Urban design: we are falling behind
Montreal seems to be lacking ambition when it comes to architectural statements
By Luca L. Barone June 26, 2012
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In 2009, New York City converted an old elevated railroad on the west side of Manhattan into a park of ingenious design. The High Line is a triumph of civic engagement and urban planning. The park’s brilliant designers, the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, recently unveiled exciting plans for the High Line’s final section.
Why is my own city, so rich in history and creativity, lacking similarly enchanting public spaces, and treading water when it ought to be steaming forward?
A city as difficult to govern as New York has accomplished this extraordinary feat, while Montreal seems stuck with meagre ambitions and unimaginative leadership – not to mention the blight of festering corruption. Parsimonious rather than provident, we end up with oppressive mediocrity in our built environment. Too much of that environment is neither inspiring nor graceful.
To quote Samuel Butler: O God, O Montreal!
This is not a question of green space; Montreal is full of parks. The High Line embodies an innovative approach to the adaptive reuse of urban structures that integrates environmental and economic sustainability, historic preservation, and creativity in design. It is an approach to urban planning that is not yet evident in our city.
Montreal exhibits some of the best and worst aspects of Europe and North America. Neither genuinely French, nor British, nor American, our city is a fascinating hybrid with an eclectic beauty made up of unusual juxtapositions drawn from both the Old and New Worlds. Yet we inhabit a purgatory somewhere between Houston and Paris, afflicted by car-fuelled urban sprawl along with imported European architectural inhumanities like the brutalism of Place Bonaventure.
We need to regain our lost cosmopolitan ambition, that sense of limitless opportunity combined with cultural sophistication that makes things happen that has not been seen in Montreal since the glory days of Expo 67, the opening of our pioneering métro, and the 1976 Summer Olympics. The High Line’s greatest lesson for us should be how profoundly constructive the convergence of proactive civic participation, business and excellent design can be.
By adopting the Plan métropolitain d’aménagement et de développement, a comprehensive urban planning scheme that emphasizes transit-oriented development, the Montreal Metropolitan Community has taken a step in the right direction. It has wisely heeded Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s advice to increase population density around transit hubs.
But builders and architects need the liberty to be bold. Development in Montreal is in a negative recursive loop: a byzantine bureaucracy imposes its banal tastes on those taking the financial risk on real-estate ventures, while many developers lack the aesthetic judgment or the civic pride to take on the challenge of building something of lasting architectural value.
New York’s Standard Hotel was built suspended over the High Line on massive piers – an unconventional ensemble that has created a remarkably attractive, unique sense of place. Had such an idea been proposed for Montreal, would it ever have seen the light of day? That kind of audacity would probably have been ignored by developers indifferent to innovative design, or buried under the weight of municipal red tape.
Encouraging local talent and participating in international cultural life are both important. Montreal fails on both counts.
Little of note has been built in Montreal for decades, with the exception of Kohn Pedersen Fox’s IBM building at 1250 René Lévesque Blvd. – and that was in 1992. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Westmount Square, I.M. Pei’s Place Ville Marie, Pier Luigi Nervi’s Tour de la Bourse – these are all buildings from the past that garnered the city positive attention and allowed Montreal to participate in a broader international cultural life.
Peter Zumthor, Steven Holl, SHoP Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Renzo Piano – none of these leading contemporary architects are now on their way to Montreal.
Montreal may never be New York or Paris, or build projects on the same scale as these global centres, but it was once closer to being a world city than it is today.
Size is not the issue; another sinkhole of public funds like the Olympic Stadium would do us no good. We need civic competence, wise economic policy, and architectural excellence. Surely all are within our reach.
One upcoming project stands out as a chance for Montreal to redeem itself. The rebuilding of the Champlain Bridge is an epochal opportunity to create an impressive monument for today’s Montreal.
People marvelled at the Victoria Bridge when it was completed in 1859. In the early 21st century, we can again dazzle the world, with an elegant new Champlain Bridge built to exacting international standards.
Mayor Gérald Tremblay has already said the federal government should devote one per cent of the project’s total budget to finding an innovative design for the bridge, just as the provincial government has set aside one per cent of the Turcot Interchange’s reconstruction budget to generating new ideas.
Ottawa should hold an international competition judged by a jury of global experts to choose an outstanding design for the new Champlain Bridge. All Montrealers should support this initiative to ensure that we end up with a work of public infrastructure that is worthy of our city. Let’s do great things together again.
Luca L. Barone of St. Léonard is a McGill University law student and a developer. He studied at New York’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies.
CORRECTION: An Opinion column in Tuesday’s Gazette, headlined “Urban design: we are falling behind,” which made mention of New York City’s High Line park, failed to mention one of the two firms that were partners in the design of that park. The designers were landscape-architecture firm James Corner Field Operations and architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.
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