Tag Archives: Place des Arts

Iconic Montreal Architecture – Complexe Desjardins

A quick summation before my screed. Here’s why I think Complexe Desjardins is an exceptional example of Montreal architecture:

1. It’s balanced without being symmetrical. The four towers are of different heights, ascending clockwise like a giant staircase. The tallest tower is built on the lowest ground, the shortest tower is built on the highest. The illusion this creates makes the towers seem shorter when viewed from the north, and taller when viewed from the south. Finally, the four towers are each offset from the centre of the podiums they’re set on. The arrangement was intended to give the impression of a city within the city, buildings in harmony without much indication it’s a single common development.

2. It occupies a pivotal and central section of the city’s Underground City, as well as a central ‘institutional axis’ running north-south from Sherbrooke all the way down into Old Montreal. It connects provincial and federal government offices with housing and hotels, office and retail space to university buildings, an arts museum, concert hall and diverse other performance venues, Métro stations and parking garages to a convention centre and the World Trade Centre. Few other buildings in Montreal connect as many diverse services and purposes as Complexe Desjardins.

3. The large central atrium is essentially a public city square, protected from the elements and inclement weather by massive glass walls. The natural lighting emphasizes the interior volume without making it feel heavy – which is difficult to do with so much concrete. Combined with captured body heat cycled through between the Métro stations, not to mention the fountain and plants, the atrium has an almost tropical feel, especially in the dead of winter. Complexe Desjardins was the only ‘superblock’ built in that era with a public space at its centre and further, specifically designed to facilitate pedestrian traffic and draw it in off the streets.

Complexe Desjardins, August 1976 - Archives de Montréal. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cité complex is under construction.
Complexe Desjardins, August 1976 РArchives de Montr̩al. In the foreground, the Ville Marie Expressway and what remained of Chinatown. In the background, the controversial La Cit̩ complex is under construction.

If you don’t know Complexe Desjardins already, just wait for a cloudy night and look towards the city centre. The hazy green light hanging low in the sky will lead you right to it. Complexe Desjardins completed a facelift recently that involved adding a massive lighting installation that now bathes the complex’s office towers in a brilliant emerald glow. The lighting scheme devised by Lightemotion projects a ‘luminous pathway’ drawing attention to the Quartier des Spectacles from afar and identifies the buildings as belonging to the Desjardins Movement by using their trademark colour. It’s excellent advertising, but I hope it doesn’t catch on. Two beacons are enough.

I feel this new lighting scheme is appropriate, like we’ve established a kind of balance to our city’s night-lights. The Royal Bank of Canada, the nation’s largest bank, has a rotating beacon atop their head office at Place Ville Marie. The Desjardins Movement, North America’s largest credit-union, now also commands a place in our night sky.

I make mention of this comparison between PVM and Complexe Desjardins for a reason – the latter was built to ‘balance’ the former.

Together, Place Ville Marie and Complexe Desjardins form useful ‘bookends’ of Montreal’s ‘edifice complex era’ – a period in time in which urban development was almost exclusively of massive scale and often intended to include all manner of activity within an ostensibly cohesive mega-structures. Between 1958 and 1977 Montreal got its Métro system, hosted Expo 67 and the 1976 Summer Games. Massive multi-purpose complexes occupying entire city blocks were constructed all throughout this period – Westmount Square, Place Alexis-Nihon, Place Victoria, Place Dupuis and the La Cité complex in Milton-Parc to name but a few.

Complexe Desjardins and Place Ville Marie are arguably the best overall examples of the then popular ‘superblock’; though they are nearly opposite constructions in terms of their form, both managed to greatly surpass expectations in terms of the functions they play within Montreal’s urban environment. These are complimentary structures; dissimilar, asymmetric and yet somehow harmonious and balanced as well.

The first ICAO Headquarters, upon completion in 1949. In the background, the office tower and annex of Bell Canada. At far right, part of CN's Central Station
The first ICAO Headquarters, upon completion in 1949. In the background, the office tower and annex of Bell Canada. At far right, part of CN’s Central Station

In the late 1950s and early 1960s several large buildings were constructed in quick succession in proximity to Montreal’s largest and most important train stations. Canadian National Railways owned a considerable amount of land along a north-south axis running from Saint Catherine Street down to Saint Antoine between University and Mansfield, and by the end of the last war there was considerable interest in developing it to relieve congestion in Old Montreal.

There were other reasons to develop CN’s land. For much of the 20th century, the land north of René Lévesque Boulevard was a large open pit with Central Station’s rail yard at its bottom. Beginning in the late 1940s CN began to develop the site, first building a permanent home for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) then followed by the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and CN’s head office. By mid-decade CN had turned its attention to the pit and endeavoured to build an office complex of several buildings of different heights, set around a public plaza, and integrated into the Central Station complex. The undertaking was absolutely massive: the pit was so large there’s an amount of space underground equivalent to all the rentable space in the tower and buildings above. Place Ville Marie was Montreal’s first ‘city within the city’ styled developments.

By 1962 the cruciform tower of Place Ville Marie had been completed, a massive ‘tear’ in the urban fabric had been mended, and a new modern city centre was taking shape in the far western districts of the city. The Royal Bank of Canada was involved from the start and became the tower’s anchor tenant. Not to be outdone, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce decided to build their own Internationalist-styled tower just two blocks further west at the same time, the projects competing against one another in terms of height (and on this note, though today neither are Montreal’s tallest towers, they each held the title of tallest in Canada and the British Commonwealth between 1962 and 1964. Both are often mistaken for Montreal’s tallest to this day: the CIBC Tower is slender and features a prominent antenna, while PVM is built on higher ground than any other skyscraper in the city).

Montreal early 1960s, with CIBC Tower, Place Ville Marie and CIL House under construction.
Montreal early 1960s, with CIBC Tower, Place Ville Marie and CIL House under construction.

In a matter of a few years a tectonic shift had occurred in Montreal, re-locating the city’s central business district from Saint James Street in Old Montreal to the environs of Dorchester Square to the northwest. By 1970, several other major developments had taken place within the vicinity of the city’s main train stations, including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s CIL House at the southeast corner of University and René Lévesque, Terminal Tower at 800 René Lévesque, Place du Canada and the Chateau Champlain hotel across from Windsor Station on Peel Street and Place Bonaventure, the city’s first purpose-built convention centre, immediately south of the Central Station complex. These buildings were connected directly not only to the city’s train stations and commuter-rail network, but also to each other and to Montreal’s new Métro system, giving us the very first iteration of our Underground City.

Complexe Desjardins evolved to provide a counter-weight to this development. Whereas the aforementioned buildings were largely financed and driven by the city’s Anglo-American business community, Complexe Desjardins would become the physical manifestation of the ascending Francophone middle-class and Quebec, Inc. By the mid-1960s the Desjardins Group had grown to become one of the nation’s largest financial institutions and was looking for a new head office in downtown Montreal. The Quebec government was also looking for modern downtown office space, and the City of Montreal was keen to ‘pull’ the business centre back towards the east, closer to the seat of municipal power and the traditional ‘centre’ of city affairs.

Finishing touches to Complexe Desjardins, 1976. Dufferin Square had become the parking lot at bottom centre.
Finishing touches to Complexe Desjardins, 1976. Dufferin Square had become the parking lot at bottom centre.

What was created was essentially the opposite of Place Ville Marie. Whereas PVM exploited the aerial rights over a train yard, Complexe Desjardins evolved out of what was once parts of Chinatown and the Red Light District (slum clearance initiatives from the 50s had left the area in near ruin). Consider as well, PVM’s main tower is essentially four skyscrapers gathered around a central service core with its plaza offset, whereas Complexe Desjardins is composed of four separate towers organized on pedestals around a glass-atrium covered plaza. PVM is defined by its tallest tower, a look emphasized by the much smaller buildings gathered around it. Complexe Desjardins’ towers ascend like a staircase – its tallest being just seven floors shorter than PVM 1, and appearing shorter than it actually is. Whereas the former dominates the skyline on high ground, the latter assembly of buildings seems far more balanced, working with one another rather than placed in obvious opposition to each other.

Complexe Desjardins is also, complex (ahem), in terms of what jobs it performs in the context of Montreal’s urban environment. It’s a private commercial property conceived as a public space. The complex forms the central section of Montreal’s eastern institutional axis, beginning with UQAM up at Sherbrooke, then moving through Place des Arts and then on to Complexe Guy-Favreau and the Palais des Congrès & World Trade Centre in Old Montreal.

Integrated, international business services in the west, integrated, local civil services to the east.


We haven’t really built anything like Complexe Desjardins in 40 years, and this isn’t altogether a bad thing, though some insist a lack of construction of this magnitude is a sign of economic weakness. Edifices like Complexe Desjardins come from a specific moment in time responding to the needs of a particular era. That it continues to serve in its intended role, that it has evolved with tastes and maintained its presence and importance within the urban environment is a far better indicator of the project’s success than any attempt at emulation.

Mehta, Mahler and the Maison Symphonique de Montréal

Not Mehta or the OSM, but Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Close enough…

Confession: I was neither familiar with Mahler’s Third Symphony, nor the city’s new concert hall, until last night. I know… for shame.*

First off, seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was a treat in and of itself (read Claude Gingras’ spot-on review in La Presse). Mehta was the conductor of the OSM from 1960 to 1967, at the time a major step in his early career and a coup for our city. Mehta then went on to become the musical director and chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later became Musical Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic. He is one of the greatest and most renown living conductors, and the thrill of the experience was palpable amongst concert-goers and musicians alike.

Second, the OSM, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the OSM’s women’s choir and Montreal and McGill children’s choirs did a superb job performing such a demanding and complex piece. The choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony was brilliant, especially given that this was a benefit concert, as (in my opinion) it allowed the OSM to demonstrate its versatility, not to mention the excellent acoustic qualities of the new concert hall. Further, as The Gazette’s Arthur Kaptainis points out, it’s the kind of piece that will appeal to the critical and impress the unfamiliar. I fall in the latter category, though I’ve been developing a greater appreciation for classical music of late.

Third, if the purpose of Tuesday night’s performance was to encourage locals to go to the symphony more often, mission accomplished… you won’t have to tell me twice. What I saw was a world-class orchestra eager to impress a living legend, and in so doing brought the house to its feet. The performance concluded with what felt like a ten minute standing ovation.

That said…

This was my first experience with the new concert hall and I’m feeling a bit let down.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine building; it’s comfortable, modern, well-lit and sounds fantastic too.

However, on the outside it’s dull to the point of being insulting to the OSM and citizens alike. Put it another way, the building’s overall aesthetic qualities don’t match the quality of the orchestra performing within. To me it looks more like Place des Arts’ music school, or a UQAM pavilion, than the home of a major symphony orchestra.

The interior of the concert hall is elegant though the ornamentation seems to me to be trying too hard to be postmodern and ‘fun’. The general aesthetic of the whole construction is of stripped down minimalism common to most projects involving Quebec government funding of late, and while it fits within the greater scheme of both Place des Arts and the Quartier des Spectacles, I still feel it’s too much of the same thing.

Perhaps my discomfort with the new concert hall is in the vein of medium and message being less than congruent; I can’t imagine a tourist would happen upon the concert hall without prompting (i.e. the location isn’t evident, being somewhat on the backside of Place des Arts) and there’s little about the building which says unequivocally what purpose it serves. It doesn’t invite the spontaneous engagement with the city’s culture, and doesn’t say anything about our own cultural values either. This is not to say that all buildings should necessarily be so explicit, but I don’t think it would hurt in this particular case.

After all, we want the OSM (and the other classical music ensembles who makes use of the space) to be cherished by the citizenry and further want a concert hall that is both distinct and recognizable for citizens and tourists alike.

It would also be nice for the most successful elements of Place des Arts to be eventually ‘unpackaged’ and re-distributed elsewhere in the city. The Quartier des Spectacles is without a doubt a successful (though somewhat contrived) urban branding initiative, but it would be unwise to distinguish one particular neighbourhood as cultural nucleus. Disingenuous too. Most of the housing within immediate proximity of Place des Arts isn’t exactly within the price range of most local artists.

In any event, I think it’s just a matter of time before the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal seeks out a new location, and there’s been talk of building an opera house since the Drapeau Era. Perhaps a larger and more distinct concert hall would follow. Were this to happen, new venues should go up outside the Quartier des Spectacles, though not outside the central core of the city.

Incidentally, I think the old Forum site at Atwater would be a great location for a large performance venue… although you’d run into the same problem trying to balance out the various requirements of what would need to be a multi-faceted, somewhat multi-purpose facility. But I don’t know enough to argue whether an opera hall could easily double as home to the OSM and serve the needs of touring Broadway productions simultaneously.

Closing notes: the interior aesthetic of the concert hall, from the audience’s perspective, is marred by the red neon emergency exit signs. It clashes with the woodwork and seems almost like an afterthought designed and installed by hurried bureaucrats. I know it’s absolutely necessary to have emergency signage, but surely it could have been a bit more subtle?

On the other side of the spectrum, the artist’s entrance at the corner of Boul. de Maisonneuve and St. Urbain has all the charm and intimacy of a loading dock office at a pharmaceutical company’s distribution warehouse. This is where the stars of the show enter the building, yet again, their entrance seems like an afterthought, far removed from the main entrance and wholly inappropriate in context given just how unimaginative it actually is.

* (In truth, now that I think about it, I had heard the symphony before, though had forgotten. I won’t forget it now and encourage you to take a listen. It’s well worth it.)

Dave Chappelle at Just For Laughs – Wednesday July 24th 2013

Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle

It was a tad curious.

The DJ kept telling us not to interact with Mr. Chappelle. Three times at least.

Odd because interacting with the crowd often leads to some great moments in live comedy; as an example, interacting with the crowd made for some unexpectedly hilarious and heart warming moments during Aziz Ansari’s recent last-minute double show at the Comedy Works a little while back. But to be told specifically not to shout things out came as a surprise to me, particularly when we were warned we risked getting tossed should any of us break this golden rule.

It seems not everyone got the message.

Long story short, an enjoyable show – but I’m easy to please. I saw the 19h30 show last night and I think I got the better deal. My brother saw the 21h30 show (which didn’t actually start until 23h00) and felt he didn’t quite get his money’s worth.

But my brother made sure to point out it wasn’t Mr. Chappelle that ruined the show (for him), but rather the apparent fans in the audience.

Ah… Montreal ‘fans’, bane of performers everywhere.

Call it unbridled enthusiasm, I just thought it was rude. Those calling out towards the end of the performance seemed to know less than nothing about the performer – such as the fact that it was Charlie Murphy who interacted with Prince and Rick James. Call it the frat boy problem that dogs too many live performances in this city.

Mr. Chappelle hasn’t set foot on a Montreal stage in some thirteen years – the last time he performed Just for Laughs he was still two years away from the launch of the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed Chappelle’s Show; arguably he was still on his way up back then – young, fresh, daring, bold. Today he’s a married dad, a forty year old man. It shows. He’s patient and also highly selective, choosing when to engage his audience and more confident when ignoring the outbursts of over enthusiastic spectators ‘lookin’ fer laffs.’

From what my brother told me, the later show featured about twenty minutes of awkwardness so thick and cringeworthy the audience embarrassed him. I only had to contend with about five minutes’ worth of such nonsense as that.

This is an issue I’ve discussed many times before – Montreal audiences and ‘fans’ can be very difficult to deal with. Case in point, the infamous closing show of Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals world tour, the show Roger Waters credits as laying the foundation for what would become The Wall. And this is saying nothing of the well documented poor attitudes of Montreal fans vis-a-vis the Habs. I wouldn’t wish a career playing hockey in Montreal to even the worst, most asinine of professional hockey players – Montreal fans can be brutal, unforgiving.

Last night, they were just fools.

I’ll tell myself Just for Laughs is a big international festival and it’s completely possible those causing trouble were from out of town, Torontonians or Bostonites most likely, but either way, it left a bad aftertaste. I honestly hope it doesn’t perturb Mr. Chappelle and make him think twice about what I’m assuming is some kind of a return to active touring and new material.

In any event, I’m getting ahead of myself.

First things first – Place des Arts and Just for Laughs need to figure out a more efficient method of handling ticket pick-ups prior to the show, especially when there are four or five shows going on simultaneously. I spoke with a PdA security guard who said the line-up to pick up tickets (which stretched all the way outside, up St-Urbain towards the new concert hall) was pretty much standard and it was fucking everything up. I asked him what he would’ve done differently, and without skipping a beat he smiled and said ‘four guichets for Monsieur Chappelle, one for everything else.’

Fortunately I didn’t have to stand in line (keep your electronic tickets on your phone, so the QR code can be scanned (a message for my older, Baby Boomer readers)) and was comfortably seated up in the balcony of Theatre Maisonneuve sometime just before eight. Opening act, delightfully, was Hannibal Buress, an excellent choice to warm up the audience. The bit about why rappers discussing their enjoyment of MDMA (otherwise known as Ecstasy or, perhaps more softly, Molly) as being antithetical to the stated aim of appearing hard was the highlight of his brief warm-up routine (“there I was, smiling, masturbating to the colour blue, mumbling something about being in a gang…”).

Chappelle hit the stage a little while later after a brief interlude by the DJ who reminded us, for the umpteenth time, not to heckle the talent or yell out for any reason. Lights went Christmastime red, vinyl spun silently in the background as the DJ seemingly disappeared under the stage, and Dave Chappelle, hero of my youth, waltzed out on stage puffing away on the first of many, many cigarettes.

So strike one – yes, I know he smokes, I smoke too, I fucking love smoking. And Mr. Chappelle enjoys smoking while doing stand-up, something JFL management and/or Place des Arts seemed okay with (you’ll remember Dave asked Crack Mayor Ford if he could smoke indoors at a show in Toronto about a year ago, a request which was denied by the worst mayor in Canadian history). But it’s not like we, the common people, can smoke in the venue, that’s strictly verboten. And while I can understand a comedian who enjoys smoking going to some length to acquire a special privilege for him or herself, this is Montreal, and we like tobacco more than South Carolina, so it’s a bit of a dick move. Maybe he argues that he’d be far too stressed out otherwise, but to be perfectly frank his chain smoking was giving me the urge. That he chain smoked through the set was a bit much, and I wonder if it didn’t set the best tone, even at a very subconscious level, and facilitated the kind of audience goonery which rendered my brother’s later show so unbearable. He’s flaunting the rules after all, so why should the audience behave?

Although I don’t know with any certainty, I would swear Mr. Chappelle’s preparing for a new tour – ten shows in Montreal, after all, with brand new material from what I can tell. What’s tending me towards this line of thinking is that he’s doing something previously unheard of (i.e. performing ten shows at a single comedy festival, selling each out and grossing nearly a million dollars for Just for Laughs, proving he’s still a viable act even if his sets are largely experimental and basically turning his back on the television show that brought him such prominence).

There were times I thought I was looking at a re-imagined George Carlin, or a more relaxed Bill Hicks – not because the set was particularly political, but because the social commentary was striking, poignant first, with jokes placed strategically to prevent the subject matter from sinking the mood. Deftly placed humour to address some very serious issues. But it also seemed like he was wincing at the thought of being a political humorist, yet found himself caught in the story he was telling. As I said before, he’s got the world weariness young dads tend to develop – you change enough diapers nothing phases you anymore; at one moment he simply declared a joke dead and moved on – it demonstrated his objective detachment from his own material, yet also recalled the impish prankster demeanour that characterized his earlier material. Dave Chappelle has this quality where I feel I’m watching a man entertain himself first and foremost and I just happen to be in the same room. He has a way of playing the joke on the audience, steering them.

I understood the reason why they wanted to minimize shouting out; we were watching a rehearsal.

On the whole I’m immensely satisfied, but also a tad disappointed with the yahoos who couldn’t quite grasp a comedian beyond corporate comedy channel soundbites.

Put another way, I haven’t yelled ‘I’m Rick James bitch!’ in a bar in about ten years and I’m embarrassed that I once thought it was cool. I was young once…

But to the guy who imitated Chappelle imitating Lil John, I don’t think you came off as bringing comedy to dizzying new heights of metatude. Rather, as Dave put it “buddy, that’s not even me, that’s Lil John.”

And that’s probably going to be a problem for Mr. Chappelle for as long as he remains a touring comedian. I can imagine having to contend with legions of ostensibly adoring fans who shout out their (all too often pitifully) poor water-cooler impressions really nauseating, depressing.

But doing ten shows with Montreal audiences will give anyone a thick skin; like I said before, I really hope I saw a rehearsal yesterday. The world could use a lot more Dave Chappelle.


After some comments, tweets and emails I feel I should clarify a couple of points.

One – I like what I saw and enjoyed it despite the aforementioned problems.

Two – if what I saw was actually a ‘rehearsal’ for something more comprehensive (such as a new comedy special, world tour or album), then I’m beyond honoured as a Montrealer that Mr. Chappelle would choose to hone his skill here. It makes sense to me that this might be the case (though perhaps I’m too hopeful) given Mr. Chappelle’s connection to the festival, that there’d be a very sympathetic (and for the most part, supportive) audience and the opportunity to hang out with hundreds of other comedians. Am I crazy or is Just for Laughs a good place to get in some practice?

Three – I like comedy in the raw. The JFL galas tend to be very polished, relentless even. Guaranteed laughs for everyone so nobody leaves disappointed. This was different. I’m pretty well versed in Chappelle’s back catalogue so I had no interest in hearing the old bits rehashed, I wanted something new and different and I got precisely what I wanted. I would pay to see Mr. Chappelle under similar circumstances again without hesitation. He’s an excellent comedian, and that’s an understatement.

Four – I need to make this point really clear. I’m not overly concerned about the late starts. As I mentioned earlier, part of the problem lies in how tickets are distributed – this is a problem between JFL and PdA, not Dave Chappelle. Moreover, expecting a comedian who is doing 10 shows over a short period of time to be punctual is unrealistic (and another reason to choose the earlier show). He’s mobbed by fans before and after and if sets go well they go longer than expected. If he was late to my brother’s show, it’s only because he had a (generally) good time with us. Furthermore, unlike a Wu Tang Clan show I saw six years ago, there was an opening act and a competent DJ.

Five – My main concern is that the rambunctious and inconsiderate audience my brother had to contend with is more indicative of Montreal audiences in general, and if this is the rule rather than the exception, I worry whatever interest Mr. Chappelle may have in getting back in the game may dissipate, and if the case I’d be disappointed.

Six – Frankly, if I ever tried stand-up I’d want to chain smoke too, and would pursue every opportunity to do so. That said, I’d also encourage the audience to smoke to their heart’s content, pointing out the hypocrisy of festival and venue management.

Anyways, hope that makes this exceptionally long revue a little clearer.