Category Archives: Photographs

Public consultation can’t replace vision

If it weren’t for the fact that it’s apparently a great excuse for a lot of infrastructure spending, would anyone really care about the 375th anniversary of the founding of Ville Marie, which will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017? Are these dates important to us for any other reason than that politicians can use them as focal points?

There’s interest in renovating and redeveloping Montreal’s Old Port as part of this anniversary, and to that end the city has authorized renovation projects both for Place Vauquelin and Place Jacques Cartier. There was a public consultation at the Montreal Science Centre held on Thursday of last week that was apparently well-attended, and the intention is that a master plan will be completed by next year.

Note: the plan is only expected to be completed by 2017, there’s no word on any specific projects or what, if anything, might actually be improved/renovated by then. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear either what precisely needs to be done in the first place.

Dawn Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

Also worth noting, though this CBC article seems to have missed the point, is that the Old Port does not actually belong to the City of Montreal, but to Canada Lands Corporation through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation. Ergo, while Montreal may be interested in developing the Old Port, the Fed is still ultimately responsible and they have no interest in ceding ownership of the land to the city. Mayor Coderre has argued that it’s vital for Montreal to take ownership of the Old Port in order to fully realize it’s revitalization.

As far as renovating the Old Port is concerned, the last time there was a significant investment was 24 years ago when Montreal was celebrating its 350th anniversary.

Since 2012 the operating agency has spent $14 million on new installations and activities, though the general manager of this same agency called the Old Port ‘tattered’ in a Montreal Gazette interview from a few days ago. An investment of $125 million back in the early 1990s gave the Old Port its modern form after the area spent much of the 1980s as a bit of a no-man’s land.

City from the Harbour - Summer 2015

Just to be clear on what we’re talking about, the Old Port is a very specific part of Montreal. It essentially consists of the long linear park running immediately south of Rue de la Commune, as well as Windmill Point and the four principle quays. Everything north of de la Commune is Old Montreal, and as things go in this city, despite the intimate relationship between these two sectors they administratively have nothing to do with one-another.

Why the Old Port needs to be ‘renovated, rejuvenated and revitalized’ doesn’t seem to be clear either. For the six million or so tourists who visit it every year, there doesn’t seem to be much complaining: it’s a park with various attractions next to the city’s premier tourist destination; what’s not to like? And either way last week’s public consultation wasn’t about what tourists want, it was about what we want.

Clock Tower Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

I had registered to go and say something but then decided not to when I realized the crux of my argument – as a Montrealer – was that the last thing the Old Port needs more of is tourists or tourist-attractions. It seemed counter-intuitive to me as I can’t imagine this is what the operating agency wants to hear. They want to make money, point finale.

I’d argue strongly the investments made in the last few years – notably the beach you can’t swim at, the zip-line, haunted house and pirate-themed jungle gym – are all terrible and not worth the money spent on them. Moreover, I’m fairly certain these ‘attractions’ were only brought in after public consultations and/or market research indicated the Old Port was lacking in things to do. They all feel like the terrible ideas only a group of otherwise unemployable market research study participants can come up with.

Silo No. 5 - Montreal, Spring 2015

From a completely historical point of view, even calling it the Old Port seems misleading: the new attractions have absolutely nothing to do with the area’s history and the entire space has a decidedly modern feel to it. Jacques Cartier did not zip-line his way into Montreal in 1534, we’ve never had a serious pirate problem and, if we do have a haunted house in Montreal, my guess is that it’s probably one of the places where CIA-funded mind control experiments were conducted, and not an assembly of brightly coloured former shipping containers.

If the Old Port has a serious problem, it’s that it’s trying way too hard to be all things to all people, again, another problem stemming from public consultations.

I’m generally indifferent to all the Old Port’s crap because I know I’ll never be involved with it. I’m never going to buy any of the overpriced tchotchkes, knock-off handbags or t-shirts that say ‘Federal Breast Inspector’ on them from the spaced-out teenagers sitting in the nifty new container kiosks. Nor will I ever dine in the Old Port, given the food is overpriced and of low quality; this is a gourmand’s city, something which is not reflected in the Old Port or much of Old Montreal for that matter. I think I’ve been in the Old Port well over a hundred times in the last decade and I don’t think I’ve spent more than $20 in that entire time.

Attractions, Old & New - Montreal, Summer 2015

I also don’t think I’m alone. As far as I can tell, most Montrealers in the know know better than to waste their money in our city’s various tourist traps. And the Old Port is the biggest tourist trap we have.

Now all that said, I still thoroughly enjoy going to the Old Port, and will continue to do so regardless of whatever the city or Canada Lands Corporation comes up with. It’s a big space, there’s only so much damage they can do. The best parts of the Old Port, at least in my opinion, are either technically off limits or otherwise far from its central and most touristy part. There’s a look-out at the end of Alexandra Quay that offers amazing views of the city an the river, not to mention the grounds around Silo No. 5, which actually look like there was once a park located there that’s been since closed off to the public.

Abandoned Park - Montreal, Spring 2015

Assuming the majority of Montrealers do indeed agree the Old Port is ‘in tatters’ then why not just do the simple thing and fix it up? Fresh paint, new uni-stone, update the landscaping, improve the lighting. Whenever I go to the Old Port, this is typically what I notice first and foremost.

I feel there’s a prevalent belief in this city that we need to reinvent the wheel all the time, and that we won’t be truly happy with our city until it’s completely unrecognizable but teaming with tourists.

Obviously this isn’t what we want. If the powers that be want to best represent the interests of the citizenry, perhaps they should consider how Montrealers typically use the most successful of our public spaces (on top of what makes them so successful in the first place). Consider: the tam-tams are completely spontaneous and the city isn’t involved one iota. Most of Mount Royal Park is attraction-less and most Montrealers seem to be able to enjoy the mountain without having to spend much money. The lookouts are free, the trails are free, lying in the sun is free (etc.)

Windmill Point - Spring 2015

Rather than occupying public space in the Old Port with activities and attractions, why not just leave it open and accessible and let people figure it out for themselves?

On a closing note, I really hope they don’t do anything with Silo No. 5 – it’s a monument in its own right, and fascinating to explore. My main concern at this point is that CLC through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation will either try to redevelop the site into condos or some kind of half-assed attraction (like that virtual-reality thingamajig that was up and running for a few years on Sainte Catherine Street near McGill College… I think it’s a watch store or a Five Guys now).

Second closing point: though it’s outside the realm of the Old Port, I’d argue the single best thing the city could possibly do is to convert Bonsecours Market back into a public market (à la Atwater or Maisonneuve markets) and – by extension – use the market as a transiting point between Old Montreal and the Old Port. I think this would entail ‘opening up’ the Rue de la Commune side of the Bonsecours, such as with vendor stalls and additional doorways (etc.), but the point is if we want these tourist-driven parts of the city to still be attractive to locals, we need to offer a little more of what makes Montreal such an exquisite city in the first place. I’m sure the 3,000 or so citizens who live in the area would certainly appreciate access to a proper market, and the tourists would have better dining options (at least) as a result.

Iconic Montreal Architecture – Complexe Desjardins

A quick summation before my screed. Here’s why I think Complexe Desjardins is an exceptional example of Montreal architecture:

1. It’s balanced without being symmetrical. The four towers are of different heights, ascending clockwise like a giant staircase. The tallest tower is built on the lowest ground, the shortest tower is built on the highest. The illusion this creates makes the towers seem shorter when viewed from the north, and taller when viewed from the south. Finally, the four towers are each offset from the centre of the podiums they’re set on. The arrangement was intended to give the impression of a city within the city, buildings in harmony without much indication it’s a single common development.

2. It occupies a pivotal and central section of the city’s Underground City, as well as a central ‘institutional axis’ running north-south from Sherbrooke all the way down into Old Montreal. It connects provincial and federal government offices with housing and hotels, office and retail space to university buildings, an arts museum, concert hall and diverse other performance venues, Métro stations and parking garages to a convention centre and the World Trade Centre. Few other buildings in Montreal connect as many diverse services and purposes as Complexe Desjardins.

3. The large central atrium is essentially a public city square, protected from the elements and inclement weather by massive glass walls. The natural lighting emphasizes the interior volume without making it feel heavy – which is difficult to do with so much concrete. Combined with captured body heat cycled through between the Métro stations, not to mention the fountain and plants, the atrium has an almost tropical feel, especially in the dead of winter. Complexe Desjardins was the only ‘superblock’ built in that era with a public space at its centre and further, specifically designed to facilitate pedestrian traffic and draw it in off the streets.

Complexe Desjardins, August 1976 - Archives de Montréal. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cité complex is under construction.
Complexe Desjardins, August 1976 – Archives de Montréal. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cité complex is under construction.

If you don’t know Complexe Desjardins already, just wait for a cloudy night and look towards the city centre. The hazy green light hanging low in the sky will lead you right to it. Complexe Desjardins completed a facelift recently that involved adding a massive lighting installation that now bathes the complex’s office towers in a brilliant emerald glow. The lighting scheme devised by Lightemotion projects a ‘luminous pathway’ drawing attention to the Quartier des Spectacles from afar and identifies the buildings as belonging to the Desjardins Movement by using their trademark colour. It’s excellent advertising, but I hope it doesn’t catch on. Two beacons are enough.

I feel this new lighting scheme is appropriate, like we’ve established a kind of balance to our city’s night-lights. The Royal Bank of Canada, the nation’s largest bank, has a rotating beacon atop their head office at Place Ville Marie. The Desjardins Movement, North America’s largest credit-union, now also commands a place in our night sky.

I make mention of this comparison between PVM and Complexe Desjardins for a reason – the latter was built to ‘balance’ the former.

Together, Place Ville Marie and Complexe Desjardins form useful ‘bookends’ of Montreal’s ‘edifice complex era’ – a period in time in which urban development was almost exclusively of massive scale and often intended to include all manner of activity within an ostensibly cohesive mega-structures. Between 1958 and 1977 Montreal got its Métro system, hosted Expo 67 and the 1976 Summer Games. Massive multi-purpose complexes occupying entire city blocks were constructed all throughout this period – Westmount Square, Place Alexis-Nihon, Place Victoria, Place Dupuis and the La Cité complex in Milton-Parc to name but a few.

Complexe Desjardins and Place Ville Marie are arguably the best overall examples of the then popular ‘superblock’; though they are nearly opposite constructions in terms of their form, both managed to greatly surpass expectations in terms of the functions they play within Montreal’s urban environment. These are complimentary structures; dissimilar, asymmetric and yet somehow harmonious and balanced as well.

The first ICAO Headquarters, upon completion in 1949. In the background, the office tower and annex of Bell Canada. At far right, part of CN's Central Station
The first ICAO Headquarters, upon completion in 1949. In the background, the office tower and annex of Bell Canada. At far right, part of CN’s Central Station

In the late 1950s and early 1960s several large buildings were constructed in quick succession in proximity to Montreal’s largest and most important train stations. Canadian National Railways owned a considerable amount of land along a north-south axis running from Saint Catherine Street down to Saint Antoine between University and Mansfield, and by the end of the last war there was considerable interest in developing it to relieve congestion in Old Montreal.

There were other reasons to develop CN’s land. For much of the 20th century, the land north of René Lévesque Boulevard was a large open pit with Central Station’s rail yard at its bottom. Beginning in the late 1940s CN began to develop the site, first building a permanent home for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) then followed by the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and CN’s head office. By mid-decade CN had turned its attention to the pit and endeavoured to build an office complex of several buildings of different heights, set around a public plaza, and integrated into the Central Station complex. The undertaking was absolutely massive: the pit was so large there’s an amount of space underground equivalent to all the rentable space in the tower and buildings above. Place Ville Marie was Montreal’s first ‘city within the city’ styled developments.

By 1962 the cruciform tower of Place Ville Marie had been completed, a massive ‘tear’ in the urban fabric had been mended, and a new modern city centre was taking shape in the far western districts of the city. The Royal Bank of Canada was involved from the start and became the tower’s anchor tenant. Not to be outdone, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce decided to build their own Internationalist-styled tower just two blocks further west at the same time, the projects competing against one another in terms of height (and on this note, though today neither are Montreal’s tallest towers, they each held the title of tallest in Canada and the British Commonwealth between 1962 and 1964. Both are often mistaken for Montreal’s tallest to this day: the CIBC Tower is slender and features a prominent antenna, while PVM is built on higher ground than any other skyscraper in the city).

Montreal early 1960s, with CIBC Tower, Place Ville Marie and CIL House under construction.
Montreal early 1960s, with CIBC Tower, Place Ville Marie and CIL House under construction.

In a matter of a few years a tectonic shift had occurred in Montreal, re-locating the city’s central business district from Saint James Street in Old Montreal to the environs of Dorchester Square to the northwest. By 1970, several other major developments had taken place within the vicinity of the city’s main train stations, including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s CIL House at the southeast corner of University and René Lévesque, Terminal Tower at 800 René Lévesque, Place du Canada and the Chateau Champlain hotel across from Windsor Station on Peel Street and Place Bonaventure, the city’s first purpose-built convention centre, immediately south of the Central Station complex. These buildings were connected directly not only to the city’s train stations and commuter-rail network, but also to each other and to Montreal’s new Métro system, giving us the very first iteration of our Underground City.

Complexe Desjardins evolved to provide a counter-weight to this development. Whereas the aforementioned buildings were largely financed and driven by the city’s Anglo-American business community, Complexe Desjardins would become the physical manifestation of the ascending Francophone middle-class and Quebec, Inc. By the mid-1960s the Desjardins Group had grown to become one of the nation’s largest financial institutions and was looking for a new head office in downtown Montreal. The Quebec government was also looking for modern downtown office space, and the City of Montreal was keen to ‘pull’ the business centre back towards the east, closer to the seat of municipal power and the traditional ‘centre’ of city affairs.

Finishing touches to Complexe Desjardins, 1976. Dufferin Square had become the parking lot at bottom centre.
Finishing touches to Complexe Desjardins, 1976. Dufferin Square had become the parking lot at bottom centre.

What was created was essentially the opposite of Place Ville Marie. Whereas PVM exploited the aerial rights over a train yard, Complexe Desjardins evolved out of what was once parts of Chinatown and the Red Light District (slum clearance initiatives from the 50s had left the area in near ruin). Consider as well, PVM’s main tower is essentially four skyscrapers gathered around a central service core with its plaza offset, whereas Complexe Desjardins is composed of four separate towers organized on pedestals around a glass-atrium covered plaza. PVM is defined by its tallest tower, a look emphasized by the much smaller buildings gathered around it. Complexe Desjardins’ towers ascend like a staircase – its tallest being just seven floors shorter than PVM 1, and appearing shorter than it actually is. Whereas the former dominates the skyline on high ground, the latter assembly of buildings seems far more balanced, working with one another rather than placed in obvious opposition to each other.

Complexe Desjardins is also, complex (ahem), in terms of what jobs it performs in the context of Montreal’s urban environment. It’s a private commercial property conceived as a public space. The complex forms the central section of Montreal’s eastern institutional axis, beginning with UQAM up at Sherbrooke, then moving through Place des Arts and then on to Complexe Guy-Favreau and the Palais des Congrès & World Trade Centre in Old Montreal.

Integrated, international business services in the west, integrated, local civil services to the east.


We haven’t really built anything like Complexe Desjardins in 40 years, and this isn’t altogether a bad thing, though some insist a lack of construction of this magnitude is a sign of economic weakness. Edifices like Complexe Desjardins come from a specific moment in time responding to the needs of a particular era. That it continues to serve in its intended role, that it has evolved with tastes and maintained its presence and importance within the urban environment is a far better indicator of the project’s success than any attempt at emulation.

Montreal’s Central Business District in Evolution

The latest additions to Montreal's skyline taking shape - June 17th 2015
The latest additions to Montreal’s skyline taking shape – June 17th 2015
Overdale, we hardly knew ye...
Overdale, we hardly knew ye…
Lafontaine House, a still uncertain future...
Lafontaine House, a still uncertain future…
The new urban chasm
The new urban chasm
Tour des Canadiens de Montréal taking shape in background, with L'Avenue immediately in front of it and Rockabella in foreground at left
Tour des Canadiens de Montréal taking shape in background, with L’Avenue immediately in front of it and Rockabella in foreground at left
Icone Tower I with base of Rockabella II in foreground at right
Icone Tower I with base of Rockabella II in foreground at right
The west side of 1250 René Lévesque framed by new construction
The west side of 1250 René Lévesque framed by new construction

Panorama of new downtown towers - June 17 2015

Montreal Photo of the Day – May 4th 2015

Watering the Skyscrapers - May 3rd 2015
Watering the Skyscrapers – May 3rd 2015

Taken from Saint Jacques and Rue de la Montagne.

From left to right: you can just see the penthouse of Place Ville Marie behind the fifteen-floor tower of the Romanesque Revival styled Windsor Station (capped with emblematic green copper roof). Next is the Marriott Chateau Champlain (with iconic half-moon convex windows giving the impression, it’s often been said, of an immense cheese grater), and then the Place du Canada office tower. Rising behind Place du Canada is 1000 de la Gauchetiere West, tallest skyscraper in Montreal and one of several postmodern skyscrapers erected in the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Below the tower, in the photo’s lower right hand corner, an elderly citizen dutifully waters the tower’s foundation :)

No no no…

She was one of a handful of people out and about in the community garden put in place over the Ville Marie Tunnel. According to new development plans released from the public consultation office, this space is a priority for redevelopment (basically, the aim is draw the central business district down from its current ‘southern border’ at Saint Antoine to better integrate the city with new residential developments in Griffintown).

Of note, the master plan released by the City of Montreal aims to focus development investment in an area roughly the same size as the current Quartier International, mirrored along the north-south axis formed by the Bonaventure Expressway, whose viaduct is supposed to be eliminated in favour of a wide, ground-level urban boulevard. The same plan calls for a linear park to stretch over the Ville Marie Expressway tunnel from Guy to Jean D’Estrées, which will eliminate this community garden while maintaining the area as green space.

While the plan is encouraging (in that it aims to focus development in an area that would benefit immensely from redevelopment, and further sew up the still open wound created by the highway tunnel project back in the 1960s and 1970s) there’s not much in terms of major services for so many new residents. Community gardening is just one component. Some kind of local public school is going to need to be provided, a public library branch would be nice, not to mention a CLSC, CPE(s) and various community and cultural spaces would be great too.

I don’t think we should wait to see what kind of people move into the neighbourhood over the next decade or so. Better to provide the bare minimum to support a vibrant and diverse community, rather than simply letting market forces figure it all out. If anything, the market may adjust its offering over time if the city came out first and identified how it will most directly support families in the area. Not all families will be keen to live north of Griffintown, but some will, and the centrality of the location would support families living in adjoining established communities downtown. In other words, if it’s in our best interest to have communities with diverse types of residents (e.g. singles, young couples, couples with young children, re-located empty nesters etc.), the city needs to prepare for just that level of diversity and ensure the range of core community services are provided. This is how the public sector can best stimulate private sector investment – by establishing the foundations of a veritable community.

Montreal Photo of the Day – April 20th 2015

Peel & De la Gauchetiere - April 2015

From left to right, Windsor Station, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque (the tower with the prominent spire), St. George’s Anglican Church, Place Laurentienne and the CIBC Tower (which also has a prominent spire).

Photo taken from the ‘skywalk’ over Rue de la Gauchetiere, bridging Place du Canada (public park) with Place du Canada (office/hotel complex).

Montreal Photo of the Day – April 16th 2015

Reflections of Construction - Montreal, April 2015

Taken from Basin Street in Griffintown, from left to right you can see the Cité du Commerce Electronique, construction cranes around both the Roccabella (tower one) and Tour des Canadiens de Montréal, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque Ouest, the CIBC Tower, Place Laurentienne and the Deloitte Tower at far right.

In the foreground land is being prepared for a new condo project, though I can’t recall which one.

Griffintown was arguably Montreal’s first ‘ethnic neighbourhood’, becoming the home to Montreal’s Irish working class beginning in the early 19th century. It would remain as such until about the time of the Second World War, at which point the local Irish community was somewhat replaced by successive waves of immigration – notably Eastern European Jews, Italians and Ukrainians. In its 19th century form the area was populated mainly by general labourers of Irish-Catholic descent who had taken up residence immediately adjacent to where the majority worked – first dredging the Lachine Canal, then building the Victoria Bridge, and then in the multitude of industries that popped up at the intersection of the port, canal, bridge and vast rail yards.

Griffintown was also the first community annexed by the city prior to the introduction of the tram system.

Life in the Griff began a rather drastic change in the late 1950s with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which in turn rendered the Lachine Canal obsolete, allowing Great Lakes shipping to bypass Montreal and the industrial port that had developed along the banks of the Lachine Canal over the preceding century. Perhaps as a result of an acrimonious relationship between Mayor Jean Drapeau and the City Councillor for St. Ann’s Ward, Frank Hanley (who for a while was also simultaneously the area’s MNA), Griffintown was rezoned for entirely industrial purposes, and slum-clearance initiatives popular at the time resulted in widespread expropriations and demolition. The construction of the Bonaventure and Ville Marie Expressways around the same time further isolated the area’s residents from the rest of the city, and by 1970 the parish church, St. Ann’s, was razed. By 1971 the population was just over 800 and it wouldn’t grow by much for the next thirty plus years.

I would argue the biggest mistake made was pushing highways through to the centre of the city, but what’s done is done. Griffintown shrank into virtual non-existence, it’s Irish heritage largely lost. I remember walking around the area about a decade ago, on a lovely summer evening no less, completely astounded that an area so close to the city proper could be so devoid of human life.

Fortunately the last decade has been a bit kinder to Griffintown. The elimination of the vast CN stockyards between Saint Jacques and Notre Dame West in the late 1970s resulted in significant housing construction (mostly townhouses) in the 1980s, coinciding with the Orange Line’s western branch extension from Bonaventure, beginning in 1980. The successful rehabilitation of the former stockyards would encourage additional development projects meant to stimulate the rehabilitation of the area (such as the Labatt Stadium proposal) though this project ultimately fell through.

I’d argue it was the conversion of the former O’Keefe brewery into the main campus of the École de technologie supérieur in 1997, as well as the development of the Cité du Multimédia around the same time, that ultimately provided the foundation for Griffintown’s renaissance as an urban neighbourhood. ÉTS brought in students and anchored the Little Burgundy side of the Notre Dame West commercial artery, and the Cité du Multimédia wound up employing about 6,000 people who take in an average of $73,000 annually. This made redeveloping the former industrial spaces and parking lots between Notre Dame and the canal into residential properties a potentially lucrative endeavour.

Today the area’s population stands between 6,500 and 7,000 with more to come. Just about every open lot is to be converted into condos, and new businesses and services have moved into the area.

Whether Griffintown becomes a neighbourhood in the truest sense of the word is conditional on both the city and province investing in socio-cultural infrastructure – public schools, a CLSC, community and cultural centres, perhaps even a public library branch, not to mention adequate parks and playgrounds.

That remains to be seen.