Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Bright Lights, Big Price Tag

The new Palais des congrès is worth every cent

Montrealers have come to loathe big architecture. Since the success of Expo ’67, politicians have promoted overblown mega-projects meant to launch the city on the international stage. Instead white elephants such as Mirabel Airport and the Olympic stadium have become despised sinkholes for public money. So it’s not surprising that the recent expansion of Montreal’s downtown convention centre, the Palais des congrès, has been trashed in the local press. Critics complain that it looks too suburban, too cheap and of course too big; that granite is used like wallpaper rather than traditional masonry; that a good building can’t be serious and fun at the same time. And there’s the matter of the brash coloured glass that covers the entrance hall—but more on that later.

In essence, the worry is that we may have spent $240 million and not received the best. It’s the same kind of nervousness about contemporary architecture that prompts cities like Toronto and Dallas to invite superstar architects with international profiles to design their major buildings. Frank Gehry designed it? It must be good. End of controversy. Montreal, too, may soon resort to this strategy, which would be a shame, since the expanded Palais shows that local architects know how to be careful with both budgets and existing urban neighbourhoods. The expansion provides a slick contemporary face to visiting conventioneers, preserves some significant buildings, links the old city with the new, covers up part of the gaping hole made by an underground expressway and functions well despite fiendishly complicated technical requirements.

Designed by Tétreault, Dubuc, Saia et associés, a one-time architectural partnership led by the prizewinning Montreal modernist Mario Saia, this granite, glass and concrete behemoth stretches from three to five blocks, depending on which street you’re walking down (Viger or St. Antoine). It engulfs four pre-existing buildings and assorted parking lots, although unfortunately there’s nothing left of the 1885 Rogers and King building except for its brick façade. And the firefighters abandoned Station 20, Montreal’s oldest fire station. The art deco ten-storey Montreal Transit Commission building (aka the Tramways building) is still there, but not quite intact: floors four and five have been removed to allow eighteen-wheel trucks to climb up to the new loading docks at exhibition level.

The economic rewards of the project are already starting to come in. Montreal is now one of the top three convention destinations in North America. The new Palais has more than doubled its exhibition space, from 100,000 square feet to 250,000. That’s big enough for almost any convention in the world, even the 24,000 participants expected for the 2006 Gay Games. With two bus drop-offs serving two distinct entrance halls, the Palais can easily host two mid-size conventions of about 5,000 delegates simultaneously. The Palais expects that by 2005 conventioneers will spend over $250 million a year on food and other services in Montreal. The cliché goes that Montreal is “European” enough to appear exotic to Americans, but full of familiar services, shops and food. Conventioneers can spend their US dollars on poutine and romantic rides in calèches, but also on Burger King and Gap.

The negative reaction to the Palais seems, in part, to be a matter of timing. Even on the government’s fast-track schedule, the expansion miraculously opened for business on time, but before it was finished inside or out. It’s hard for people to warm to the design with the entrance canopies not in place, the sidewalks incomplete, and the promised shoppers and coffee-drinking flâneurs still theoretical. Even today the boutiques and restaurants meant to enliven the pedestrian level have not been built, their place marked out by acres of Gyproc partitions. In this environment, surreal, festive installations like landscape architect Claude Cormier’s interior garden Nature Légère/Lipstick Forest—fifty-two bright pink concrete trees—look more forlorn than fun.

More profoundly, however, the harsh reaction seems to be a sign of the uncertainty Montrealers feel about themselves and their city, its future and its fortune. They’re worried that major projects on crucial downtown sites can be built without any significant public consultation—and if consulted, what would they say? The expansion is designed from the architecturally fashionable premise that a convention centre is not a public building—like a library, a church or a community centre—but rather a connecting node in the city’s movement patterns. Most Montrealers will not go to it, but through it. Surprisingly, we have traditional ideas about architecture, based on a deep nostalgia for the familiarity of nineteenth-century urban design. It’s hard for us to get excited about a project that suggests that architecture’s time-honoured role as an arbiter of social order is under attack.

Worse, I believe the designers seriously misread Montrealers’ architectural convictions when they kept largely intact the unloved original Palais. That structure, an appropriate but bulky and ugly concrete edifice, designed by architect Victor Prus, opened in 1984. Post–World War II modern architecture is rarely championed here—Montreal has an unmerited reputation for heritage preservation—so retaining the 1980s Palais was an unusual and laudable, but unpopular, proposition. Built on top of a submerged autoroute, the ground floor of the Palais was a grim, barren no man’s land, open to the harsh winter elements and the grime and noise of surrounding traffic. The Saia team’s key move was to cover the expressway and make the street level an interior space. Once finished, its thousand-foot-long hall (did I mention this building is big?) will be lined with retail shops and services, extending Montreal’s popular underground city with links to the trains at Place Bonaventure and government offices in Complexe Guy Favreau. In many other ways, however, Prus’ building was pretty good. A competition winner itself, his design dealt confidently with the idea of putting a suburban “big box” building downtown. His concept of a long linear form that follows the east-west movement of the street and metro lines is a sensible way to build on top of the Ville-Marie expressway. The old entry hall on Viger, with its massive glass roof supported by a tubular space-frame, is a grand, urban-scale room, influenced by Arthur Erickson’s celebrated Law Courts building on Robson Square in Vancouver. But the popular verdict was: moche.

Alas, it’s easier to call a design ugly or bad than come to terms with contemporary architectural discourse and the complicated economic and political forces that shape all but a few of today’s buildings. Last April, venting his unhappiness with the Palais, Gazette ubercolumnist Henry Aubin wrote that the province wanted the cheapest project, and that’s why it’s bad architecture. This is unfair. The economy of the project comes from the professionalism of the architects, not the stinginess of the government. By incorporating the original Palais, the architects found a key to completing the expansion on time and on bud-get. That’s not cheap. It’s clever. That’s good architectural practice.

Still, there’s some truth in Aubin’s claim that the government was not interested in creating strong architecture. But the architects have done their job. There’s no reason to believe that the cheapest project is the worst. In Canada today, budgets for buildings are notoriously low (and fees for architects lower still). Canadian professionals are used to designing with economy in mind. Rather, it was the management of the project by the Société immobi-lière du Québec (SIQ)—the province’s real-estate arm—that was nearly a disaster. In its initial invitation in 1999, the SIQ included the condition that the project could be awarded to the architects and engineers who offered to work for the lowest fees. Outraged professionals repeatedly boycotted the call for offers. Finally, desperate to get the project underway (conventions were already booked into the expanded space for 2002), the SIQ decided to make the Palais a “turnkey” project. In this system, developers would negotiate their own contracts with professionals and then hand over to the SIQ the completed building.

Sound complicated? It got worse. A competition between consortiums of developers ensued, and the evaluation committee selected a $210 million project headed by Groupe Axor. The SIQ itself, however, chose the $165 million project of Gespro/BFC/Divco, with the Tétreault-Dubuc-Saia partnership as architects. In an open letter published in the French-language dailies,Université de Montréal professor Jean-Claude Marsan accused the SIQ of pandering to the cheapest bid. The evaluation committee then concluded that only one of the three proposals for the Palais actually met the minimum operational and functional requirements of the convention market, and that project was $70 million over the price limit. So the province increased the budget from $185 to $240 million and restaged the competition. Once again, the Gespro/ BFC/Divco team won.

The Saia team, however, used little of its tight budget on ingratiating public gestures, a strategy that put enormous pressure on the glass entrance hall on Bleury Street, the building’s main public face. Already, Montrealers have come to love to hate the multicoloured hall, which resembles a giant, smooth, candy-coloured plastic toy. The designers came up with a façade of sleek laminated coloured glass held together with so-called capless mullions. Apparently the glass was discovered by independent architectural consultant Hal Ingberg while working in London in 1998. The middle layer is a plastic film that can be accurately and consistently dyed with pigments, producing over six hundred totally transparent colours. The five hues chosen for the Palais, according to chief architect Mario Saia, are supposed to show off Montreal’s “Latin” joie de vivre and reputation for festivals and fun.

It’s the one spot that obviously tries to impress, to imprint an image on your mind. It’s been derided as tacky, cheap and ugly—an appropriate icon for a convention centre, ironically, since convention-going is not exactly an exciting, uplifting activity. Still, from inside at least, the hall can be spectacular. “Come on a sunny day,” said Jocelyn Ann Campbell, director of communications for the Palais. “You’ll see, it’s really beautiful.”

She’s right. On an intermittently sunny day, I walked through the hall with Saia, his associate Vladimir Topouzanov, and journalist and architect Peter Lanken. The glass is perfectly translucent, so the hall is unexpectedly bright—not muted like the interior of a church with stained glass windows. It’s like looking at the world through a bowl full of Jell-o. Topouzanov pointed out a reception desk that glows like a snow-white iMac and exhaust vents from the autoroute below twisted into a tilting metallic sculpture. Saia emphasized that once finished, the effect at night will be spectacular. Lit from the inside, the panels will spray colour outward over the Place du Palais, a new park in front of the Bleury entrance, and the surrounding buildings.

So why aren’t Montrealers singing its praises? Maybe it’s a case of knee-jerk loathing. Or maybe we aren’t as festive as we like to boast.