Culture  Curating Montreal

Conference explores the importance of heritage conservation

While few residents would protest the preservation of Montreal’s historical architecture, many important heritage sites are currently threatened, largely due to faulty municipal funding. The conference “Montréal, un patrimoine à preserver” (“a heritage to protect”) hosted last Wednesday at Griffintown’s Centre d’art de Montréal by municipal party Projet Montréal, explored the importance and challenges of heritage conservation in the city. The conference featured Université de Montréal architecture professor Christina Cameron, Heritage Montreal policy director Dinu Bumbaru, architecture conservator Naomi Lane, and Projet Montréal councillor for Mile End Alex Norris.

“There are 500,000 buildings on the island,” explained Bumbaru in French, “and 45 per cent of these were built before World War II.” Heritage conservation traditionally focuses on important public buildings, yet the scope is broadening with the changing definitions of heritage. Cameron identified ‘vernacular’ architecture – buildings designed with localized needs, materials, and traditions in mind, such as the Plateau’s triplexes and Griffintown’s factories – as an important new category. “The Plateau Mont-Royal has the biggest concentration of vernacular heritage architecture in the world,” explained Norris in French. The sheer quantity of these types of buildings may render them less important to jaded Montrealers, but it is this widespread iconic architecture that fuels gentrification and the tourism industry.

‘Immaterial heritage’ is another relatively new concept in the realm of heritage conservation.  Immaterial heritage refers to cultural activity occurring on a given site, for instance, a neighbourhood’s traditional point-of-sale for Christmas trees. Bumbaru used a term borrowed from the Ontario government, describing the Mount Royal Cemetery as a “landscape of memories.” The recognition of immaterial heritage as protection-worthy  reflects the flourishing role of conservation in preserving the city’s cultural heritage as a living and evolving force to be passed on to future generations.

A central tenet of all four speakers’ presentations was the use of Montreal’s heritage as a stepping stone to the future. Cameron proposed sustainability as one of the main challenges of heritage conservation, casting conservation agents as curators of the city for future generations. Bumbaru referred to this as “perenniality,” stressing the importance of balancing social, economic, and environmental considerations. As a wink to the provincial license plate, Bumbaru joked, “I remember and I envisage.”

By definition, curators of any kind must determine what to include in their collection. Cameron adds nuance to this challenge, pointing to the “multiplicity of values” clamouring to define heritage status. Many aspects must be considered when according heritage status. Not only a specific building’s historical importance, but also its aesthetic context, should be taken into account. In China, vernacular buildings surrounding the Dalai Lama’s residence were removed and replaced by a parking lot, damaging the visual integrity of the site. Similar disruptions to the integrity of the urban landscape are occurring in Montreal. “Public access to city views is threatened,” said Bumbaru. “Walls of condos are selling the views.” In addition to determining what is worth preserving, conservation agents must also agree on the management process. One proposed solution to this issue is to consult the community when choosing which sites to focus on and how to manage them. Conference organizers described the evening as a step toward greater citizen involvement, providing popular education to community residents.

“The owners are the first preservers,” emphasized Bumbaru. He lamented the current emphasis many owners place on restoration at the expense of preservation. “The first protection is maintenance,” he said. Lane echoed these ideas in her presentation. “Quebec’s climate makes water the number one enemy in conservation,” she explained. “Water infiltrates building walls and freezes, causing the most threatening damage.”

Collaboration with local communities is characteristic of Montreal’s heritage conservation movement, which often receives the cold shoulder from municipal government. There is little financial incentive for owners to put in any conservation effort; in fact, it is most advantageous for them to do nothing – “demolition by negligence,” as Norris described it. “There is a dilemma faced by property owners,” said Norris in an interview with The Daily. “If they let their building deteriorate, they can then get permission to demolish and build something cheaper.” Norris cited the Fonds du patrimoine culturel québécois, a provincial organization, as the main source for heritage conservation subsidies. However, the low amount of annual funding offered is quickly exhausted each year. Municipal employee Luc Côté said in a phone interview with The Daily that there are no subsidies for heritage buildings. “Montreal only had three or four public buildings that were recognized as heritage buildings and exempt from taxation,” he explained in French, “but this status was cancelled this year. An owner can apply to get subsidies for renovations, but taxes on his property will also increase correspondingly with value.”

“Demolition usually means replacement with a building we could find anywhere,” explained Norris, “rather than something unique to Montreal.” Preservation of the city’s heritage was highlighted as an important goal for Projet Montréal. Party leader Richard Bergeron used the opportunity for a short promotional speech, explaining the ways he would use the information delivered in the conference to add heritage conservation measures to his platform. Bergeron described himself in French as “a champion for Montreal,” explaining his ambitions to be curator of the city rather than simply mayor of its residents, while Norris described the financial dilemma heritage owners face as “something we as a party are looking into.”

With a history plagued by threats of cultural erasure, provincial and municipal efforts for the preservation of a distinct heritage are a struggle closely tied to politics. The conference’s Griffintown surroundings offered a potent example of the multifaceted nature of heritage conservation. The neighbourhood’s industrial buildings – products of an earlier chapter of Montreal history – are in the process of being destroyed, or refurbished and rebranded, steering the neighbourhood away from its traditional working class demographic toward gentrification. The aesthetic of distinct heritage architecture is a potent economic force, drawing in tourists and investors. Heritage protection is not simply a nostalgic indulgence – it is the presentation of a historical and cultural narrative that extends into the city’s future.