When speaking with Sandra Cohen-Rose, the founder and president of Art Deco Montreal, it becomes instantly apparent that heritage architecture is more than just a relic. Architectural history is “part of our background…of everyone’s lives,” she told The Daily. It is part of a collective consciousness of both our past and present. While other historical artifacts can be encased and isolated in museums, architecture is, by its very nature, lived in. Evolution is always visible as buildings and architecture reveal the history of the changing ways in which people relate to their environments. Cohen-Rose feels that Art Deco art and architecture in particular possess this expressive quality, as “a romantic sort of architecture…it really shows its heart.”
Art Deco emerged from the modernist forms of the lavishly emotive and ornamental Art Nouveau, popular in Europe around the turn of the 20th century. Initially referred to simply as the style moderne, this sleek and multifarious aesthetic came to the fore in Paris in the 1920s, and was rapidly taken up across the globe as the definitive decorative and architectural style of the interwar period. This stylistic epoch coincided with a period of extensive urban development in Montreal, resulting in numerous iconic instances of this distinctive aesthetic in commercial, institutional, and residential architecture. Art Deco Montreal has made it its mission to create a greater awareness and appreciation of the decorative and architectural arts produced in Montreal from the 1920s through the 1940s.
The diverse range of Art Deco spaces in the city are far too numerous to even begin to describe. The main building of the Université de Montréal is perhaps the quintessential example. As the masterpiece of Ernest Cormier, Montreal’s foremost Art Deco architect, the building perfectly demonstrates the characteristic balance between eclecticism and unity that defines Art Deco. The interior lobby draws upon several disparate architectural traditions – from the unadorned monumental columns of ancient Egypt to the Greco-Roman style of coloured marble and dentil friezes. The prominent presence of the modernist influence is also noticeable in the lighting fixtures which hang like chandeliers proudly displaying their tubular fluorescent lights. All of these diverse influences are brought together into a perfect spatial harmony as geometric motifs engage in a rhythmic repetition between the three doors, staircases, and circular recesses in the ceiling. Every detail of the space is accounted for within a singular design scheme – even the security desk echoes the motifs of the wood and metalwork on the door frames.
Through this careful amalgamation of the traditional with the new, the building stands as a monument to the university’s position as a bastion of modern thinking. In an interview with The Daily, Annmarie Adams, a professor of architecture at McGill, emphasized Art Deco’s function as a “symbol of a progressive institution.” She described the way in which this ethos of “sleek modernity jived with the missions of institutions in this period.” The lobby of the Montreal Neurological Institute also demonstrates the ways in which clean modern lines and patterning worked to revise classical traditions and build a new sort of temple to science and medicine. The use of sculptural reliefs in Art Deco exteriors – such as those illustrating a brain at the Neurological Institute, and the symbols of learning at McGill’s Peterson Hall – also serve to proclaim the ideological project of the buildings.
Cohen-Rose also suggested that Art Deco can be considered directly in relation to its historical moment in time, and that its eclecticism and decorative beauty can be read as a means of masking the underlying sadness in the years following the First World War. In Montreal, Art Deco buildings serve as an artistic manifestation of the competing mentalities of the interwar period. The lavish Lion d’Or Cabaret speaks to Montreal’s liveliness as the largest east coast city unaffected by prohibition in the roaring twenties, while the Montreal Botanical Gardens also draws upon Art Deco to quite literally “lift the spirit of the people,” as it was built as part of a large scale employment stimulus project during the Great Depression.
Art Deco Montreal has done much to promote an awareness of the city’s rich architectural history through a series of walking tours, lectures, and conferences. In 2009, the society hosted the resoundingly successful 10th World Congress on Art Deco. Yet although Montreal’s remarkable architectural history has achieved great international attention, it is tragically neglected by its own citizens. “We don’t appreciate what we have,” said Cohen-Rose, who founded Art Deco Montreal as a result of her dismay at the demolishment of so many great Art Deco buildings. The list of lost buildings is indeed lengthy, and includes the Kresge Building, the York Theatre, and Ben’s Deli-catessen – to name only a small sampling. Cohen-Rose also cited the ninth floor of the former Eaton’s department store – which now lies in disrepair in the new Complexe Les Ailes – as a space that is currently neglected and inaccessible to the public. One of Art Deco Montreal’s major ongoing projects is to work towards preserving and reopening this space.
According to Cohen-Rose, Montreal is full of “wonderful things that are crying out to us.” Art Deco Montreal has made it its mission to make sure that these cries from our collective past do not fall on deaf ears.