Tag Archives: Montréal Design

Three-Alarm Fire Nearly Destroys Historic Snowdon Theatre

Snowdon Theatre Fire - March 26th 2016
Snowdon Theatre Fire – March 26th 2016 – credit to Eric Zaidan

That was a close one.

According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…

It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.

The Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace (CDN-NDG herein) borough currently owns the building and quietly put it up for sale back in January. They’re accepting bids until May 1st, though all bidders must be able to put up a $10,000 guarantee just to be considered.

Here’s where things get interesting: local journalist Kristian Gravenor filed an access-to-information request last fall to find out what the borough feels are necessary repairs to make the building usable again.

That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.

Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”

As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.

My guess is it’s likely the former.

Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.

Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.

Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.

So for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.

So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?

The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.

It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?

And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.

Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign
Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign

What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.

Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).

The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.

The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s
The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s

What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.

So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?

It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.


Borough Mayor Russell Copeman

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand

City Councillor Peter McQueen

City Councillor Lionel Perez

City Councillor Magda Popeanu

And on a final note, any Montrealphile with an interest in this city’s once grand collection of ‘movie palaces’ ought to purchase Dane Lanken’s book on the subject post-haste.

Pointe-à-Callière Going Underground

Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal - photo credit to Derek Smith
Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal – photo credit to Derek Smith

The Pointe-à-Callière historical and archeological museum is going underground and expanding for the city’s 375th anniversary.

Perhaps borrowing a cue from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (whose pavilions are connected underground though unfortunately still not directly accessible from the RÉSO/Underground City), P-a-C’s expansion program seeks to link several pavilions together via an underground passageway stretching the length of Place d’Youville. An antiquated sewer running from Place Royal to McGill Street in Old Montreal shows evidence of six distinct epochs in Montreal history dating back to the founding of Ville Marie in the mid-17th century and will developed to act as the ‘historical/archeological’ spine and foundation of the expanded institution. The current museum is centred on Place Royal at the intersection of Rue de la Commune and Rue du Place d’Youville. By 2017 it will stretch all the way to the Customs House on McGill, effectively linking Old Montreal with the Vieux Port along a linear axis.

What can I say? This is brilliant.

The underground expansion will bring people directly into contact with the veritable foundation(s) of the city.

Getting a better frame of reference and knowledge of this city’s history will be as simple as walking about ten minutes in a straight line, in the climate controlled comfort of the next evolution of our Underground City.

The expansion is novel in its use of disused infrastructure (such as the William Collector and the vaults of the Customs House) as part of the expansion, rather than building a large and entirely new above-ground structure. Thus there’s no direct interference with the city above ground, no dramatic altering of local built environment.

It’s cheaper than the alternative and won’t leave any major visible trace other than Place d’Youville’s conversion into a something that looks more like a park and a lot less like a parking lot.

And best of all, it is so quintessentially Montreal to recycle old buildings, basements and tunnels for the purposes of better connecting the populace with its history. Our history is literally underground and so, for that reason (and keeping in mind P-a-C’s role as both archeological and historical museum), this expansion project is particularly well-conceived.

The new Pointe-à-Callière will include a total of 11 pavilions and several buildings of historical value. In addition to the post-modern main pavilion (Éperon, 1992), there is Place Royal (the site of the first public market, circa 1676), the Old Customs House (designed by John Ostell 1836-37), the converted former Mariner’s House and the d’Youville pump house (1915).

Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering
Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering

The westward expansion will grow along the old William Collector, a sewer that was once the Little Saint Pierre River. No longer used for such purposes, the sewer will serve as a tunnel allowing access to other underground locations where history and archeology blend so perfectly together. Among the new pavilions connected to this subterranean passageway: the original Fort Ville-Marie (1642), Saint Anne’s Market (and former Parliament – 1832), the firehouse (1904), the old general hospital/ Grey Nun’s Motherhouse (1693/1747) and a new pavilion located in the underground vaults of the Customs House on McGill Street (1916).

This is an exciting and well-deserved expansion, in my opinion, and further proves the ‘Underground City’ is a lot more than just a series of interconnected shopping malls. It’s imaginative and unique and is wonderfully appropriate given that it will pull so many distinct historical periods, places, ideas and characters together in a rather straightforward manner. Places and times plugged in to one another along a route – in essence, a life source – that has been at the centre of life in our city since Day 1.

I really can’t imagine a better way to tell our story than to literally go directly to place where it all started. I’m also keen as to how it reinforces this notion that Montreal is a city both literally and figuratively attached to its history, growing as we do from our roots and with traces of our history and presence so integrated into our consciousness.

Under ideal circumstances the underground passageway would be open to the public as a branch of the RÉSO. Under really, really ideal circumstances they’ll continue expanding underground – albeit in the opposite direction – so that you could walk from Place Royal to Place d’Armes by way of Notre Dame Basilica, eventually leading to the Métro station and RÉSO access point at the Palais des Congrès.

(Yes, I think it’s weird that Place d’Armes is not connected to Place-d’Armes; it’s really not that far and the ground underneath the square was partially excavated long ago for the former public toilets. Plus, climbing up the hill from the Métro to the square in winter is a pain in the ass).

Place Royale set up as a kind of 'living history' temporary exhibit - photo credit to McMomo, 2009
Place Royale set up as a kind of ‘living history’ temporary exhibit – photo credit to McMomo, 2009

Also, Place Royale looks like a sarcophagus or a crypt. It’s bare and unappealing. If I could make one recommendation, it is that Place Royale be given something of a make-over as the eastern entrance to Pointe-à-Callière. Some planter boxes, trees, benches etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge renovation, just something that attracts people to the area. It was once the focal point of colonial era life in our city and today it gives the impression of sterility and stillness. This should change. The museum’s underground expansion is excellent, but it still needs to engage and interact with a broader public (i.e. tourists) that may not be familiar with the rather expansive museum operating beneath their feet. Ergo, I think a more ‘traditionally’ welcoming Place Royale would serve the museum, and Old Montreal generally speaking, quite well. A little more green to contrast with the dull grey and the provision for park furniture to encourage this space’s use wouldn’t cost much.

But of course, what would be really wild is if the space was used as a seasonal open air market, just as it was originally used. This, to me, would be the ‘icing on the cake’ vis-à-vis the historical ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of the museum’s mission. As great as it will be to interact with the remnants of historical eras as the museum intends it, I’m keen to see spaces of historical value used for the purposes that made them historically valuable in the first place. Thus, the site of the city’s first public market ought to be a public market. That way the link with the past is inescapable and the function of the public space remains true to its form. Place Royale’s purpose was to bring people together; today it seems to be generally unoccupied even at the heights of the tourist season simply because there’s nothing in the space to accommodate people. Adding some plants and temporary vendor stalls could turn all this around and potentially further serve to drive more people to this deserving and innovative institution.

The Case for Cabot Square


Poor John Cabot, we hardly new ye.

Most people don’t know who he is or why there’s a sizeable chunk of prime downtown property in a state of seemingly perpetual disrepair named after him.

In fact, it’s not even actually named after him, strictly speaking, as his actual name (in his native Venetian) was Zuan Chabotto.

In English and French, his name was John or Jean Cabot. In Italian it was Giovanni Caboto. In Portuguese he was known as Juan Caboto.

A man by any other name…

Perhaps it is because he is so unknown and comparatively unimportant to the lives of Montrealers that we have allowed the rather large urban park that bears his name to end up the mess that it is. Recent news is that the city is pledging $6.5 million to renovate and revitalize the park, more on which I’ll talk about later.

Hmmm, come to think of it, strictly speaking it’s not a park but a square. In fact, because it’s technically a square there’s no curfew. As far as I know it’s only parks and playgrounds that have curfews in this city.

Thus, this once proud square has become a repository for the city’s homeless, the kiosk has been boarded up for years and the Métro entrance is repository for the homeless in winter months. Lately, efforts to improve the overall aesthetic of the park has resulted in the installation of a multitude of sculptures. So now it’s a repository for post modern art as well.

Montrealers know there’s not much good going on in Cabot Square – at best it’s a poorly designed bus terminus. At it’s worst it’s a shocking example of endemic social inequity.

This is what I find particularly ironic – Cabot Square is generally associated with the city’s transient Aboriginal homeless population. The lasting negative effects of European colonization of North America can be seen just about every day gathered, inebriated, somewhere in the square dedicated incorrectly to a man who was once viewed as our equivalent to Columbus.

I suppose in some ways he is our Columbus. The American veneration of Columbus is as ridiculous as our former veneration of Cabot. Neither Columbus nor Cabot were the first Europeans to reach the Americas, this was done by the Viking Leif Ericson in the 11th century. And neither of them ‘discovered’ the Americas either – this was accomplished by the ancestors of our Aboriginal peoples some ten thousand years ago.

It’s the official position of the government of Canada and the United Kingdom that John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497, so you’re right to wonder why on Earth one and a half acres in the Shaughnessy Village is dedicated in his name. He never had anything to do with Montreal.

And if that all isn’t bad enough, from atop his perch Cabot’s copper gaze is fixed forevermore on the architectural abomination that is the Pepsi AMC Cineplex (awaiting new management) Forum. Our city’s great failure to preserve our shrine to the greatest game is all he has to look at now.

So how did we get here?

The land that became Cabot Square was acquired from the Sulpicians in 1870 for the purposes of a public park in what was then the westernmost extent of the city. Initially it was called, simply, Western Park (the Montreal Children’s Hospital was formerly the ‘Western General Hospital’ if I recall correctly) and it served the large Anglo-Irish middle and upper-class that inhabited the area as a much needed common green. Originally, it featured a large fountain in the middle. The statue of John Cabot was a ‘gift’ from the Italian population of Canada to Montreal and was erected in 1935, though the square wouldn’t be officially recognized as Cabot Square until some time later.

For a good long while Cabot Square was as desirable a place to go as any other large urban space and served as a kind of ‘front yard’ for the Forum throughout that building’s storied time as home to the Montreal Canadiens. It was also immediately adjacent to what became the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 1956, and down the road from the former Reddy Memorial Hospital. The area was, by some estimates, at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s when Westmount Square and Place Alexis-Nihon were built atop and integrated into the Métro system, an early component of the Underground City. At the time, Atwater station was the western terminus of the Green Line and the integration of mass transit, large, contiguous shopping malls, the city’s main arena and residential and commercial towers was at the cutting edge of modern urban design. The Forum was expanded and modified into its ‘classic look’ in 1968 and throughout the next two decades was not only home to the most exciting franchise in the NHL, but was also served as the city’s main large-capacity performance venue. Even into the mid-late 1980s the general area around the square was developing and improving: commercial office towers were added to Place Alexis-Nihon in 1986, Dawson moved into its current home in 1988 and the CCA was completed the following year just down the road.

By the mid-1990s the situation had changed considerably. The Canadiens would leave in the Forum in 1996 and the subsequent ‘entertainment complex’ developed in the renovated building never quite took off as intended. The Reddy closed down about the same time as Ste-Catherine Street West began its steep decline into a bit of a ghost town, as storefronts remained vacant for well over a decade. Today there are still too many unoccupied buildings on that stretch of our city’s main commercial artery, another hospital is slated to close, and the Forum seems to be an even greater disappointment as former ‘anchor’ tenants pack up their bags.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

The city’s plan to invest $6.5 million to renovate the square is definitely a step in the right direction – it needs a lot of work. But there are critics, notably City Councillor for the Peter-McGill district, Steve Shanahan. He argues that an aesthetic makeover won’t solve the square’s homeless problem.

He’s right, but then again, it’s not exactly the square’s homeless problem; it’s Montreal that has a general homeless problem. Mr. Shanahan is arguing that half the allocated sum be used to address the homeless issue as it specifically relates to Cabot Square – though he was particularly outraged the city’s plan doesn’t include the destruction of the aforementioned Métro entrance at the northwest corner of the square, immediately adjacent to the unused Vespasienne (which was, to my knowledge, never actually in use as a public pissoir, but used variously as a flower vendor and bistro or snack bar).

For people unfamiliar with the area, the Métro entrance is a rather cumbersome structure that features an oddly large vestibule and other space used variously by the STM. It’s an unnecessary structure (from a public transit perspective) that blocks access to the square and serves as a kind of homeless hangout.

This wasn’t always the case. When the Métro entrance was built it was, in my opinion, ingeniously well-designed. The entrance is oriented towards the centre of the square and this is important given the square’s former use as the Forum’s ‘front yard’ – large crowds could come out of the Forum and into the square instead of spilling out onto Atwater. Having people move into the square in turn facilitated dispersal amongst STM services – Métro on one side, the old bus terminus on Lambert-Closse on the other.

The placement of the bus terminus across from the Métro entrance also guaranteed a constant stream of foot traffic through the square, and generally speaking we tend to take decent enough care of that which we use most often.

But some years ago the decision was made to eliminate the bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, replacing them with several smaller glass shelters at multiple bus stops arranged around the square. Why this decision was made I’d really like to know. Buses still congregate on the eastern side of the square and, again somewhat ironically, the bus shelters have become makeshift pissoirs, used by the local drunks.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

In the history of Cabot Square’s long demise, I think this was the first bad move. It removed people from the centre of the square and re-distributed them along its edge. Worse, the new shelters, along with hedges and decorative gates, made it difficult for see across the square, allowing people a degree of privacy inside the square. It was only a matter of time before it gained a regular homeless population – Berri Square (Place Emilie-Gamelin) suffers from exactly the same problem. When people can’t see clearly across a square, when there are aesthetic elements that block views, people generally stay out and keep to the edge. Policing these areas becomes difficult. In both cases police have resorted to simply parking their cruisers right in the middle of the squares in a show of force to drug dealers. Is it any wonder people stay out of these public spaces?

All this considered, I don’t think Cabot Square is a lost cause, the city just needs to realize it can’t throw money at the problem and hope it disappears. If we want a better functioning, more welcoming Cabot Square we have to consider what’s around the square too, and how the neighbourhood has changed in the last twenty years.

I’d argue the square could do without the current Métro entrance, but I wouldn’t recommend eliminating the entrance and the tunnel as well. Access to the Métro is a plus for any public space, but we could afford a less obtrusive entrance. Something closer to the Art Nouveau entrance at Square Victoria seems more appropriate.

It would be wise to return to one large bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, and remove all the obstructions along the edge of the square so that it can be accessed from all sides. It is a city square after all, it’s supposed to be ‘open concept’. The city’s current plan seeks to enlarge the square by expanding onto Lambert-Closse, eliminating two lanes. I’d prefer to see expansion to the south instead – that stretch of Tupper has always seemed a bit useless to me. Either way, the benefits of a single bus terminus are wide-ranging. Increased safety and security, concentration of activity, the option to build a large heated bus shelter, and that it would encourage transit users to cross through the square.

More broadly, the city needs to have a plan in place for the future of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. What will come of this massive building, arguably a heritage site worth preserving? I would hate to see it converted into condos, though I think this is unlikely. It’s institutional space and we need as much of that as we can get our hands on. Perhaps it will become a public retirement/assisted-living home, or maybe it will be bought up by Dawson College, given they’ve been over-capacity and renting space in the Forum for a while now.

At least part of the former hospital could potentially be used as a homeless shelter.

But all this will take some serious leadership from City Hall. A $6.5 million renovation plan is a good start, but the square needs rehabilitation as well. The western edge of the downtown has a lot going for it, but the city will have to develop a master plan that tackles a lot more than just the landscaping problems.

A place as ‘Westmount adjacent’ as Cabot Square should be a far more desirable place to be.

Austerity Measures & Bad Design in Montreal Public Transit

And now for something completely different...
And now for something completely different…

Not exactly the kind of news regular users of Montreal’s public transit system want to hear, but it looks like the city’s public transit agency is facing a budget shortfall of $20 million, and this apparently is going to result in service cuts – the first since the late 1990s despite increased usage. The city recently tabled it’s 2014 budget, which includes $12.5 million for the municipal transit agency, but this apparently isn’t enough to keep up current service rates according to STM President Philippe Schnobb.

Thus, cuts will focus on evening and weekend bus service, promotions and general cleanliness and maintenance.

I find it surprising that there’s money for new uniforms, however. You’d think the STM would use that money to keep buses moving and our Métro stations clean, given that it’s ridership that provides the primary revenue stream. Cutting back on the availability and quality of the principal service provided by the organization while spending money on new uniforms seems like a piss-poor idea to me. This wouldn’t happen in the private sector. Can you imagine the outrage if Air Canada cut back on flights and the general maintenance of their aircraft in a move to save money, all the while repainting the airplanes and buying new uniforms?

k-9_subway_std -

I guess that’s the key difference between the private and public sectors. Taxpayers aren’t shareholders, though we should be considered as such.

Above is a good example of why austerity measures don’t really work. It starts with cuts to cleanliness and maintenance, then security, and before you know it you’ve got the NYC Subway in the 1980s – filthy, unappealing, covered in graffiti and requiring police K9 units to maintain ‘law & order’. We shouldn’t follow their example. Rather we should learn from their mistakes.

Perhaps it’s political. Maybe there’ll be a back and forth and one day in a few weeks Mayor Coderre comes out and says, as a result of his fiscal prowess, the remainder of the STM’s budget shortfall will be covered by the city.

But I won’t be holding my breath. A 3% cut to service is just small enough it won’t result in mass demonstrations. Just frustration from the people most dependent on public transit, an unfortunately politically inconsequential demographic it seems.

I don’t know why they didn’t consider raising the fare. I think most public transit users would pay more to ensure, at the very least, that there are no cuts to upkeep, cleaning and maintenance.

It’s hard enough to keep our Métro stations and buses looking good – they need to be cleaned and maintained regularly or else they fall into disrepair. Haven’t we learned anything from the Champlain Bridge? Never cut back on regular maintenance – the problem not addressed today will be even more problematic tomorrow.


I included the photo above as an example. Métrovision is actually running ads boasting about the total number of screens installed throughout the system, but as most regular users will tell you, many of the screens seem to be defective. I took the above photo at Vendome a few nights back – each screen was similarly defective, some had those annoying black spots, evidence of someone having hit or thrown something at the LCD screen. At Lionel-Groulx all four projectors weren’t working on the upper deck of the station – they haven’t worked for months. At Guy-Concordia and Bonaventure the situation was much the same as at Vendome – the screens have either been busted by vandals and/or the image doesn’t display properly.

And the STM is going to cut back on maintenance?

I’d be less concerned if it weren’t for the STM’s ‘half-assing it’ approach to improving the public transit system we have. The Métrovision screens are just one example of a good idea so poorly and inefficiently executed it makes me wonder if it wasn’t done on purpose so as to ensure the need for long-term maintenance contracts. Then there’s the Métrovision screens installed behind concrete beams at Snowdon Métro, meaning it can only be seen if you’re standing directly underneath it (see photo at top). Another example, the new bus shelters at Lionel-Groulx. The STM built what I can only describe as the world’s most ineffective bus shelter:


Now, if Montreal were located 1,000 km south (and the average Montrealer stood ten feet tall) this might not be such a bad design. But such is not the case, and this is apparently, actually the best the STM could come up with.

If this is what austerity gets us, it would be best not to build at all. These shelters are useless, primarily because they don’t provide much shelter. It’s really just that simple.

I’d prefer the STM stops putting up fancy new bus shelters with interactive advertisements and just focus on making what we already have work better. Figure out a way to get rid of the slush accumulating in Guy-Concordia. Try to eliminate the pervasive stench of urine at Bonaventure. Encase all the TV screens in a plexiglas container (why wasn’t this done from the start?). Run more buses, run the Métro later etc. And for Christ’s sake – install some public washrooms!

Now, that aside, a few questions I have re: advertising.

Recently, I was dismayed to find Sherbrooke station, and several others, looking like this:



Again, who the hell at the STM thought this was a good idea?

If only I could nominate this for the worst advertising campaign in the Métro’s proud history.

I feel it demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the general aesthetic and architecture of the stations (let’s not forget, each was designed by its own team of architects, features its own art, layout etc.), not to mention serves as an excellent demonstration of how we treat our public spaces. That is, cheaply.

This is cheap, that’s the only word for it. We may as well cover all the station walls with cork board and hang staplers on the wall. Is it any wonder we also have to contend with vandals going out of their way to destroy what we have? If the people who run the system don’t appear to be terribly interested with keeping things presentable, how can they expect the people to treat it any better?

Isn’t there a slightly better way to generate advertising revenue than by pasting over the walls of our Métro stations with uninspired marketing gimmicks?

It doesn’t make any sense really. The STM is aces when it comes to designing their own branding, instructional and promotional materials, and I’d argue both the vehicles and the systems are all very well designed indeed. But when it comes to infrastructure, the simple stuff in the grand scheme of things, the STM proves to be maddeningly inconsistent. From garbage cans to benches, bus shelters to tunnels, advertising space, PA systems and TV screens, the STM has demonstrated a lack of imagination at best and incompetence at worst.

But as always, there are some interesting solutions to consider if we open ourselves to alternative ways of thinking.

Take for instance, the TESCO virtual supermarket found in the Seoul Subway.


There’s no question advertising is a key component of the STM’s overall plan to generate revenue, but it doesn’t have to be so much of the same old thing. As technology develops, advertising can move into interesting new territory. Take the above example. Rather than merely advertise a grocery store, TESCO brought the supermarket directly to the consumers as they wait to commute home at the end of the working day. Using your smartphone you simply scan the items you wish to purchase and place your order with online payment. The order is delivered by the end of the day. In time, developments such as a virtual store app linked to a credit or debit account could render the payment process automatic, and data provided by the user, the subway system and the smartphone could facilitate even more efficient delivery methods, timed to coincide with just after the user arrives home. The possibilities here are endless.

The TESCO virtual store model isn’t just impressive for its efficiency and the service it offers its customers, it’s also the best kind of advertising I could possibly imagine because it actually does something – it responds to my needs rather than telling me how a given store will satisfy my needs like no other. In terms of supermarkets and pharmacies the tired old pitch of incredible savings borders on the absurd (think about those idiotic Jean Coutu ads you hear on the radio set to the tune of Eine kleine Nachtmusik; ah, the refined elegance of simply unimaginable savings potential at my local chain-pharmacy! Gimme a break.)

I’d much rather have something like this serve as an advertisement. Something tells me you could easily justify slightly higher advertising rates in doing so. The STM shouldn’t wait for good design in advertising, they should push innovation in design as part of the broader image of the city as a design hub. Innovation of this type improves the overall experience enjoyed by public transit users due to the potential to save people the legitimate hassle of having to schlep to the supermarket. Yes it’s advertising, but it also provides a useful service too. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the South Koreans would be on top of this – generally speaking the mass transit systems of the Far East are prized by the citizenry, immaculately clean, punctual – a sign of modernity and progress to be enjoyed by everyone. Including a virtual supermarket in the South Korean context is simply the next step in providing an even more exceptional customer experience.

The Montreal Métro came into being eight years before the Seoul Metropolitan Subway commenced operations in 1974. Today we have a modest improvement of the original model and Seoul boasts the world’s largest, most comprehensive and most used subway system. Whereas we are complacent in our approval to cut back on station cleanliness and allow the provincial government to dictate how and when our Métro will be expanded, the Seoul system is internationally recognized for its polished look, air-conditioned cars and 4G LTE and WiFi service, in addition to overall ease of use.

We designed one of the world’s best mass transit systems over a decade before the South Koreans, and have pretty much rested on our laurels ever since. Today we’re riding 40 year-old trains and they’re operating a system generations ahead of our own.

I suppose it’s all a matter of priorities…

A hipster doofus waltzes about the city…

Beaver Hall Hill on Muggy Summer Day
Beaver Hall Hill on Muggy Summer Day
Glass Supernova
Glass Supernova
Old Stelco Shot Tower, Saint Henri
Old Stelco Shot Tower, Saint Henri
Ken Dryden Inspired Mural in an Alleyway off The Main
Ken Dryden Inspired Mural in an Alleyway off The Main
Ginormous Tree Behind Buffet Maharaja
Ginormous Tree Behind Buffet Maharaja
LARPers in the Forest
LARPers in the Forest
Gaudy Cross
Gaudy Cross
Girls & Boys
Girls & Boys
The Changing Face of Sherbrooke West
The Changing Face of Sherbrooke West

Make Your Own Lookout

Beaver Lake
Beaver Lake
Sherbrooke Street Impressions
Sherbrooke Street Impressions
Afro-Cuban Mambo Allstars Collectable Figurines (buy four, get a free Tito Puente)
Afro-Cuban Mambo Allstars Collectable Figurines (buy four, get a free Tito Puente)
Sent by Francis the First; the man from Saint Malo
Sent by Francis the First; the man from Saint Malo

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.