Culture  We built this city on ruins

New additions to Montreal's skyline

As a carless city-dweller, the two things that matter most are always the most difficult: laundry and public transit. On one occasion a few weeks ago, public transit left me disoriented and deconstructed in a way that only a great metropolis can do.

Due to various construction projects, my beloved 107 bus that floats me down past the delightful excesses of Peel near Sherbrooke to Griffintown, where I work part time, was rerouted. Rather than dropping me off at the bottom of Peel across from what once was a massive brewery, the bus spit me out further south, near a bunch of construction projects, none of which seemed near completion. I was reminded of something a tour guide once told me about the national bird of China being the crane – the construction crane, that is.

Though the revitalization of Griffintown is well documented here and elsewhere, my experience that early afternoon was particularly striking. With an underlying sense of determination in my step, I traipsed hurriedly across empty streets past empty buildings with “For Rent” signs with a swiftness that belied any prevailing sense of calm, until I came to what I’ll call a green pasture.

At the edge of the green was an unassuming sign with a black and white photograph: “Here stood St. Ann’s Church, once the center of Montreal’s Irish-Catholic community.” Beyond the sign several stones stood in line like a ghost of lost past – a past that is quickly being superseded by a new group of people and buildings.

The song goes: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” These days in Montreal, the paradigm seems reversed, as developers construct vast condo complexes on former parking lots, and market once-static areas as up-and-coming. In the next three years, five buildings with heights over 100 metres (328 feet) will be completed. Beyond that, a total of nine such additional buildings are in the planning stages and at least half sold.

This marks the first major development period in Montreal in at least twenty years, when the two tallest skyscrapers, 1000 de la Gauchetière and 1200 René Lévesque were completed. While Toronto crept out of second place in the 1970s to become Canada’s largest city, another stage of development gave us much of what we see on the horizon when we enter Montreal. During the mid-1960s, a number of landmark International Style buildings – those bastions of sleek corporate excess, including I.M. Pei’s cruciform Place Ville Marie, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Westmount Square, and Luigi Moretti’s Tour de la Bourse – sprouted from the vertiginous bedrock of centre-ville. In addition, the Place des Arts complex, the Montreal metro, the underground city, and Expo 67 were some of the lasting legacies of this brief but prolific period.

Though the skyscrapers of Toronto, like the overall population, have well eclipsed Montreal in number and height, strict zoning laws in Montreal have kept the city well centred and bustling at its core. In order to maintain the visual integrity and psycho-spatial centrality of Montreal’s best green space, building heights have been restricted to the height of Mont Royal (233 metres above sea level).

The city comes together at the street level, where divergent paths coalesce, collide, and ignore one another. The mountain has always been the focal point around which the city was built.

Unlike many other North American metropolises, high rises in Montreal have historically been more affordable and less high-class. A good example is the preponderance of crumbling ten- to twenty-storey-plus apartment buildings in the Milton-Parc area and the western half of downtown. The great extravagant quarters of Westmount and Montreal’s Golden Square Mile have historically been one-to-three level affairs; in these traditionally wealthy areas, ostentation rather than height conveys power.

According to preeminent architectural critic and former McGill professor Witold Rybczynski, Montreal springs from a Latin culture where people like to see and be seen, hence bewildering lines of skimpily clad pedestrians cavorting in winter outside the clubs on St. Laurent on weekend nights. Compared to L.A. or Toronto, Montreal apartments tend to be on the smaller side, so even during the coldest of winters, people are itching to get out.

Though the skyline is effectively the fingerprint of any North American city, great cities are great because of what happens at the street level – that otherworldly feeling of chaos that supersedes any grid.

What’s striking about the majority of the new skyscraper projects is that they’re mostly luxury condos, a market that economists have warned is becoming saturated in Montreal. One such example is a complex called “Tour des Canadiens” being built above the Bell Centre, part of a larger development program in the area by the Toronto-based development company, Cadillac Fairview.

In a press release, the development company stated, “The 48-storey building […] will become Montreal’s tallest residential building and an unmistakable visual landmark.”

Given that most of these new development projects respect or integrate historically significant structures, this development should, in general, be an exciting time. Nevertheless, one must wonder how much these structures will reflect the period in which they were constructed. I bring you two cases in point.

First, let’s consider the legacy of Jean Drapeau’s sixties-era mega-projects. While Expo 67 and the Olympic stadium brought international fanfare to Montreal, they also plunged the city into massive debt. To this day, the Olympic stadium remains a symbol for reckless government spending.

Second, while the 1960s were a time of unprecedented urban development, part of the legacy of that time is hurried construction and shoddy craftsmanship. While new buildings are being built and planned, daily stories of crumbling and endangered highway overpasses and high-rise apartments riddle the news. Even more disconcerting, the Montreal municipality has recently been stung with revelations of highly pervasive mafia manipulation of public construction contracts that have stalled municipal projects, forced the mayor to resign, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Here my initial foray into Griffintown becomes more relevant. In a time of great inequality between the very rich and the middle class, the majority of the omnipresent construction is centred on the affluent few and their pre-fabricated gleaming towers of luxury. The very absence of that church in Griffintown is emblematic of other projects of historical erasure in that part of the city. We commodify re-vamped ruins as areas of renewal, but in fact few will ever recall the 6,000 Irish immigrants who died of typhus in 1847, only to be re-discovered by more working-class Irish in 1860, when they built the Victoria Bridge.

The question remains, how will these expensive condo projects come to embody our time? Are we blindly pursuing a developmental path that ignores the city’s cultural, social, and economic reality? Or is Montreal simply catching up to more successful cities that are defined by the height and contemporary aesthetic of their skyline?

As Mayor Drapeau declared as this city’s relative importance waned: “Let Toronto become Milan. Montreal will always be Rome.”