Tag Archives: Montréal Architecture

Les amoureux de Montr̩al Рthe city at 350

Les amoureux de Montréal by Jacques Giraldeau, National Film Board of Canada

Stumbled upon this fascinating documentary about Montreal, released by the NFB in 1992.

It explores what seems to be a favoured theme amongst local documentarians – the city in a state of transition.

1992 was one of those years – an anniversary year, the city’s 350th. The city had been remodelling itself in preparation for the anniversary for the preceding six years, largely under the direction of the Doré administration.

The emphasis was principally on city beautification, though two iconic skyscrapers Р1250 Ren̩-L̩vesque Ouest and 1000 de la Gaucheti̬re Рwould join the skyline, completing a broader effort to increase class-A office real-estate in the city (the redevelopment of McGill College and the Montreal World Trade Centre occurred at roughly the same time). There are some excellent shots of the towers going up.

This is also the time the Biodome and Biosphere came to be, new parks and public spaces were created, museums expanded etc. The film seems to switch back and forth between optimism for what the future might hold and a somber reflection on an apparent loss of status. The film presents reflections on the city as love letters.

It can be ironic in hindsight, albeit understandably so given the context of the city at that time. Early on the narrator bemoans the ‘loss of port and rail, the over-reliance on cars and how we’ve fallen behind in public transit’.

Today we would see things a bit differently – 1992 was 21 years ago after all, and times and attitudes really do change. Today’s public transit network is fairly sophisticated and broader than it was back then. We’re still over-reliant on cars but at the very least urban depopulation may have been somewhat successfully cut back. As to the port, well it moved further east, out of sight but hardly out of mind. And we’re still the rail king of North American cities, not to mention the interaction between these elements of our infrastructure maintains our position as a leader in transportation.

This film is heavy on design and architecture in a way that reminds me of what seemed to be a trend from the era. I remember a host of books published at the time, not to mention the recent arrival of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and all of it coming together in a kind of architectural reawakening, as though the citizens saw the gems that lay before them for the first time.

Like we all suddenly realized ours is a good looking city only when the film crews starting popping up all over the place throughout much of the 1990s.

In any event, have a look – I’m sure you’ll enjoy. A must for all Montrealophiles.

The Oldest Buildings in Montréal

New York Life Insurance Bldg

So just how old is this city, really?

We talk a lot about the city’s history and architectural heritage, of its old world charm. And of course we know that the city was founded by the Kingdom of France in 1642.

It may surprise you to learn that much of our historic architecture isn’t actually that old; there are very few 17th century buildings left on the island of Montréal.

The remnants of the Fort de la Montagne date back to 1694 and can still be found today on the grounds of the Collège de Montréal at Fort and Sherbrooke. These were long believed to be the oldest buildings in Montréal, but new evidence suggests that parts of the Sulpician Seminary adjacent to Notre Dame Basilica (1829) actually date back to 1687, though much of what remains today would have been integrated into a large renovation which occurred in 1710.

These would be the two oldest remaining structures within urban core of Montréal, but recent civic amalgamations have brought the single oldest inhabitable building on the entire island into the fold. The LeBer-LeMoyne House sits here at the intersection of LaSalle and Lachine by the western tip of the Lachine Canal. It dates to 1671 and is a national historic site owing to its importance in the development of the fur trade.

Victoria Square Historic

Further west, parts of the remnants of Fort Senneville may date from 1692 when the French Governor rebuilt the original 1671 construction, itself destroyed by fire, but this is difficult to ascertain given how little is actually left. Last I heard there were parts of a stone windmill and parts of the foundation.

In Pointe-St-Charles you’ll find the Maison Saint-Gabriel a farm house dating from 1698 which had been used by the Congrégation Notre Dame as a school, among other things, back in the French Colonial Era.

Chateau Ramezay, across the street from the Hotel-de-Ville (1878, rebuilt in 1922) dates back to 1705 with certainty, as its regal and political importance kept it very much in use until it was developed into one of the city’s first public heritage and cultural sites. The Chateau competes with the Sulpician Seminary as the oldest continually used, continuously important, building.

But this is about it. Old Montréal and the Old Port dates primarily to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Historic properties in the Golden Square Mile, Shaugnessy Village, Saint Henri, Westmount, Mile End and Plateau are roughly as old.

Port of Montreal from Bonsecours Market ca. 1900

We lack buildings from much of the 18th century thanks to a series of fires which destroyed the city several times over the course of that century. By the early 1800s new fire-prevention measures had been implemented, including the use of tin shingles in lieu of cedar (a point honoured in the mural at McGill Station, near the words ‘La Sauvegarde’). The pre-Confederation part of the 19th century witnessed a revival in ‘Habitant’ architecture dating back to the mid-17th century (in design and materials used) among local architects, while American and British firms worked on larger public constructions, such as the Bonsecours Market (1847) and Saint Patrick’s Basilica (1847) and the original Parliament Building (destroyed by a Tory mob in 1849 and today the location of a converted fire hall at Place d’Youville. In 1815 the old fortifications were torn down, allowing the city to begin expanding outward. In this sense, everything you consider to be city outside of Old Montreal has really only been in use for about two-hundred years, though most of the buildings were built in the last half-century.

That said we nonetheless have a few 18th century examples remaining, including the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel (otherwise known as the Sailor’s Cathedral) built in 1771 on the ruins of another church. There also still stands the Papineau House, built in 1785.

Dorchester Square Historic

Rue de la Frippone owes its name to the Old French government warehouse that once stood on the site, as the government officials would habitually fleece the stocks for their own use. Thus, cheat street.

I can imagine there may be some old treasures lost about Rue Saint-Paul, Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Gabriel and Saint-Francois-Xavier as well, but the prevalence of ‘heritage design’ in the 19th century makes it a difficult task to ascertain just how old something actually is.

Suffice it to say, what we generally consider to be the ‘architecturally significant’ old part of the city is only about 100-160 years old, not terribly representative of our nearly 400 year local history. In effect, the most tangible reminder of our colonial era is a system of roads laid down by surveyor Dollier de Casson back in the late-17th century.


I drew my inspiration for this article from a City of Montreal tourist guidebook I have that was published around 1900 or so (photographs illustrating this article were scanned form it). Imagine that when this book was published, much of what is now considered to be the historic old city was then very new and very much in use. In fact you likely would have found many more older structures outside Vieux-Montréal back then, ironically enough, as this was then the city centre, and between 1880 and 1930 the focus of a massive redevelopment.

In this book it discusses what would have been the oldest structures in the city back at the turn of the 20th century, and as you might imagine the aforementioned examples are included. However it also suggests that a building on Rue Saint-Vincent may have once belonged to Monsieur De Catalogne, contractor of the Lachine Canal of 1700. The building here in white may be that house. There’s another on Rue Saint-Louis which also looks quite old, an odd small single-family home on a comparatively large plot near the municipal courthouse.

Windsor Station Antique

I think we’re well positioned to maintain a considerable portion of what currently exists in Vieux-Montréal, which will be far more impressive and significant at the end of this century. If we want to keep this rather pristine jewel of Ancien Regime based late-Victorian cityscape we’ll have to maintain (if not increase) the local population, introduce new services (both commercial and civic) and facilitate a renewal of purpose for the citizenry at large. Better public transit access wouldn’t hurt either, but options are limited (for better or for worse) to a re-introduction of trams. My understanding is that the ground might not be stable enough to permit Métro access further south than the Orange Line, but of course if trams were introduced they’d need to operate as independently of vehicular traffic as possible. It would be very much in keeping with the style and design of Vieux-Montréal if we were to re-introduce trams on Rue de la Commune, Notre-Dame, and Saint-Antoine with intersecting lines at Berri, Saint-Urbain, McGill and Peel, connecting to Berri-UQAM, Place-d’Armes & Place-des-Arts, Square-Victoria, Bonaventure & Peel respectively.


It’s a high concentration of transit in a small but high-traffic area and to secure a greater range of service optimization it may be worthwhile to focus it on a kind of site-specific transit system optimized for the entirety of the Old Port, Old Montreal, Griffintown, Goose Village and Cité-du-Havre/Parc Jean-Drapeau. It would make a lot of sense to people – when you’re in the old part of town you use a trams, an ‘old’ yet still practical form of public transit. And who knows, design it well enough and we may create something truly fitting, wondrously appropriate and efficient as well aesthetically pleasing. It could be a big hit.

But this itself is predicated on the notion that Old Montreal could be more valuable if it were a more viable place to live. We’d be wise not to build modern or post-modern residential towers here, but revisit the style that remains. I’d like to see the few remaining vacant lots filled with new versions of classic Montreal Beaux-Arts architecture, as well as some building variety as well – a good portion of Griffintown already feels too much like a series of large warehouses converted into horizontal apartments; throwing in some classic small-scale buildings could help solidify the rustic charm of our former frontier town. I said before we’re well positioned – interest in this area is generally high even if it’s localized economy is currently too negatively impacted by moderate drops in annual tourist revenue. Adding more people and the means for a viable community to form would help counter this problem, and would add the possibility for multi-generational investment in heritage properties. Fill up the vacant spaces with the buildings required to create a community and ensure the design fits, and then give it its purpose-built mass-transit system and Vieux-Montréal would transform from tourism hub to neighbourhood – a place where one comes from as opposed to a place one merely visits.

DOminion Square Historic

It’s not just that we want to preserve old buildings, function must be preserved as well.

Montréal doesn’t just have a collection of old buildings, we have an old city, an antique urbanism. And it’s viability and utility to the metropolis (for it could be an obscenely wealthy neighbourhood to boot) is tied quite directly to careful planning from City Hall. And this is because we expect the city to, if nothing else, at least preserve the historic built environment, that has now for several generations made every Montrealer feel like they come from a place truly different and distinguished.

Instagramming Perspectives on the City

Tour KPMG (Place de la Cathedrale) – Montreal

What can I say, I’m addicted to Instagram.

I’ll admit, when I discovered there was an Instagram-branded digital camera I bemoaned the death of Polaroid, but hey, who am I to tell the free-market what to do?

Personally, I like the filters and the way by which the filters are able to ameliorate otherwise low-quality digital photos, but I’m sure that will change too as the technology improves. Regardless, here are some of my favourite snap-shots of people and places in our fair city.

Saint Henri Bodega

The quintessential Montréal Dépanneur, commerce integrated directly into a residential plan, optimizing convenience while maintaining the link between vital small business and the neighbourhood that supports it. I read somewhere the estimate was that a single Montréal dépanneur typically serves a base of 1,000 regular customers, and as such, these small mom and pop operations tend to cater to specific local needs, not to mention offer some unique treats. One of the finest lunches to be had (on the cheap) in this city involves homemade soups and sandwiches sold by a lovely Polish lady in a dépanneur located at St-Marc and René-Lévesque.

Montreal World Trade Centre

A hidden gem, the Centre du Commerce Mondiale de Montréal (located next to Square-Victoria and a component of the Réso (Underground City), this massive atrium was built over the former Ruelle des Fortifications and as such unites several heritage properties into a single complex. It was conceived of as a horizontal skyscraper, with the Intercontinental Hotel anchoring the ‘base’. The fountain at one end of the reflecting pool was built in France in the early 18th century and, along with a piece of the Berlin Wall also located here, were, together with the complex, part of the city’s numerous 350th anniversary ‘presents’.

Windsor Station & 1250 Boul. René-Lévesque taken from the Place du Canada viaduct

An afterthought – both of these buildings have lost their anchor tenants. The tower was originally jointly owned by IBM and Marathon Realty, another 350th anniversary gift to the city from the private sector. It was built in competition with 1000 de la Gauchetiere West, and though both are icons of the city’s post-modern architecture, both lack anchor tenants. Odd considering how beautiful both are, how centrally located they are. Windsor Station was the corporate head office of Canadian Pacific Railways until 1997 when they consolidated their operations in Calgary. Today I believe CSIS maintains an office there. I wonder if new residential developments in the area will have any effect on their future significance in the urban tapestry.

McGill College Avenue at Dusk from the PVM Belvedere

One of the better achievements of 1980s city-planning, Vincent Ponté’s re-design of McGill College Avenue. Plans to create a showcase street date back to before the Second World War, but didn’t come to fruition until the 1980s. Prior, it was a far narrower street, with much of the space above Boul. de Maisonneuve nothing but parking lots. Redevelopment began when the Capitol Theatre was torn down in the 1970s and replaced with the squat, ugly brown building off to the left (out of frame). A more comprehensive plan came to fruition in the early 1980s that would ultimately lead to the development of several gleaming post-modern office towers and one of the city’s premier ‘show streets’. If I have one complaint, it’s that despite the large number of people who pass through here, work here etc, no one lives in this part of town. I can imagine it would be a rather fetching address. Sometimes I wonder why there isn’t a trend in this city to redevelop old office buildings (such as the aforementioned brown monstrosity) into condos. Seems like a natural evolution.

Hall Building, Concordia University, with Place Norman Bethune in the foreground, on a foggy October night

Avenue du Musée

I like the gradual development of the Quartier des Musées and the new pavilion of the MMFA – this is progressing in the right direction. The city has a plan for economic stimulus in this area, as they want to increase the number of stable local high-end boutiques and galleries. It could use a café and a bistro, and it would be wise for the city to help in the quartier’s branding if they were able to offer various incentives to help concentrate galleries in the area. Also, while I’m a big fan of the outdoor sculptures, they’re overwhelming given how close they’re grouped together. Would it be so bad if they were spaced out a bit? Maybe the presence of art installations could be used to delineate the boundaries of the Quartier?

We have beautiful balconies in this city…

A place where everyone can pass a long summer day thinking about tomorrow, pondering what could be. I think we’re lucky it’s considered an element of good design to include some type of balcony, front porch or rooftop terrace on urban residential construction here. In some places its quite the rarity, considered old-fashioned. Odd no?

The Sun Life Building (1931), PVM 5 (1968) and PVM 1 (1962)

We’ve really got to figure out what to do with this place. How much longer do we let it slowly decompose?

Thoughts on the Biodome and Tour de Montréal

Montreal Olympic Park – photo credit to Jean-Pierre Bonin

I had the opportunity to pass by the Biodome and Tour de Montréal this past weekend, excellent activity for a rainy Saturday afternoon. Admittedly, I really just wanted to see the new baby lynxes, as did hundreds of other people. I was not disappointed, as I got to watch one of the cubs play with its lunch, an oversized rodent, for quite some time. Despite the gruesome undertones, it was a remarkably enjoyable sight to behold. You could say it was gruesomely cute.

Also gruesome are the many sturgeon floating around in the Great Lakes ecosystem fish tank, but I digress.

It had been twenty years since I had been to the Biodome and nothing had changed, it was remarkable – like stepping back in time to the early 1990s. The paint scheme was particularly glaring. The same can be said of the Olympic Tower, though it seemed to have not been aesthetically updated since 1987. Much of the Olympic complex had this vibe. Pie-IX station, for example, seems a bit of a relic to a bygone age. It’s massive size is overpowering given how few people actually use it, and the deep earth tones combined with the shape and size of the passageways and mezzanine make it seem more an ancient cave-temple than simple subway station. I find it to be a hauntingly beautiful station, topped off with a close access corridor used to stockpile old STM equipment. It was not so much like walking into the past, inasmuch as it felt like walking around something formerly significant.

The tower staff were few and far between, the funicular empty, the view incredible yet thoroughly unappreciated by three Japanese tourists in matching neon nylon coveralls. The uniforms of the girls manning the trinket and souvenir stand – seemingly the only thing to actually do once you’re up there – were old and ill-fitting. I was surprised there was no restaurant or café despite two additional off-limits floors intended for use as reception and conference space. I’ve never heard of anyone using the tower for such a purpose.

The interior of the observation deck was hopelessly out-dated and as mentioned prior, offered nothing to do nor really anything to learn, which I also found surprising. The Eiffel Tower has plaques and posters that will tell you much of the city’s history by pointing to various locations. We by contrast have old and yellowing photographs of the city that list out the names of buildings. There was no one to tell you about why the tower was built, what purpose it serves nor any technical information about the world’s tallest inclined tower. Again, I found all this to be very, very odd.

And yet, I’d still recommend it to just about anyone – the Olympic Tower is an exercise in time travel, and you’ll no doubt delight in the late-1980s interior design. Also – Montreal Pro Tip; if the line to get into the Biodome is too long (when we got there we were told we had a 45 minute wait), you can buy a combo ticket to the Tower and Biodome at the tower’s ticket kiosk for an additional seven bucks. There’s typically no line to go up the tower.

What would I do to improve this ‘espace pour vie’ you may be wondering? Well, for starters a new paint job, new signage, new uniforms, new decor and furniture. This can be applied to the Biodome inasmuch as the Tower and the grounds and buildings of the Olympic Park in general. Second, integrate the exhibit on the Montreal Olympics and the Olympic Stadium’s design into the space in a non-exclusive fashion (or at least use more of the available space to educate the public on these subjects). The tower’s observation deck could use a thorough remodelling to make it a more attractive attraction. Some additional services, like a modestly priced restaurant and/or café (or hell, even a night club) would likely generate some additional interest. Third, the cracks in the concrete have got to go. The exterior of the stadium, the walkways, the corridors – everywhere you look there are cracks, overgrown weeds, stains etc. Benches and railings are busted and twisted up, garbage cans deformed if present at all, and water fountains serve as makeshift garbage receptacles given that they haven’t been turned on in so long. Signage is outdated and all too foten the Olympic rings and our Olympic logo are faded and or scratched out. The whole place needs a facelift.

I’ll come back to this again tomorrow, there’s more to discuss.

Historic Perspectives on the City – Place Bonaventure & Place du Canada

An excellent photograph showing the development of Place Bonaventure and environs, mid-late 1960s

So this is a sight we’ll never see again. Place Bonaventure, prior to its renovation, with the Métro tunnel being constructed in the foreground, adjacent to the (then) recently completed Chateau Champlain and Place du Canada building, from the Laurentian Hotel, which no longer exists. Notice the parking lots and the old building which would be razed to make room for 1000 de la Gauchetiere. Prior to the construction of Place Bonaventure and the Chateau Champlain complex, you could look out and see most of the Old Port and the Tour de la Bourse from this vantage point. Oh to live in a city hell bent on urban renewal and re-development, as it once was.

The Mountain Street Viaduct

Weird eh? A road passing over the roof of the old CN stockyards in Little Burgundy. This is the former Mountain Street Viaduct, and it, much like just about everything else in this picture, is now gone (save for the row of old buildings along Notre-Dame, which are fortunately part of a rejuvenated community, not to mention the Nordelic Building towards the top-right corner).

Two things come to mind when looking at this picture.

First, look at the overlapping infrastructure – here, where residential zoning is typically rental properties above street-level commercial units amidst light and medium sized industrial operations, which at this time largely employed local residents. Industry is fed by the ‘arterial and circulatory systems’ of the modern industrial city – road, rail and canal interact, overlap and connect. They move bulk freight and cargo at different intervals, speeds, quantities etc, and all of this can happen with workers who live within walking distance of their employer. This means that heavy industrial transport can happen efficiently (using canal and rail systems, and thus without the need of trucks) and workers don’t require a car to get to and from work. It’s convenient, though at the time and largely because of the proximity to industry, this area was largely viewed to be a slum. Today it’s a home to many massive condo projects. Sometimes I wonder whether there is still a place for this kind of mixed-use quarter in the modern city, and if in the future we might not require a similar relationship between this specific kind of zoning and heavy transport infrastructure.

Second – why aren’t all elevated highways designed to be placed on top of buildings? Or why aren’t buildings (like factories, warehouses, parking garages, strip-malls etc) placed under highways? We’ve developed the techniques and technologies to mitigate damage through friction, vibrations etc, not to mention cut back on the effects of sound infiltration. Otherwise, elevated highways are dark, noisy, dirty barriers that cut-up neighbourhoods and place unnecessary and unnatural barriers between various parts of the metropolis. Let’s re-enforce the elevated highways by placing new structures beneath them. Otherwise it really is poorly used space – we need to be more efficient, wiser, when it comes to how we design key pieces of infrastructure.

Anyways, just a thought.

You can also see Rockhead’s Paradise towards the bottom right of the picture.