Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Reconciling Modernism

An Urban Love-Hate Affair

I used to hate Montreal’s Place Ville-Marie. I thought it was ugly, overly gigantic and hostile to the city around it. Built on top of an underground shopping mall, it seemed a fitting symbol of the way modernism had turned its back on the streets of the city.

But then something happened. I. M. Pei’s 1962 complex, which includes Montreal’s most iconic skyscraper, began to grow on me. I came to admire its daring, the way it broke from the achingly conservative mainstream of Montreal’s commercial architecture. Its main entrance is clear and graceful, and the lovely terrace is a great place to relax in the midst of the downtown bustle.

The 1960s were an amazing time for Montreal. And now the decade is also the subject of a new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, The Sixties: Montreal Thinks Big. The exhibition, which runs through next September, examines some of the radical changes that occurred under the visionary but autocratic leadership of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau. Dorchester Street, once a small and insignificant downtown street, was widened and turned into a huge boulevard. The construction of Place Ville-Marie on Dorchester (now René Lévesque Boulevard) was seen as a symbol of Montreal’s rise to world prominence. The nearby Place des Arts was finished in 1962; this performing-arts complex opens up onto St. Catherine Street with fountains, a plaza and steps from which people can watch the downtown crowds. Perhaps most significantly, in 1966, the sleek and art-filled metro system was opened, probably the decade’s greatest contribution to Montreal.

For Derek Drummond, professor of architecture at McGill, modernism gave Canadian cities a priceless gift: good civic space. Our cities, he wrote last year in Policy Options, “have tended to be street-oriented rather than place-oriented. Unlike European cities where important buildings tended to be sited on an existing square or plaza or to create a new publicly accessible place as part of the design, important buildings in Canada tended to be simply located on a street.” Hindered by this lack of public space, gatherings were sometimes forced into awkward situations: “When Charles de Gaulle famously spoke from the balcony of [Montreal] City Hall, most of his adoring throng was off to one side in Place Jacques Cartier, rather than directly below.” Modernist developments like Place Ville-Marie and Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square changed all that, offering effective open spaces that quickly became popular spots for public gatherings.


Place Ville-Marie (right) lords over the city



Still, for every great modernist plaza that is well designed and well used, there are a dozen little ones that aren’t. A good example is the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue in Manhattan, a soaring black-and-bronze tower that rises in stunning contrast to its surroundings. When it was completed in 1958, one of the skyscraper’s most innovative features was the plaza at its base—a clear departure from surrounding buildings, which were built right up to the sidewalk. It was a special feature that enhanced the Seagram’s status as something special, a landmark. Over the years, though, a new crop of lesser buildings imitated the Seagram, including similar plazas in their designs. Sure enough, the quality of Park Avenue’s streetscape suffered as its edges were slowly eroded by a steady stream of concrete open spaces filled with lunching office workers and little else.

Modernist architects and city planners made many other mistakes over the years. In Montreal, grotesque highways were rammed through the city, obliterating entire neighbourhoods. Once elegant streets, like the tree-lined St. Joseph Boulevard, were massacred as traffic engineers sought ways to move more cars ever more quickly.

Sometimes, the mistakes were massive. Consider the case of Boston: like Montreal, it underwent a post-war makeover as politicians and city planners eagerly transformed the old seaside metropolis into a shining New Boston. An elevated highway, the Central Artery, sliced its way through downtown, cutting off the city from its waterfront. Nearby, Scollay Square, a once-bustling red light district that had fallen on hard times, made way for the vast and utilitarian Government Centre. Most shockingly, an entire working-class neighbourhood, the West End, was dismissed as “obsolete” and razed with stunning nonchalance, replaced by a handful of apartment towers in a park—not only did the new development lack the street life and community of the old West End, but it flagrantly broke the government’s promise to replace every housing unit that had been demolished.


Boston’s West End in July 1958



The West End in July 1960


“It’s just good design versus bad design,” insists Professor Drummond in a phone interview. Indeed, every era has its mistakes. Robert Campbell, the Boston Globe’s architecture critic, agrees, but he also thinks that modernism contained a tragic flaw. Modernist planning, he says, emphasized the separation of uses, which led to the creation of one-dimensional developments like “government districts” that don’t have the vitality to create good public spaces. “The fifties and sixties produced many good buildings,” he says, “but few that collected into agreeable urban wholes.”

Léon Krier, an architect and urban planner considered by many to be the grandfather of New Urbanism, takes this criticism even further. “Modernism’s declaration of war against tradition was not just a rejection of obsolete traditions, but it included all knowledge and know-how which does not fit its reductive vision of humanity, history, technology, politics and economy,” he told Planetizen in 2001. “Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of monumental scale. Architectural and urbanist modernism belong—like communism—to a class of errors from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain.”

“That’s going a bit too far,” scoffs Drummond. He’s right. It’s awfully demagogic to completely dismiss a movement as wide-ranging as modernism. That kind of rash attitude is what led many modernists to despise and discard everything from the Victorian era. Right now, modernism is at that awkward age where it is neither new nor really old, so it is all too easy to call for the destruction of its relics.

You don’t need to look too far for an example: in September, La Presse ran a special dossier on beautifying Montreal. In one particularly vitriolic article, the journalist Yves Boisvert calls for the demolition of Silo No. 5 in the city’s Old Port district. “The architects who love the silo are ignorant ultraconservatives and traditionalists, porteurs de ceinture fléchée disguised as lovers of contemporary art, as well as unsuspecting accomplices to the victory of the engineer over the architect that made so many North American cities ugly,” he harrumphs. “This grain elevator is the key. Its demolition permits us to open the door to beautification, which attempts, everywhere, to break, bury and hide concrete.”

Nonsense. Boisvert might have a point if he were talking about an expressway or, say, Viger Square, a lovely park that was ruthlessly paved over in the seventies. But destroying a fascinating piece of architecture just because it’s a symbol of something you hate is an awfully nihilistic gesture. Drummond agrees: “One person’s heritage is another person’s horror show.” Adds the Globe’s Campbell, “The grain silos make wonderful ruins.” Instead of ranting churlishly about the evils of modernism, he suggests looking back and drawing some important lessons from it: “Read Jane Jacobs. Get all the stakeholders involved in redevelopment, not just the professionals and the money guys. Preserve as much fabric as you can, but don’t be afraid to mix new stuff in too. Avoid superblocks. Avoid single-use ghettos” and, above all, trust “the mixed-use, vital life of the street.”


View from Place Ville-Marie



Standing on Place Ville-Marie’s terrace on a gorgeous fall day, taking in the splendid view up McGill College Avenue to the steep slope of Mount Royal, it’s hard to begrudge modernism. In the 1960s, it was a radical new way of seeing our cities, but like most great ideological leaps, it was flawed. Nevertheless, it provided some buildings and urban spaces of great beauty, as well as an awakening to the nuances and intricacies of our cities. Now that’s a hell of a legacy.

The Sixties: Montreal Thinks Big runs from October 20, 2004, to September 11, 2005, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. 1920 Baile Street, Montreal (Guy-Concordia metro). (514) 939-7026.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.