Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Defrosting Public Space in Montreal

Sphères polaires at the Place des Festival

By the time February rolls around, Montreal has already been buried in snow for a couple of months and your mental map of the city has changed considerably. Places you’d normally linger — the steps at Place des Arts, the plaza in front of Mont-Royal metro, the giant chess board in Berri Square — have vanished from the landscape, inaccessible under the snow, unpleasant in the sub-zero wind.

Montreal’s seasonal extremes are a challenge to urban planning: how do you create a vibrant place that can function just as well on a frigid January day as on a balmy August night? Some spaces are more adaptable than others. Neighbourhood retail streets will always be lively, since people still need to hit up the supermarket, coffee shop and drug store even when it’s cold. Park lawns make good toboggan slopes and hockey rinks in the winter. But hard-surfaced plazas and squares — those quintessentially urban spaces — have a hard time finding much use between December and April.

For most of the years I lived in Montreal, the only time of the winter when a downtown square came back to life was during February’s Nuit Blanche festival, when performances and light installations take over the snowbound tarmac at Place des Arts. Lately, however, some of the ideas behind that one night of wintertime festivities has been extended throughout the winter. Last year, the recently-built Place des Festivals played host to Champ de pixels, which transformed the square into a giant Lite Brite studded with illuminated “pixels” made from overturned plastic buckets. Each bucket was equipped with motion sensors; when you walked by, the colour of the light shifted from white to red.

This year, Champ de pixels was moved to Berri Square, where passers-by can manually power a portion of the lights by riding stationery Bixi bikes. Meanwhile, another project called Sphères polaires has taken over the Place des Festivals and Place des Arts with huge glowing spheres. It’s like a giant was blowing bubbles that froze in the frigid winter air.

Champ de pixels at the Place des Festival

Both the Champ de pixels and Sphères Polaires were organized by the Quartier des spectacles, a quasi-governmental organization that is reshaping the area between Bleury and Berri into somewhat amorphous arts and entertainment district. The project has been controversial — these kinds of top-down themed districts always are — but I find it has a lot more conceptual rigour that most such initiatives.

These wintertime light installations are a good example of that. Instead of being obvious, cheesy and heavy-handed, they playfully reinvigorate public space that would otherwise be dead. They’re fun without being cloying. They leave a lot up to the imagination, setting the scene and let people stage the drama. And more importantly, they’re seasonal: when the snow melts, so too will the pixels and spheres disappear, making way for other kinds of public life.

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow DeWolf on Twitter.)

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