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.
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.
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).
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.
What was created was essentially the opposite of Place Ville Marie. Whereas PVM exploited the aerial rights over a train yard, Complexe Desjardins evolved out of what was once parts of Chinatown and the Red Light District (slum clearance initiatives from the 50s had left the area in near ruin). Consider as well, PVM’s main tower is essentially four skyscrapers gathered around a central service core with its plaza offset, whereas Complexe Desjardins is composed of four separate towers organized on pedestals around a glass-atrium covered plaza. PVM is defined by its tallest tower, a look emphasized by the much smaller buildings gathered around it. Complexe Desjardins’ towers ascend like a staircase – its tallest being just seven floors shorter than PVM 1, and appearing shorter than it actually is. Whereas the former dominates the skyline on high ground, the latter assembly of buildings seems far more balanced, working with one another rather than placed in obvious opposition to each other.
Complexe Desjardins is also, complex (ahem), in terms of what jobs it performs in the context of Montreal’s urban environment. It’s a private commercial property conceived as a public space. The complex forms the central section of Montreal’s eastern institutional axis, beginning with UQAM up at Sherbrooke, then moving through Place des Arts and then on to Complexe Guy-Favreau and the Palais des Congrès & World Trade Centre in Old Montreal.
Integrated, international business services in the west, integrated, local civil services to the east.
We haven’t really built anything like Complexe Desjardins in 40 years, and this isn’t altogether a bad thing, though some insist a lack of construction of this magnitude is a sign of economic weakness. Edifices like Complexe Desjardins come from a specific moment in time responding to the needs of a particular era. That it continues to serve in its intended role, that it has evolved with tastes and maintained its presence and importance within the urban environment is a far better indicator of the project’s success than any attempt at emulation.