buildings are all quite literally located across the street from a direct connection to the RÉSO through 1250 Boul. René-Lévesque, also known as the IBM-Marathon Building. I would have figured the hotel, at the very least, would have been connected some time ago.

Come to think of it, I don't care for either of these buildings. I find them uninspired.
Come to think of it, I don’t care for either of these buildings. I find them uninspired.

7. Cité du Commerce Electronique.

Just a short walk up from Lucien-L’Allier Métro station, but same old same old, not connected and no one seems to have even considered it. I’m hoping the multiple new condo developments going on all along the boulevard changes this, but from what I’ve heard the city’s got no one in charge to push such a project through. At the very least you’d figure somebody in the planning department would have this as some kind of a priority.

The new Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, highlighted in white
The new Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, highlighted in white

8. The Montreal Museum of Fine Art

The four, soon to be five pavilions of the MMFA are interconnected with subterranean passageways stretching across both Sherbrooke and du Musée. With the construction of the new pavilion the museum will stretch farther south along Bishop Street, putting it within range of being connected to Concordia’s recently expanded segment of the Underground City. This means that, if the museum were to be connected, one could theoretically walk from above Sherbrooke all the way down to Saint Catherine’s and Guy without freezing or getting your feet wet.

And that’s not half bad.

I wonder if any of those old Métro wagons could be used to extend the underground tunnel network…

Wouldn’t it be fitting?

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – The Basics

MMFA - 2012

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) is located at 1380 Sherbrooke Street West in the heart of the appropriately-named Quartier du Musée district of the city’s downtown. It can be accessed by the Guy and Peel stations of the Métro’s Green Line and is located within proximity of the Underground City tunnel network (getting off at Guy station, one can walk underground to the corner of Bishop and Boul. de Maisonneuve; the museum is up the block, no more than a two-minute walk on the coldest of days). Frankly, it’s hard to miss.

What most people first notice is the Hornstein Pavilion, in the middle of the photo above, a Beaux Arts styled building completed by the noted Maxwell Brothers architectural firm in 1912. Today, this pavilion is dedicated to world cultures and archeology. If I recall correctly, it also houses Ben Weider’s collection of Napoleon memorabilia, including one of the late emperor’s undershirts. The Hornstein Pavilion features four massive Ionic columns and intricate bas-reliefs with a variety of sculptures and installations gathered in front. It doesn’t need the stately lettering along the edge of the roof, nor the signs out front, to make it any more obvious it’s an art museum.

The museum was previously located in the former Art Association of Montreal building on the northeast corner of Phillips Square, roughly on the same location of where that godawful Burger King stands today. The association traces its roots back to 1860, seven years before Confederation, when it was established by Bishop Fulford (this building’s name suddenly came to mind, it’s an old-folks home next to the Bar-B-Barn, steps away from Concordia).

The first major expansion of the museum was, logically enough, immediately behind the Hornstein Pavilion, and is quite possibly the least severe brutalist structure in the city. The Liliane and David M. Stewart Pavilion opened in 1976 and is today dedicated to design and decorative arts. It is built into the rising side of the mountain, the low, flat boxes of the pavilion jutting out like rock formations. Ivy, earth tones and set-back, dark-tinted windows enhance its natural aesthetic by reminding one of caves and crags, in actuality open-air spaces, terraces and balconies.

In the run-up to the city’s 350th anniversary in 1992 the museum expanded once more, this time across the street, reclaiming a vacant lot and repurposing the New Sherbrooke hotel-apartments, another Beaux-Arts styled building dating from 1905. The former apartment building was gutted and converted into large exhibition halls, while the vacant lot received a miniature arch in white marble, as well as an angled glass atrium, to serve as the museum’s new principal entrance. The Desmarais Pavilion was designed by noted Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Today it houses International Art from the Old Masters to the contemporary, in addition to photography and graphic arts. A tunnel was completed under Sherbrooke Street to link the pavilions together, thus leading to the creation of another ‘autonomous’ segment of the Underground City. I’ll get back to this in a minute. The Desmarais Pavilion tends to house most of the major temporary exhibits, and has office space, a café, bookstore and boutique, and also features Safdie’s ‘ruminating’ staircase, one of the museum’s various design quirks.

The most recent development is the Bourgie Pavilion, the converted former Erskine and American Church, a Romanesque Revival building with Tiffany stained-glass windows dating from the 1890s. The Bourgie houses Canadian and Quebec art, in addition to a large performance space, and is located across Avenue de Musée on the north side of Sherbrooke Street. It too is connected to the other pavilions via an underground tunnel, though outside the avenue serves as an open air gallery of sculpture and diverse installations.

The most recent news is that the museum is set to expand again, as it has recently received a $75 million donation of Old Masters paintings from Michal and Renata Hornstein. The caveat is that a new facility must be built to house the collection, and the MMFA has indicated they’re looking to expand south along Bishop, potentially leading to the demolition of two old Victorian-era row houses. The expansion has the potential to go far enough south on Bishop the museum could conceivably be connected directly to the Guy-Concordia tunnel system. Here’s a conceptual rendering compared with how it currently looks.

I’m not crazy about this new design as I feel it’s too out of step with its surroundings. We’ll see how it works out, I have a feeling the design may change a bit between now and it’s intending opening in 2017, for the city’s 375th anniversary.

L’Affaire Jennifer Pawluk and the Nuances of Social Media

The offending image, since removed.
The offending image, since removed.

A local activist and student, the aforementioned Ms. Pawluk, was arrested after posting a photograph of the above image to Instagram. She was questioned and released on a promise to appear in court (ergo, not formally charged). She is accused of criminal harassment as the above image is of Montréal Police Commander Ian Lafrenière, the head of the police’s public-relations team (here’s his profile on the SPVM website, which lists him as a Sergeant. This may be the single most Québécois English-language webpage in the world, but that’s another issue).

He’s their spokesperson.

Not the pricks swinging their dicks and busting heads out in the street.

And the image is of him, his name, a bloody bullet hole in his forehead, and the tag ACAB (all cops are bastards).

Of course – what a logical image. Killing the mouthpiece of the police force is a surefire way to investigate and eliminate police brutality and corruption, not to mention ease tensions between cops and activists.

This is the kind of message I’d have included if I had been in her shoes, or something to that effect which could be said in 140 characters. Or maybe nothing at all.

What I most certainly would not have done would be to include hashtags of two different, common spellings of the commander’s surname, nor include the SPVM hashtag, or Montreal as spelled in two languages. I think that’s where documentation crosses the line into making a statement, and this statement advocates cop-killing.

Whether an individual would be incited to act upon seeing this image isn’t really the issue. I see it as simply being this – people have the right to feel threatened, even the cops, and they have the right to have their concerns addressed.

Put it this way – imagine an abusive boyfriend posting an image of his ex in the style of the cartoon Lafrenière. It circulates on Facebook and catches the attention of a police officer. We’d expect the police to intervene (and from what I’ve heard our police force takes violence against women and children very seriously, but I digress). Lafrenière has the right to feel as threatened as he wants; whether he can prove a legitimate threat is another thing, but I don’t think this will ever make it to court. He’ll eventually withdraw the complaint and we’ll forget about this. Pressing on would be very foolish on the part of the Montréal Police or Cmdr. Lafrenière.

Also, I certainly wouldn’t have reminded those who follow me on Instagram that all cops are bastards while also hash-tagging the cops. That’s a fight I’d rather not pick.

It’s like calling a cop a pig to his or her face. Yes, you’re technically allowed to do it – you can do whatever you want – but you can’t turn around and blame the cop who punches you in the nose in turn.

We can’t act like the cops are so far removed from society they wouldn’t pick up on these kinds of things. Ostensibly, that’s what we’re paying them to do – pick up on the details. I think it’s silly not to expect the police to react very negatively to such a thing, and if she’s already been ticketed for whatever the fuzz busts people for these days (standing, waiting, looking etc.) then she should expect the police to be watching her. They saw an opportunity to pick her up for questioning and they did so. From their point of view they’re giving her a scare that may prevent people from circulating similar images in the future (directed at anyone, for that matter).

I remember avidly reading various publications issued by the COBP and the old anarchist bookstore (among other tracts I consulted when I was an activist) concerning what to do when confronted by police. This was later confirmed by books such as David Simon’s amazing Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

The only answer anyone should ever give to a cop’s question is: I need my lawyer.

I need my lawyer.

I need my lawyer.

I need my lawyer.

Like a mantra until the cops get you your court-appointed civil-defender.

It’s what you should do, it’s what I hope Ms. Pawluk did.

Because that at the very least would have been a smart move. Calling Lafrenière out was a foolish move, one which has now earned her some kind of an arrest record, which may or may not come back and bite later on.

And all of this is aside from the key issue – even if you didn’t articulate the message, be mindful of what you might re-articulate. In this context, even though I don’t think she was personally indicating she would consider utilizing violence against a civil servant, she nonetheless gave her appui to the notion violence (or perhaps the aesthetic of violence) can be a useful political tool.

The reason our protest movements go nowhere is because violence, be it physical or rhetorical, is all too often used as first, rather than last resort. It discredits the message and erects needless walls, isolating those advocating social change from the society they seek to change.