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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 

Architecture review: "The 60s: Montreal Thinks Big" (01.26.05)

Published January 26, 2005 at 11:41 p.m.

We all have our own personal vision of the cities where we spend time. That vision can become fixed, drawing us back to the things we love and blinding us to the rest. My vision of Montreal is centered on its small-scale, mixed-use neighborhoods -- particularly those surrounding my home base on Plateau Mont-Royal. Sure, I make the occasional excursions to Vieux-Montreal, preferably off-season, and to the Village for nightlife, the museums and the Jardin Botanique for inspiration, Chinatown for a midnight meal, the outdoor markets for springtime flowers and summertime produce. But it's the eclectic neighborhoods I wander year-round.

Architecturally, not much about them is astonishing. I'm just tickled by the intimate yet decidedly urban mix of parks and row houses, bistros and cafes, falafel joints and funky shop windows. I'm especially fascinated by the between-block back alleyways -- or ruelles, to use their more elegant-sounding French name. My beloved, ramshackle ruelles are a far cry from Montreal's sleek -- in spots, grungy -- downtown. The skyscrapers, while impressive on the approach to the city, have always left me cold. Montreal's so-called "Underground City," though warming in winter, also fails to capture my imagination.

But that's just me. When my parents used to venture to Montreal in the '70s, they'd come back raving about how they "didn't have to go outdoors all weekend!" Likewise, when a Brazilian friend visited last summer, the first thing he inquired about was the Underground City. I dampened his enthusiasm a notch by describing this fabled piece of Montreal as, basically, an extensive basement mall.

All of which is to say that I approached "The 60s: Montreal Thinks Big," the current exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, with both trepidation and bias. My prejudices were compounded by my architecture-school training in the early '80s, when the '60s tear-down-start-over approach to urban renewal was almost unanimously condemned as urban ruinewal. As Jane Jacobs forecasted in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her classic attack on overzealous urban planning, thinking big did not guarantee thinking well -- quite the contrary. To quote Joni Mitchell: They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.

Therefore, I was relieved to discover that the CCA exhibition, curated by architect and teacher Andre Lortie, takes a critical as well as a celebratory look at the massive changes that, within a decade, radically and permanently transformed the face of Montreal. The exhibition's introduction outlines the focus on three major aspects of transformation: the architectural landscape, the major infrastructure projects and the "social changes that accompanied the spatial changes," such as the "disappearance of working-class neighborhoods."

This clear-eyed tone is further established in short videotaped interviews -- some in English, some in French -- with many of the period's movers, shakers and designers, in which they discuss how the changes were viewed at the time versus how they're seen today. Because these people were major players in the transformations, their accounts aren't completely unbiased. Overall, however, the exhibition has a more plausible "fair and balanced" feel than does, say, the Fox News Channel.

Each room in the show has a thematic focus. For example, one tackles infrastructure projects, another "conquering and consolidating the centre," another Expo 67. Perhaps because there is some overlap between rooms -- or simply because of my haphazard approach to the displays -- I occasionally became disoriented, losing track of the timeline, and of which projects were built and which were downscaled or left unrealized. After studying the descriptions, drawings and models of the unbuilt projects, I thought it was fortunate they remained so. Otherwise, the median of an expressway adjacent to Vieux-Montreal might today sport pyramid-shaped housing clusters.

What's truly amazing, however, is how many projects were realized. Much of the credit -- or blame, as the case may be -- can be laid at the feet of Jean Drapeau, the city's ambitious mayor of the time. Another primary driving force was Expo 67, which put Montreal in an international spotlight as "a city of the future." Add to this equation planners' predictions that Montreal's population would double between 1961 and '81, potentially expanding to 10 million at some point in the foreseeable future. The population explosion never materialized, but the fact that many believed it could helps to explain the grandeur of the '60s mindset.

So what, specifically, did Montreal gain in the '60s, and what did it lose? Among the gains were the Champlain Bridge, the Metro, various expressways, Place des Arts, and such downtown fixtures as Place Ville-Marie, Place Bonaventure, Place Victoria, Westmount Square and the Château Champlain Hotel. The participation of such internationally renowned architects as I.M. Pei and Mies van der Rohe in the design and/or planning of some of these projects attests to Montreal's prominence on the '60s urban design scene.

What was lost is harder to measure. In part this is because it's gone, and in part because the show focuses less on the forces against the changes than on deciphering the incentives behind them.

Which isn't to say that destruction and loss are ignored. One wall of the exhibition is devoted to how the city, particularly its working-class neighborhoods, was seen through the eyes of various photographers and writers before and during the upheaval. Not surprisingly, the views of these artists and activists -- and no doubt of those whose homes were obliterated -- had little in common with the rosy, "forward-looking" vision put forth by planners and, subsequently, the tourist guides of the day. On another wall, a small video screen showing the destruction of a handsome old building to make way for "progress" packs a literally large punch.

The Expo 67 room was a treat for me, because I have vague childhood recollections of attending the World's Fair. Mostly I remember the struggle to find our way out of the city afterwards at an hour long past my bedtime, so I was anxious to see if the photographs and models of the international pavilions rekindled memories of the fair itself. Not really. But, after reading about the avant-garde utopian intentions of Expo 67 and then seeing how these intentions were carried out -- with varying degrees of success -- I better understand the '60s idealism and optimism that were at the heart of the overreaching theories.

Like that era's idealism, not much of Expo 67 remains today. The French Pavilion now hosts the Casino de Montreal. The skeleton of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome encases the Biosphere environmental center. Habitat 67, the experimental housing structure designed by a very young Moshe Safdie and composed of a seemingly free-form pile of precast concrete cubes, still stands -- the units apparently coming with both drafts and hefty price tags.

I can't say that my personal vision of Montreal was significantly altered by this exhibition, but it has been expanded. It's hard not to be impressed by the sheer boldness of '60s urban planning even if you find the results more disturbing than exhilarating. I doubt I'll spend my days wandering the Underground City, but I can better appreciate all that went into its creation.

To test my somewhat altered state of mind, I visited Place Ville-Marie, I.M. Pei's 1962 cruciform tower conceived as the modern heart of the city. More than 40 years after its construction, it still looks powerfully streamlined against the sky. Inside, the pedestrian network spreading outward from its base was pleasantly bustling. Call me a semi-convert.

"Montreal Thinks Big" is the third CCA exhibition in a series meant to "draw public attention to the formative periods in the history of this city." It's also part of a seven-museum collaboration that illuminates Canada's role in "advancing innovative social and cultural agendas" during the '60s.

The show runs through September 11, so there's still plenty of time to get there. Until February 20, there's also a related display of large-format photographs of Montreal by Olivo Barbieri. The photographs were taken from a helicopter, then selectively blurred, to accentuate the pure forms of the cityscape. If you've never visited the museum, the CCA building itself is a must-see for anyone with an interest in architecture. It's one of Montreal's underrated gems -- certainly part of my vision of the city.

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