Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Ivory Tower, Concrete Jungle

Con U integrates itself into the urban milieu

It's a muggy September day and Montreal is still in the sweaty grip of summer. I'm downtown on Maisonneuve in the heart of Concordia University's campus. Crowds stream past me. Just around the corner, thumping bass and echoing wails signal an outdoor concert. I follow the noise, emerging onto Mackay Street. There, before a heaving mass of bodies, is a huge stage; local band Starvin' Hungry leaps around the cavernous expanse like a child's dollhouse fantasy come alive.

With its street-party atmosphere and indie-rock cred, this isn't your typical back-to-school celebration. Then again, Concordia isn't your typical university. With a multicultural student body of 31,000, Concordia likes to present itself as the down-to-earth, street-smart counterpart to McGill; Montreal's more reserved English university. Concordia was founded in 1971 when two schools, Sir George Williams University and Loyola College, merged. The old Sir George Williams campus is what many euphemistically call "urban"-a loose patchwork of buildings concentrated in a dense downtown setting. There is no quad; no Harvard Yard ringed by cute neo-traditional buildings, no tweedy professors scurrying past verdant lawns. Instead, Concordia's campus-like Montreal as a whole-is mismatched, eclectic, and a bit odd. (The Loyola campus, located some seven kilometres west in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, is more "traditional," at least in the trees-and-grass sense)

It used to be that an urban setting was seen as a drawback for a university. Increasingly, though, it's an asset. In the midst of a nationwide building boom, Canada's universities are looking outward and involving themselves with their cities and neighbourhoods like never before. In this era of expansion, when billions of dollars are being poured into new university buildings and even new campuses (witness the University of Calgary's decision to relocate part of its school downtown), Concordia's downtown campus is a lesson in how to properly integrate a university into the community.

A few years ago, plans were drawn for Quartier Concordia, an ambitious makeover of Concordia's downtown campus that would add new buildings, improve public space, redesign streets and sidewalks and give the campus a distinct neighbourhood identity. Clarence Epstein, Concordia's Director of Special Projects, tells me that the plans merely reflect a way of thinking already present in Concordia's campus. "In a way you kind of have the mingling of the city in the university and the university in the city. Both are intertwined," he says. Whereas traditional campuses are designed to shelter the hallowed halls of academe from the outside world, "our downtown campus is very different. The city flows through the university. Because of that, instead of trying to build artificial walls to keep that city at bay, we're doing the opposite-we're making these two completely integrated."

Nowhere is that philosophy more evident than in the newest addition to Concordia's campus, the lavish EV building. Combining two structures-a sixteen-storey tower, home to the Faculty of Engineering, and an eleven-storey tower which contains Visual Arts-the EV building embraces its dynamic setting in one of the busiest parts of downtown, rather than turning away from it. At the corner of Guy and Sainte-Catherine, an airy three-storey lobby looks out onto the intersection. Inside, large study tables and a café invite students to congregate. Pedestrians use the lobby as a shortcut to get from Sainte-Catherine to the Guy-Concordia metro station, descending a staircase bathed in the ambient glow of a translucent light wall. In a nearby hallway which connects the lobby to Mackay Street, student art is displayed for public contemplation.

The EV building is just the start of Concordia's plans. A block away, sandwiched between busy streets at the intersection of Guy and Maisonneuve, is Norman Bethune Square, dedicated to the Montreal doctor who left for China in 1948 to help civilians injured in the bloody chaos of the Chinese Civil War. If he were alive to see it today, Bethune might not consider his square much of an honour. Stained by bird droppings, the doctor's likeness looks over a sad triangle of land used more by pigeons than by the thousands of pedestrians who pass through it every hour. Under the Quartier Concordia plans, Bethune Square would be expanded, rejuvenated and transformed into a central gathering place for both Concordia and the larger neighbourhood around it. As it so happens, Epstein recently returned from Shanghai, where Bethune is revered as a national hero. "The importance of Bethune in China has to be equally reflected in Montreal," he remarks. "2008 is the sixtieth anniversary of Bethune's departure from Canada to China and the city is very committed to revitalizing the [square] to celebrate it on this anniversary." Plans haven't been finalized yet, but the redevelopment will be a collaboration between Concordia and the city. Epstein hints that China might be involved in some way or another.

Concordia's challenge is to design a space that can be used not only by students and faculty but by the hundreds of thousands of workers and residents who throng the downtown core everyday. "We're part of a downtown that runs all day and all night," explains Epstein. "You can come around nine or ten o'clock [at night] and there's a different sort of dynamic. People who live here are in need of recreation space but don't have it." In order to be a success, Concordia's plans must respond both to the needs of students and those of downtown dwellers. The university should also think beyond the confines of its campus. Concordia's greatest potential to improve the city lies not in the campus itself but in the neighbourhood immediately to the west. A warren of grey concrete high-rises, Victorian row houses and pre-war apartment buildings, the Downtown West End is the most densely populated section of Montreal. Concordia's recent expansion has infused it with energy as a growing number of students fill its apartments and spend money at its shops.

So far, Concordia has only been indirectly involved in the rebirth of the neighbourhood. "There isn't a concerted effort-yet-to begin managing that area," says Epstein. But that might change. The university is actively involved in an organization concerned with the neighbourhood's development and has begun working with other neighbourhood institutions-including a college, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Canadian Centre for Architecture-to determine a future path for the West End. Even more importantly, it has begun opening up to the area's residents and merchants, many of whom have long felt snubbed by the university. Luckily, Concordia has evaded the kind of controversy that has struck the expansion of the Université du Québec à Montréal, a strikingly similar French university on the other side of downtown. Although the universities are the same age, have the same student population, equally urban campuses and the same democratic attitude towards education, UQAM has been lambasted for the secretive-some say arrogant-approach to recent development.

Part of the reason why Concordia has evaded that problem is its involvement with the community in more ways than just Quartier Concordia. University of the Streets Café is a Concordia-sponsored project that travels to various cafes and bookstores around Montreal, holding public discussions on a variety of issues-from spaces and places to sex and sexuality-in English, French and Spanish. Scholarly topics are dissected by anyone who is curious enough to show up; the rotating locations and multilingual approach ensure that a broad segment of the public is welcome. If universities have a responsibility to enrich the intellectual life of the cities around them, the University of the Streets Café does that admirably.

In order to engage with the city, though, the ivory must be chipped. Too many universities act as fortresses, both academically and physically. Traditional campuses turn their backs on the city around them, cutting themselves off from urban life when they should embrace it. This doesn't necessarily require an urban campus like Concordia's, but it does mean that universities should involve themselves in the goings-on of the neighbourhoods around them, making a commitment to quality architecture and quality public space. Universities, by their vary nature, are places to connect. Their design should reflect that.

Epstein puts it simply: "It's the city," he says. "We're really part of its dynamism, for better or for worse."

Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve's urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.