| Looking back on upward mobility

Fifty years later, the architectural feat of Place Ville Marie is still standing strong

The photograph “Montreal” by the Italian photojournalist Mario De Biasi depicts an immense white skyscraper. In its windows, one can see the reflection of an adjacent building, this one black and conventionally shaped. The black building’s edge interlays perfectly with the white building’s inverted corner, their clean lines merging. It’s a stark vision of modernism in perfect, mathematical symmetry.

The photograph’s subject is Place Ville Marie – a business and commercial complex known for its cross-shaped office tower that occupies a large city block at the southern end of McGill College. The structure is central and distinctive, and has often been referred to as Montreal’s best-known skyscraper.

Inaugurated in 1962, Place Ville Marie turns fifty this year, making 2012 an occasion for reflection on the building’s pivotal role in the tumultuous creation of Montreal’s downtown core.

A child of the 1960s, Place Ville Marie was built at a time of transformation in Quebec. As new ideas rocked the political and social milieu, the advent of modern architecture and new approaches to urban planning and development were changing the way in which citizens interacted with their cities. Jean Drapeau – mayor of Montreal from 1954 to 1957 and again from 1960 to 1986 – had ambitious plans for the city. His administration believed Montreal could become one of the world’s great metropolises, and projected for the population to double between 1961 and 1981.

When an up-and-coming New-York real estate developer named William Zeckendorf expressed interest in transforming an underused plot of land into the largest skyscraper that Montreal had ever known, Drapeau was happy to oblige. To design his building, Zeckendorf hired the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who would later become famous for projects such as the pyramid at the Louvre. Pei’s associate, Henry Cobb, served as it’s principal architect, aided by a team of local architects, in designing a building that would be a testament to the new, modernized Montreal. Another collaborator in the project was Vincent Ponte, an urban planner who took advantage of the existing excavation in the area – the result of a series of unfinished rail infrastructure projects – to realize his dream of a “multi-level, interconnected city,” one that would stay vibrant and economically viable, despite the outward pull of suburbia. Ville Marie, with a floor-level shopping gallery and tunnels to Central Station and the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, was one of the first projects in the establishment of the underground city, connected to the metro after its completion in 1966.

Above ground, the municipal government widened Dorchester – now Rene Levesque – into a six-lane boulevard, creating a main artery to the downtown core for motorists. This intervention spurred the development of other skyscrapers along the strip, such as the CIL House – now Telus Tower – and the Hydro-Quebec building. A photo of the Montreal skyline in 1961 shows multiple towers under construction, with steel girders stretching upward to heights that dwarfed all others around them. Of these new skyscrapers, Place Ville Marie was the largest. Its main tenant was to be RBC, who appreciated the fact that it would be slightly taller than the adjacent headquarters of CIBC, it’s main competitor.

Construction began in 1959, and, as with any great experiment, adjustments had to be made. Place Ville Marie’s builders soon realized that the tower’s unique shape made it subject to rotational stress as a pinwheel structure would be. Twice the amount of steel was needed, doubling the costs of construction and nearly bankrupting Zeckendorf.

France Vanlaethem, a Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) professor who studies the history of modern architecture, commented in an interview with The Daily that, “At its origin, it was a very interesting, very innovative project, locally and internationally. Its purpose was to make money, but it was financed by someone who was a great patron of modern architecture. Zeckendorf was a man who built on credit. What was the most ambitious was the scale. It was a risky endeavor.”

Very quickly however, the building became a place of prestige, and finding tenants was no problem. The complex is comprised of the main tower and a few smaller buildings, rows of storefronts and a public courtyard. It includes 45 stories and enough space for 10,000 workers. It’s top story houses a restaurant, a nightclub called Altitude 737, and an observation deck. It’s eye catching, whether because of its circumnavigating searchlights or the sophistication of its design.

“It’s a very simple architecture, with a clean, stripped aesthetic and a grand sense of spatiality,” said Vanlathem.  “The row of buildings surrounding the plaza to the northwest integrates the complex into the fabric of the city.”

Ville Marie’s opening in 1962 marked the final chapter in the decades-long migration of Montreal’s business and commercial elite from Old Montreal to the new, “uptown” city center that we now know as downtown. Paul- Andre Linteau, a history professor at UQAM who has written extensively about the development of Montreal said in an interview with The Daily, “The Ville Marie project bought a new dimension to the new downtown. Millions of square feet of office space was now available. All of a sudden, Old-Montreal emptied out… It was enormously significant. It became the symbol of modernity…of urbanism, and of a new conceptualization of the city. No other building has had that kind of impact.”

According to Linteau, however, this zeal for modernity came at a cost. “It was part of a much bigger project, of Jean-Drapeau and of others, to modernize the city. Modernization came first, and entire neighborhoods were destroyed in its name. There were a large number of projects, sometimes ridiculous ones. At one point, it was proposed that part of Old Montreal should be demolished to accommodate a highway along the river.“

The sixties remain a controversial period in Montreal’s history, in architecture and planning as in everything else. The period’s positive impact on the city can be seen in the development of important urban infrastructure like the Metro, and Place Ville Marie, to which Montrealers have long professed a special attachment. “It’s a visual symbol of the city, something very unique, in the shape of a cross,” said Linteau. “We don’t have anything else like it.”