Tag Archives: Architecture

Montreal at the Crossroads: 1758

A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758
A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a trip back in time.

The year is 1758 and the ‘Seven Years’ War‘ had entered its fourth year in North America. The conflict was the largest international conflagration since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, and involved every ‘great power’ (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire) of the era. It was a contest between two grand coalitions, one led by Great Britain, the other by Bourbon France, and was fought throughout Europe, the Americas, West Africa and even as far afield as the Philippines. By its end, Britain would be the predominant global power, a position it would retain until the mid-20th century. But it would come at a cost for the British: within a decade of the war’s conclusion thirteen British colonies would rebel to form the United States, the nation that would ultimately replace Britain as the predominant world power a little under two centuries later. And even more importantly, some of the more immediate consequences of the Seven Years’ War would contribute to the French Revolution, arguably one of the most important events in human history. This in turn leads to the rise of Napoleon (and coming full circle here, we have Napoleon’s t-shirt. It’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the story behind why we have it is the subject of another article).

As it would happen, a key event in this geopolitical crisis would take place in Montreal. Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, the last Governor General of New France, would surrender the town and all of New France to the British on September 8th, 1760, a little under a year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Though this moment has been characterized as a devastating blow for the nascent community, because the town of Montreal escaped the fate of Quebec City it quickly became the new seat of British military, economic and political power in what would just over a century later become Canada. In so doing, Governor Vaudreuil and the Chevalier de Lévis exercised sound judgement and common sense that not only saved the community, but would further guarantee the long-term survival of the French Canadian people, as the Old World’s ‘rules of war’ would be thoroughly respected: property rights and deeds were upheld; religion, customs, laws, language and culture were all retained and the British guaranteed the right of safe-passage back home for anyone who so desired. The French colonial administrators and military personnel packed-up and sailed back to France, leaving behind them a distinct society over a century in the making.

The map above is entitled ‘Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montreal or Ville Marie in Canada‘ and dates back to January 30th, 1758. It was engraved by Thomas Jefferys, a London cartographer also known as the ‘Geographer to King George III’, and would have been used by the British as they prepared for a potential attack. This is Montreal at the time of the Conquest. Jean-Claude Marsan has indicated that this map was likely based off a previous French example, though in most respects it is an accurate depiction of what Montreal looked like.

At the time Montreal was one of the largest settlements in France’s North American possessions: the population of the town of Montreal in 1760 was roughly 5,000, with perhaps 8,300 in total living on-island (the island’s total population was about the same as Quebec City in 1758, though these population figures would have changed during the course of the conflict, especially after the Siege of Quebec). In all of New France there were but 65,000 inhabitants, this compared to an estimated 1.5 million people living in the English colonies along the Atlantic Coast. France’s loss of its North American possessions to the British is hardly surprising, given this severe population imbalance. In his seminal study of the evolution of Montreal’s urban environment, Marsan points out that the Bourbon monarchs of France spent about as much on their colonial efforts as they did on their recreation at Versailles, and indebted the community of Montreal to pay for its own defences.

In 1758, Montreal was a metropolis by French North American standards, though it wasn’t particularly impressive when compared to British American cities like Boston (with an estimated population of 16,000 in 1742) or Philadelphia (13,000 the same year). Montreal was still chiefly a fortified frontier town, but given its position at the confluence of the Outaouais and Saint Lawrence rivers, not to mention its geographic attributes, was of remarkable strategic importance.

Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)
Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)

At the very end of the Ancien Régime period of Montreal’s early history, the 8,300 or so citizens who lived on-island would have occupied some familiar territory. There would have been several other smaller settlements dotted around the island, including Sault-au-Récollets (at the Back River), Pointe-Claire, Lachine, Senneville (along with its fort) and Pointe-aux-Trembles, as well as the Sulpician Fort, the towers of which remain standing at the top of Fort Street on the grounds of the Grand Seminary. The main settlement where the majority of the population lived would have occupied much of what we today call Old Montreal. The town pictured above would have run west to east from McGill to Saint-Hubert running from the northern wall (along today’s Saint-Antoine) down to the riverfront. There would have been just five roads leading out of the fortified town, each with small clusters of houses lining the streets outside the walls. The roadway heading northwest (and perpendicular to the river) is none other than The Main, Boul. Saint-Laurent, arguably Montreal’s most storied street.

Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672
Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672

The two main east-west arteries, Rue Saint-Paul and Rue Notre-Dame, haven’t changed since they were laid out by François Dollier de Casson in 1672, as were the smaller intersecting north-south streets, like Rue Saint-Francis-Xavier, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Jean and Saint-Pierre. The wall that surrounded Montreal in 1758 would have been constructed in 1717 by the famed military engineer Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, and it’s within the confines of these protective walls that Montreal began to grow in earnest.

The 1758 map details the city’s most important buildings, some of which exist to this day. First and foremost is the Sulpician Seminary on Place d’Armes, whose construction dates back to 1687. The seminary’s clock, installed in 1701, as well as its gardens, are the oldest of their kind on the continent. The second oldest extant building pictured here is the central section of the former Grey Nuns’ Hospital, called the Freres Charron General Hospital at the time. This building, located outside the protective walls but south of the Rivière Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.

Place d'Armes - 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.
Place d’Armes – 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.

Montreal’s other important buildings in 1758 would have included the parish church of Notre-Dame, located in the middle of Place d’Armes and adjacent to the Sulpician Seminary. Notre-Dame Basilica would replace the parish church in 1829, with the church’s bell tower razed upon the completion of the basilica’s bell towers in 1843. Across Rue Saint-Sulpice was the convent of the Congregation Notre-Dame and the Hotel-Dieu, the town’s principal hospital, which they ran. The Hotel-Dieu was established on that site in 1688, and would have burned and been rebuilt three times by 1758.

Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier
Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier

Further east (and identified by the letter C) is the Chateau Vaudreuil, also designed by Chaussegros de Léry, which served as Governor General Vaudreuil’s official residence and was destroyed by fire in 1803. Subsequently, the land was bought by local merchants and turned over to the city on the grounds it became a public market. Place Jacques-Cartier has stood on the site ever since. Just north, at the intersection of Rue Notre-Dame, stood the Jesuit Church, Convent and Gardens, with the church located at what is now Place Vauquelin, and Montreal City Hall occupying what was once the Jesuit’s gardens. A little further east and we come across a interesting note: ‘a small chapel burnt down’. The chapel that burned was the very first erected in the colony at the behest of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1655. That chapel burned in 1754, four years before this map was made. The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel that stands on the very same location today dates back to 1771.

Artist's rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 - credit: Omar Bakar
Artist’s rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 – credit: Omar Bakar

At the far eastern edge of the town (at the letter E) stood a ‘cavalier’, which is a type of fort built inside a fort and on much higher ground, though as is indicated in the legend, it lacked a parapet. This is where Montreal’s few artillery pieces would have been located: close to the river’s edge and the eastern gate, defending the town’s arsenal and boat yard.

And if you’ve read this far you’re in for a treat: here’s the above map superimposed over a contemporary satellite image. Use the fader in the top-right corner (under link to this page) to transition between the images.

The links between the fortified frontier outpost of 1758 and the modern metropolis of today are at times difficult to discern. We know the city is old because there are parts that look and feel old, but the superficial antique aesthetic is misleading. Much of Old Montreal only dates back to the mid-late 19th century and some of the best-preserved examples of local Ancien Régime architecture are located, in some cases, a fair distance from the original settlement. One of the principle reasons why so little is leftover from the French colonial period is in part due to the numerous fires that swept through and destroyed parts of the town (and some of the more important buildings) throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s ironic that the protective walls that surrounded the town exacerbated the danger of large fires given the increase of population density within its walls. It also didn’t help that timber was the still the preferred construction material well into the mid-late 18th century.

By 1758 the danger of fire was far more threatening than attack by the Iroquois, and so small villages had begun to appear outside the town walls along the established ‘chemins du roy’. These roadways, much like the street grid of Old Montreal, are the most important and enduring elements of Montreal’s first urban planners. Life outside the protective walls would have had some serious benefits, namely a breath of fresh air. As the colonial era town lacked a sewage system, waste of all kinds were simply thrown into the street. Moreover, there was a fair bit of agriculture and all manner of farm animals inside the gates, often free to move about as they pleased. So the urban-suburban rivalry of Montreal is about as old as the city itself. In 1758, about 40% of the island’s population lived outside the walls.

Montreal in 1758 would have been positively medieval; the basic layout of the fortified town mimicked examples in the Southwest of France and on the English borders with Wales and Scotland from roughly four or five centuries earlier. The basic housing design, examples of which have survived in the form of traditional Quebecois architecture, are also medieval in nature, similar examples being found in Normandy. One particular element of the town’s early design was that it had two principle open spaces – one in front of the parish church (today’s Place d’Armes) and another, a market place, closer to the river and with its own gate (today called Place Royale). Here we find another urban design element that has survived to this day: the lower town, closer to the river, is the most densely populated and would have been home to the town’s merchant class. The upper part featured the town’s major religious buildings, all of which featured stately gardens. This layout also recalls that Montreal was initially conceived as a religious mission, and so those buildings occupied the higher ground of the Coteau Saint-Louis. The grade separation of the classes for the most part remains intact; the wealthiest neighbourhoods of modern Montreal are at the base of Mount Royal, the working class neighbourhoods are still ‘down the hill’ and located within proximity of the river.

Some things really never change. Individual buildings dating back to the heroic colonial era may be in short supply, but the impression of the village illustrated above is our most enduring link to Europe. You can still see the Montreal of 1758, you just have to know where – and where not – to look. Or perhaps ‘how not to look’ as it’s more often than not the spaces between the buildings, the roads and squares, that provide the greatest wealth of clues to the town that once was. This is where we discover that the roots of Old Montreal in Old Europe, and an urban aesthetic which reaches back nearly a millennium.

Montreal: a modern medieval city…

***

Author’s note: thanks to Alan Hustak for some corrections. First, technically Montreal never surrendered, but rather capitulated what with the overwhelming odds stacked against the town and its people in 1760. Doing so allowed the terms of surrender to be negotiated and as such facilitated Montreal’s successful, peaceful transition from one empire to another. In addition, Montreal was not the largest settlement in New France at the time, as I incorrectly stated in this article’s first draft. The population of Quebec City would have been roughly 9,000, and Trois-Rivières at about 8,000, with Montreal’s town population at 5,000 and the island’s population at roughly 8,300. These figures would have been precise up to around the time of the Seven Years’ War, though likely changed after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Siege of Quebec.

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 РArchives de Montr̩al. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cit̩ 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.

Balanced.

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.

Nine Reasons Why the Métro Blue Line Won’t be Extended Above Ground

Ceci n'est pas une système de tram
Ceci n’est pas une système de tram

Call it a problem of thinking aloud…

Last Wednesday Denis Coderre was musing about public transit expansion and improvement when he let slip that he thought it might be possible for the Blue Line’s projected expansion to be moved outdoors.

His argument was simple Рthe average cost of at-grade light rail is roughly a quarter of what it would cost to extend the M̩tro underground.

And this is true, to a point.

However, there are several reasons why the Métro cannot be expanded outdoors, which I’ve listed here:

1. Our Métro trains aren’t designed to be used outside. This is true of the existing Métro trains as well as the new Azur trains (production of which has been delayed six months because the automated control software doesn’t work – the trainsets were ordered in 2010); ergo, if the Blue Line were extended above ground, the line would require an entirely new set of trains designed with outdoor operations in mind.

2. It’s because the system is ‘sealed off’ from the elements that we’ve been able to get so much service out of our Métro trains. The oldest trains have been in service since 1966. They would not have lasted nearly as long had they had to contend with snow, slush, corrosive road salt etc. (not to mention the wear and tear on the exposed tracks and the problems inherent with using an electrified third rail at ground level). We want the Azurs to be inservice even longer than the MR-63s and MR-73s – exposing them to the elements they weren’t designed to encounter will likely result in a shorter operational lifespan.

3. Alternatively, it is possible that an entirely new train be created to operate both inside tunnels and above ground, and this hypothetical train could operate exclusively on the Blue Line. This would be expensive. It would also prevent any future ‘interlining’ initiatives (wherein trains could hypothetically switch lines while in operation, offering more potential routes) and eliminate an efficient aspect of the Métro’s original design. If the whole reason behind considering the above ground extension option is cost effectiveness and efficiency, this is the wrong way to go about it.

4. Subterranean mass transit systems are subterranean for a reason. Usually, the presence of buildings above ground is the chief motivating factor for burrowing underneath. This is pretty elementary. It’s also why subway systems are typically found in the most densely populated parts of the city. So we need to ask ourselves – where is this above ground extension supposed to go? The AMT’s plan has been to follow Jean Talon Boulevard east from Saint-Michel station towards a likely terminus at the junction of highways 40 and 25 at the Galleries d’Anjou. If it’s too expensive to tunnel underground, how expensive will it be to expropriate the land necessary for a new above ground rail line?

5. Alternatively, if the above ground extension were to be simply a tram line running on Jean Talon Boulevard, why go to the trouble of integrating it into the Métro system? Call it a tram and have people transfer onto the Métro at Saint-Michel. Again, if keeping costs down is the ultimate goal, creating a Métro line that requires its own trains and operates both as a subway and a tram is not the way to go about it. It would require a substantial investment in new technology and infrastructure, and the Blue Line simply doesn’t generate enough traffic to merit it. The Blue Line is underused – it is the only Métro line to use six car trains rather than the standard nine car trains.

6. Trams are fundamentally different from the Métro and have different service expectations. Our Métro trains don’t have to contend with traffic, their routing and speed is centrally controlled by a computer. Unless the tram line is grade separated or otherwise runs on an express right of way, it would have to deal with traffic congestion on the street it runs on. Automated controls wouldn’t work with half the line having to deal with street traffic. Again, this would be an expensive alternative to what’s already assumed to be too expensive.

7. The mayor is right to be thinking with an eye to efficiency. Yes, tunnels are expensive and yes, light rail systems offer an efficient alternative. There’s considerable interest in developing a mass transit system based on standard gauge railways – which Montreal has in excess – and, based on the most recent news, will be building more of. Light rail’s main advantage is that it uses the same tracks used by heavy rail – freight, passenger and commuter – but can also be integrated into the existing roadway network. The other advantage is that a hypothetical light rail system would likely be electrically powered by overhead wires, the same method currently favoured by the AMT for its commuter rail lines. But integrating light rail with our existing Métro system would likely be a step too far, presenting a multitude of new costs. For this reason we should be prioritizing tram development over the Blue Line extension generally speaking.

8. But this doesn’t mean we should rule out the Métro altogether. If the province has earmarked $1 billion to be spent on the Métro, spend it on system improvement first. Before expanding, we need to assess what we have and bring it up to the highest possible standard. If there are deficiencies in the current system design, fix those defects first. Consider how few of our Métro stations are universally accessible. Or the complete and total lack of public washrooms. And let’s face it – some of our stations are downright ugly and most are aesthetically dated. Renovating and improving what we have could help encourage greater use and fundamentally, this ought to be our primary concern. Moreover, is the Blue Line the most deserving and requiring of expansion? Wouldn’t it be more effective and useful to close the Orange Line loop instead? Or to improve the tracks so as to permit line-switching, in turn allowing for express Métro trains?

Isometric view of Edouard-Montpetit Métro station's original design

9. And if the money is to be spent specifically on the Blue Line, wouldn’t it be wiser to increase the line’s usefulness? One of the reasons I suspect is responsible for the generally lower usage rate and smaller trains on the Blue Line is that it doesn’t connect directly to the downtown core, but rather serves to move people to either side of the Orange Line. Originally, the Blue Line was supposed to be connected to the Mount Royal Tunnel at Edouard-Montpetit station, permitting Métro users to transfer onto commuter trains underground for the five minute trip to Gare Centrale. If there was ever an improvement to make, this is it. It would give the Blue Line an entirely new raison-d’etre, cut down on passenger congestion on the Orange Line and Parc and Cote-des-Neiges bus corridors. Most importantly, it would provide an excellent impetus to Blue Line expansion in both directions, given that the Métro primarily serves to move citizens between the urban first ring residential neighbourhoods and the Central Business District.

Now, all that said, a few things to consider. The Blue Line extension project was a PQ initiative and so far all it is is a feasibility study whose results are due later on this year. The AMT is not actively planning a new Métro Line, just doing a study on an extension project that dates back to the mid-1980s. I’m not sure what it is they’re studying for the umpteenth time. The current Liberal government is not actively pursuing the Blue Line project – the official line is ‘wait for the feasibility study’.

Light rail seems to have a bright future in our city – based on the recent ‘agreement in principle’ with the Caisse de Dépot et Placement concerning infrastructure project financing, rail systems will be prioritized in the near term (such as the Train de l’Ouest) and light rail will hopefully be integrated into the new Champlain Bridge and airport express projects. Light rail is an attractive and generally uncomplicated option.

So let’s not re-invent the wheel trying to integrate outdoor rail systems with a very unique subway.

I don’t think we can handle any more feasibility studies.

Montreal’s Ugliest Building

Hilton hotel atop Place Bonaventure, Montreal
Hilton hotel atop Place Bonaventure, Montreal

Came across an interesting conversation on Montreal City Weblog that started out about a bit of news that the Hilton Bonaventure is up for sale but ended up on the subject of some of our city’s ugliest buildings. The question was whether the entirety of Place Bonaventure was on the block or just the Hotel (and what the Hotel’s stake in the building was, by extension), and one commentator stated he’d prefer to see the building destroyed and replaced with a ‘proper European-styled train station, a worthy Southern Entrance to the city’ (I’m paraphrasing but that was the gist of it).

Ultimately it is just the hotel that is for sale. Of note, the Delta Centre-Ville (another building I have mixed feelings about) recently announced it is closing in October, putting some 350 people out of work. The University Street building, co-located with the Tour de la Bourse is to be converted into – get this – high-end student housing. I don’t know if the rotating restaurant on the upper floors is still operational, but I’m going to find out.

I can imagine a high-priced and slightly nauseating meal with a fantastic if intermittent view awaits…

The Hilton Bonaventure occupies the top floors of Place Bonaventure, a building designed from the inside-out that was originally conceived as an international trade centre and convention space. When opened in 1967 it boasted an immense convention hall, five floors of international wholesalers, two floors of retail shopping, a collection of international trade mission head offices and the aforementioned hotel. The building was heavily modified in 1998, losing its wholesale and retail shopping component as it was converted into office space. The exterior is in the brutalist style of poured, ribbed concrete, some of which has cracked and fallen off. Though an architecturally significant building, it’s far from a beauty. The rooftop hotel is perhaps the building’s best feature, involving a sumptuous interior aesthetic heavy on earth tones interacting with plenty of natural sunlight, bathing the hotel’s multiple levels while simultaneously exposing the well-cultivated rooftop garden and pool.

In any event, the discussion on Montreal City Weblog brought up general disinterest in Place Bonaventure’s looks, but commentators had other ideas about what they considered to be our city’s truly ugliest building.

Montreal Forum, circa 1996.
Montreal Forum, circa 1996.

Weblog curator Kate McDonnell’s pick is the Cineplex Pepsi AMC Forum Entertainment Complex Extravaganza (brought to you by Jonathan Wener at Canderel Realty). I won’t disgrace the pages of this blog by showing you what it looks like – just go take a waltz around Ste-Catherine’s and Atwater and when you start dry heaving you’ll know you’re looking at one of the worst architectural abominations to ever befall a self-respecting society. The above image is what the Forum looked like pre-conversion, probably shortly after the Habs moved to the Bell Centre (formerly the Molson Centre, formerly General Dynamics Land Systems Place). This would’ve been the Forum’s second or third makeover since it was first built in the 1920s, and as you can see, a strong local Modernist vibe with just a touch of the playful in the inter-lacing escalators deigned to look like crossed hockey sticks is pretty much all there is to it. Simple, straightforward, even a touch serious – a building that looked like the ‘most storied building in hockey history’.

But today – yea gods. Frankly I’m surprised we haven’t formed a mob to arson it all the way back to hell, where the current incarnation of the Montreal Forum aptly belongs.

From what I’ve heard Satan needs a multiplex on which to show nothing but Ishtar.

All that aside, I agree that the Forum is awfully ugly, but it’s not my choice for ugliest city-wide.

Other suggestions from the conversation included the Port Royal Apartments on Sherbrooke and the National Bank Building on Place d’Armes, though commentators seemed to agree this was mostly because they felt the building was out of place, and rendered ugly more by the context of its surroundings, or its imposition upon them, than anything else.

The Big O was mentioned, as was Concordia’s ice-cube tray styled Hall Building. La Cité was brought up as an ultimately failed project that disrupts a more cohesive human-scale neighbourhood, and so were some of McGill’s mid-1970s pavilions. Surprisingly, the Chateau Champlain wasn’t brought up, though I’ve heard many disparage it as nothing but a fanciful cheese-grater.

1200 McGill College - Centre Capitol
1200 McGill College – Centre Capitol

But after all that is said and done, I’m not convinced we’ve found Montreal’s ugliest building.

My personal choice is 1200 McGill College, the building above, a drab and dreary brown brick and smoked glass office tower of no particular architectural merit or patrimonial value that I personally believe is ugly by virtue of marring the beauty of the buildings around it, notably Place Ville Marie and just about everything else on McGill College. Worse still, it replaced what was once a grand theatre – the Capitol – with something that would ultimately become a large Roger’s call centre. Ick. However much corporate office real estate our city happens to have, we could all do without whatever this puny out-of-style building provides. Suffice it to say, I would gladly sell tickets to its implosion.

But in writing this article I remembered a building even more hideous and out of place than 1200 McGill College:

This monstrosity…

Avis Parking Garage on Dorchester Square - credit to Spacing Montreal
Avis Parking Garage on Dorchester Square – credit to Spacing Montreal

There is simply no excuse for a multi-level parking garage conceived in such ostentatiously poor taste to occupy such a prime piece of real estate as this, and so I can only infer that the proprietor is either making a killing in the parking game or, that the proprietor is waiting to try and get building height restrictions relaxed. It’d be a great spot for a tony condo complex, but given that it’s wedged between the iconic Sun Life and Dominion Square buildings it’s likely the lot has some significant zoning restrictions, making a tower – the only really viable residential model given the size of the plot – highly unlikely. I can’t imagine a tower on this spot would do anything but take away from the already hyper precise proportions of the square.

Personally, I think the spot would be ideal for a medium-sized venue, especially considering it’s adjacent to the preserved former Loews Theatre, currently occupied by the Mansfield Athletic Association. In better days the city might have the means to redevelop the former Loews into a new performance venue; a gym can go anywhere, an authentic turn of the century vaudeville-styled theatre is a precious commodity these days. Think about it – a medium-sized theatre and performance complex in the middle of a pre-existing entertainment and retail shopping district. I think that might work here.

Either way – boo on this parking lot.

And come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind seeing just about every single modernist apartment tower built in the McGill and Concordia ghettoes in the 1960s and 1970s removed from the skyline as well.

But I leave it to you – what do you think is the single ugliest building in Montreal?

Feel free to send pics if you have them.