A couple days back I was featured along with opera critic & cutting edge Bohemian Lev Bratishenko on the CBC’s Daybreak Montreal with Mike Finnerty (an excellent program for those of us tired with the lame jokes and mind-numbing repetition of corporate rock and pop radio). We were on to talk about trams in Montreal, officially I was pro and Lev was con, but it became clear as we discussed before the show we’re both rather cynical about the whole affair and would rather riff on it. That said we both got our main points across and it was a fine experience all around, many thanks to Mike, Sarah, Silvet and everyone else who helped make this happen (especially Lev who stated, incredulous, “there’s a 6:40 in the morning?”).
As an aside, for those of you who haven’t visited Maison Radio-Canada (at 1400 Boul. RenÃ©-LÃ©vesque Est), do – even if only to walk around the building. I honestly think it may the city’s most under-rated architectural gem. I’d put it in movies frankly, it could be a perfect stand-in for the lair of a super-villain.
We’ve all seen the tower lit up by a setting sun as the above photo illustrates. It’s that odd skyscraper (at a mere 24 floors) set on a massive fieldstone-walled base structure, itself seemingly emerging naturally from manicured surroundings. And all of this set on an asphalt pond of parking spaces, the whole vast space heavy with earth tones and stylistically punctuated by the cones of pine tree groves and satellite antenna dishes. The flat faÃ§ade of the tower’s walls have an immovable permanence to them, while the style of the windows make it look as if a glowing light is being contained within. It’s roof bristles with thin antennae, a crown of communications equipment.
The hexagonal tower features three solid bronze-brown walls framing slightly elliptical windows like ribs, with three darker, recessed walls of gold-tint glass. It’s position on the base, natural colour palette and the tower’s design remind me of something medieval in form yet decidedly post-modern in function. The interior is impressive in its 1970s Canadian Modern style, again – another space I’d like to see on film. It’s rare to walk into such a serious building and be confronted with such an attractive and exciting red. And red not as a detail mind you – but as a commanding unifying theme. It’s red without being amorous, red without scandal, red without obvious suggestion. Canadian red without the overt patriotism (rendering all the more Canadian in the process, but I digress).
Of the three main broadcast, production and control facilities in the CBC’s network, Maison Radio-Canada is by far the largest, occupying a massive plot of land by the emblematic Jacques-Cartier Bridge and Molson Brewery. The area was once referred to as the Faubourg Ã m’lasse and it was destroyed in a spate of mass-razings by the Drapeau administration. To be fair, it was a slum, and there was insufficient capital (and interest) to save these communities. We wouldn’t do things the same way today, but we also don’t have slums in the same fashion as we did back in the 1950s and 1960s. Either way I’m glad the Maison Radio-Canada exists today.
It occurs to me that this isn’t just a broadcast centre but, in a certain sense, a key cultural centre within our urban environment as well. I’m not just referring to the museum or guided tours which are offered, or the fact that it produces an incredible amount of original content in French and English (and, up until the era of Conservative disengagement in global affairs, many other languages too), but also of the building’s ‘venue component’ – how different is seeing a live-taping from attending a rock concert or ballet? It’s an evening’s entertainment after all. Maison Radio-Canada also anchors a ‘broadcasting district’ of sorts, with CTV, TVA, LCN, RDS, RIS and MÃ©tÃ©oMÃ©dia/Weather Network and a variety of radio stations all located within proximity of Papineau & RenÃ©-LÃ©vesque. It’s weird – a quartier with a definable purpose yet it isn’t really conceptualized as such. The area is still badly scarred by the interchange and interface of the bridge’s access ramps, the Ville-Marie Expressway and what is perhaps the widest part of Boul. RenÃ©-LÃ©vesque. I wonder if at some time in the future the boulevard could be narrowed to accomodate new construction facing Maison Radio-Canada, offering the services one might expect to find immediately adjacent to such an important component of our cultural and intellectual capital. As it stands today the complex still feels isolated from its surroundings, a problem compounded by the fact that the surrounding area is still very much a zone of transition within the urban environment.
Final note – on the drive in (which was remarkably easy at such an early hour), I noticed that Gare Viger is boarded up and there appear to be renovations going on. EMDX, if you’re reading this, what’s going on with out beloved former grand railroad hotel? When I lived up the street in my first apartment in the city the building was being used by the city. I remember the only time Viger Square looked really good was when the office workers came out to eat their lunches there, the rest of the time it was quite literally a hobo campground of epic proportions.