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Montreal by design
Its grand UNESCO title doesn't mean much, but the city's fine architects remember that God is in the details

LISA ROCHON
27 May 2006
The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- Contemporary architecture in Montreal matters for the spaces in between, in working-class neighbourhoods, in the outskirts — wherever it can. That UNESCO has designated Montreal as a City of Design is a lovely show of civic boosterism — but it does little to deepen the city's culture of architecture. Buildings do. Exhibitions do. So do books, and regular, responsible commentary by the media.

In Toronto, architecture is increasingly measured according to scale and spectacle. In Vancouver, architecture is judged for its good, urban manners. In Calgary, architecture is embraced if it can be built at a fast and furious rate. Small and discreet is what Montreal's atelier architects are producing of late, work that embraces the scale of subtle urban place-making all the way down to the detail of furniture.

What makes this deep, defensible architecture has to do with its tentacle connections to community. And, thankfully, that community is not always located downtown. Chateauguay is one of Montreal's exopolis communities, southwest of Montreal on Highway 20. A visitor to the town is greeted first by big billboards put up on first-nations land. About 150,000 people, many of them retired, populate Chateauguay itself. For years, the municipal library was crammed into an ungainly civic building. Finally, after a decade of constant lobbying, government funds were found to launch a design competition for Quebec architects and cover the $5-million in construction costs for a new library. Atelier TAG, a young design firm led by the talented Katsuhiro Yamazaki and Manon Asselin, won a 2006 Governor-General's Medal in Architecture for their fresh and daring effort, in collaboration with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés.

The facility sits within a bucolic park landscaped with mature trees, next to a police station and swimming facility. Presented to the street as a stone-clad, horizontal gesture, the library is nestled into the park at the back — in fact, a grassy slope runs up behind it to merge into a roof garden. Inside, there's a poetry of movement, of released and narrow spaces, of the vast, column-free reading room and stairs that alternate between wide and tight, of the grey of poured-in-place concrete and the brilliant red of monumental velvet curtains that enclose a children's reading area. Walk into the place and it's obvious that the community has fallen in love. The librarians are the happiest I've seen in a long while, and they're chatting among themselves or listening intently to the early morning visitors (the library opens at 9 a.m. to accommodate those out for a brisk walk) and discussing the patates they're preparing for supper.

Connection to architecture is also evident at the Théâtre Espace Libre, designed by LeMoyne Lapointe Magne et associés, and another worthy recipient of a 2006 Governor-General's Medal in Architecture. The building is located in Montreal's South End, a working-class neighbourhood with diminutive row-housing made of brick and wood. Three companies scraped and borrowed — and waited nearly 10 years for government financing to come through — in order that they might enjoy a new $4.7-million home for experimental theatre, with room for their offices and flexible performance space. The theatre occupies its original home, but the building was gutted to allow for clean circulation and an additional floor for a rehearsal hall, announced as a clean glass box with cantilevered steel canopy. Though the budget was tight, the architects have successfully tried on a variety of textures. Wooden beams recovered from the original building reappear as benches; stairs run behind heavily fritted glass; sliding screens have been constructed of acrylic plates with Japanese-looking threads on wooden frames.

The events which have caught my attention during recent visits to Montreal: the candid musings of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the éminence grise of landscape architecture in Canada, who spoke to a packed audience at the Canadian Centre for Architecture as part of the launch of her retrospective exhibition. The presentation at Benny Farm in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood of the Global Holcim Award for Sustainability to Mark Poddubiuk and Daniel Pearl of the local firm L'Oeuf — tenacious and visionary architects who worked intensely with three non-profit community groups and laboured for more than a decade (mostly as volunteers) — to create energy-efficient and delightful housing on land previously occupied by Canadian war veterans. The project won the bronze prize from a worldwide selection of projects.

It's not all rosy in Montreal. The open design competitions that the small Montreal ateliers rely on for work are rare these days. Construction budgets are among the lowest in the country and, more than that, there's a general malaise about the culture of architecture. Montrealers dig design, as in fashion design, graphic design and interior design. But there is less reverence for architecture. “Architecture is not actually that interesting to Montrealers,” says David Theodore, a Montreal-based architecture critic who writes for Canadian Architect and Azure. “There are many Governor-General's Award-winning projects that even the architects haven't visited.”

The Montreal media has cut its regular columns and features about architecture. From 1983 to 2003, a group of architects and McGill University academics, including Theodore, Ricardo Castro, Annmarie Adams and Derek Drummond, took turns writing a regular Saturday feature about architecture for Montreal's Gazette. That piece was cut when Southam reorganized its newspapers. The architecture and design column in La Presse by Sophie Gironnay, creative director of the architecture gallery Galerie Monopoli, has also been eliminated. Architecture writing in Montreal's newspapers is spotty and typically news-related.

There's random commentary about architecture by the likes of Henry Aubin, a columnist for The Gazette's homes section, who looked at a photograph of the new municipal library in Chateauguay and called it an “austere, uninviting blockhouse.” He declared: “The photo of Chateauguay's new library shows how the architectural establishment encourages soullessness.” All these unhelpful insights apparently gleaned from a picture.

About the UNESCO designation: The Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity, which sounds like something only the United Nations could cook up, has designated Montreal as a UNESCO City of Design. Montreal joins the alliance with Berlin and Buenos Aires, tapped last year by the UN. Think of the program as a globalized, feel-good program of positive reinforcement. In fact, there's plenty of opportunity for any city to apply under any number of categories. Aswan, Egypt has become a UNESCO City of Folk Art. Popayan, Colombia has been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, no doubt for good reason. Sue Harvey, manager of the office of cultural affairs for City of Vancouver, said in an email: “Any City can apply to nominate itself as a City of (whatever): books for Edinburgh, design for Montreal. It is not an award made based on merit but rather a goal set by a city.”

Toronto's design leaders had no clue about the program, though Samantha Sannella, president of the Design Exchange, has promised that she'll lead an effort for Toronto to apply.

And why not work the system? Toronto ranks third in North America behind New York and Boston in designers per capita — a sort of design index established by researchers at the University of Toronto. And, according to Statistics Canada, there are 17,300 designers working in Toronto, in comparison to 12,100 in Montreal.

To be sure, Montreal's bureaucrats have worked hard to establish the city's reputation as a design centre. It became the headquarters of the International Design Alliance last year — an effort, a recent editorial in Montreal's Gazette pointed out, that used $900,000 in federal seed money to establish the lobby group's secretariat over ten years.

Marie-Josée Lacroix, a force de nature, is the city's very own design commissioner. She manages the Commerce Design Montreal competition to encourage chic aesthetics among the city's restaurants and boutiques. And cultural czar Benoit Labonte, who spearheaded Montreal's application to UNESCO as a City of Design, is a rare commodity: a local councillor charged with the portfolio of design, culture and heritage.

Though the UNESCO designation is largely a masterful pulling of the right policy strings, Montreal is promoting the news heavily and, with it, heightening its reputation around the world. The city has long enjoyed the stylistic whims of design and prided itself on regularly creating ultra-hip boutique hotels or bars and restaurants. But the story of architecture is hardly limited to fancy lighting and mosaic tiles. Architecture can help to anchor a cultural institution to a neighbourhood, or simply change our perception of the everyday by the way a house is designed to embrace natural light. This has less to do with a thin interpretation of design and more to do with the full promise of architecture and architects.

Often, that promise is overlooked. “Architecture is not like film and fashion design, where young people are always being discovered and promoted,” says Katsuhiro Yamazaki, whose firm won a second Governor-General's Medal this year for its design of the Théâtre du Vieux-Terrebonne, located half an hour outside Montreal. “Since winning the Governor-Generals, it's not as if people are calling us begging us to design their houses.”
 

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Minister Oda Congratulates Montréal on Being Named UNESCO City of Design
http://news.gc.ca/cfmx/view/en/index.jsp?articleid=215719&

OTTAWA, May 25, 2006 - Beverley J. Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women, today congratulated Montréal on being named UNESCO City of Design for 2006. The award is part of the Creative Cities Network under the framework of UNESCO´s Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity.

"This is the first time a North American city has been honoured with this award," said Minister Oda. "It is a tribute to the vitality and innovation of Montréal's design and arts scene."

Montréal is the third city to be honoured with the designation after Buenos Aires, Argentina and Berlin, Germany. This designation secures Montréal's place in the forefront of world design.

"This honour will draw world attention to one of Canada's great cities where the respect for and the celebration of cultural diversity have led to true creativity, dynamism and competitiveness," said Minister Oda. "It shows how cooperative investment among all levels of government and the private sector can move a city to a position of world leadership in an important field."

The design industry employs more than twenty thousand people in metropolitan Montréal, and contributes some $750 million to the economy. Montréal is also the home of the secretariat of the International Design Alliance.

Information :

Robert Paterson
Director of Communications
Office of the Minister of Canadian Heritage
and Status of Women
819 997-7788

Donald Boulanger
A/Chief, Media Relations
Canadian Heritage
819 997-9314
 

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Great article. Really fills you in. Something to strive for, a vision. why not, Montreal undoubtedly has an 'ambience', gritty, unpretentious, character-filled. I will never forget seeing a play there in an 'art dump'.

And for those comparing, well as an outsider I found Montreal a lot 'warmer' than the indescript metropolis of Toronto. Two great cities I will agree.
 

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neorion said:
Great article. Really fills you in. Something to strive for, a vision. why not, Montreal undoubtedly has an 'ambience', gritty, unpretentious, character-filled. I will never forget seeing a play there in an 'art dump'.

And for those comparing, well as an outsider I found Montreal a lot 'warmer' than the indescript metropolis of Toronto. Two great cities I will agree.
Actually, we weren't comparing. But it was only a matter of time before
someone like yourself would pop in and start the comparing. For your
information this is called "Trolling". I noticed in the Australian threads you are not pleased when people from other parts of the world troll about Australia. :sleepy:
 

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In Toronto, architecture is increasingly measured according to scale and spectacle.
That's utterly ignorant.. the biggest architectural change in Toronto is infill, urbanization and densification, with plenty of design integrity. Alot happens in TO that flies under the radar, so to speak. A very lazy notion that is.

As for Montreal being more of a design 'centre' than Toronto, I really have to disagree. Just look at the amount of work by internationally acclaimed architects being done in Toronto, for one.. Foster, Gehry, Alsop, Morphosis, Leibeskind.. some with multiple projects. Christ, Alsop set up an office here. Thats not to mention the healthy culture of design in TO that's fostered by such schools like OCAD, Ryerson, IAAD... Sheridan is world reknown.. even George Brown, and don't forget the Design Exchange.

This says it all:

And why not work the system? Toronto ranks third in North America behind New York and Boston in designers per capita — a sort of design index established by researchers at the University of Toronto. And, according to Statistics Canada, there are 17,300 designers working in Toronto, in comparison to 12,100 in Montreal.
Regardless of my complaints, I'm quite happy for Montreal anyway. Positive news is positive news.
 

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Oh, Montreal is just a great city...it pulses with energy...one of NA's greatest metropolises. Sorely overlooked, though (like Chicago) , perhaps because it is a francophone city on an anglophone continent? I remember quite fondly my first trip there as a boy, in the 70s; Expo '67 was still intact, though weirdly deserted; you could still ride the monorail over the Ile...it fascinated the heck out of me then, and still does now. I would expect nothing less from Montreal today than an innovative & exhuberant design scene.
 
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