Even the best cities are better at night. Hong Kong’s frenzied streets are bathed in neon; Paris takes on a desultory air as the streets grow dark.
Everywhere, dusk brings with it a dark intimacy, something the promoters of the Quartier des spectacles seem to have recognized. I’ve never seen a neighbourhood revitalization project so deliberately evoke the mystery and excitement (with hints of danger and debauchery) of the city at night. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This is Montreal’s old red light district, after all, and people flock here for shows and drinks only after the sun has set. You’d have to be pretty clueless to ignore its nighttime potential.
Over the past year or so, the Quartier des spectacles has sponsored a new lighting scheme that highlights and ties together the neighbourhood’s cultural attractions. So far, the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM), Club Soda, Monument National, Metropolis and National Film Board have been lit with multihued LEDs, along with the Vitrine culturelle, a new arts-and-culture information centre in Place des Arts. Red lights projected on the sidewalk are meant to create a sense of cohesion throughout the area.
Axel Morgenthaler is the man behind those lights. Since moving to Montreal in 1991, he has designed lighting installations for architectural projects, museum exhibitions and stage performances. His work can be found in the W Hotel, the international arrivals wing of Trudeau International Airport and in Henri Bourassa metro.
Over the holidays, I sat down with Morgenthaler at his western NDG home and chatted with him about the Quartier des spectacles. Read part of our conversation after the jump.
Spacing Montreal: Tell me about your involvement with the Quartier des spectacles.
Axel Morgenthaler: This is something that’s very dear to my heart because I did my very first show in Montreal at Place des Arts as a lighting designer. I’ve been involved in a lot of shows that have been produced in that area.
For me, it’s amazing that such a central area was run down for such a long time. I came here in ’91 and you could see that this area was more and more run down. I think it’s a really good initiative to revitalize it around culture. I support it more than if it was just pure business. I was really happy when SAT moved to St. Laurent. It was a good move on their part and I think it really helped that little micro-corner reshape slowly.
SM: What about the red lights in front of the SAT and other landmarks? You designed those, right?
AM: Right. The idea is to use light as a kind of identity. I think that this is a fantastic opportunity to do something quite unique that I haven’t seen anywhere, to really use light as a branding tool for a whole area.
When I started to think about signature lighting that could be replicated in the whole area, I really started to have something on a human level and not just something on a grandiose scale. I didn’t want to put any more competing visual signs on the façades because there’s so many already. I wanted something for pedestrians that identifies culture in that area.
That’s when I noticed that the sidewalks were a blank canvas. Canvas is a word I use a lot because light is always in need of a canvas — the rays go through space, but you don’t see them until they hit a surface. So I came up with the signature dots. The light fixture is made totally from scratch, designed with custom optics, extremely energy efficient.
Right now we have about six buildings that are equipped with that. We’re going to have about twenty-five more. The next generation that we’re building right now is going to be dynamic. They’re actually going to be able to dim and I’ll be able to create patterns of intensity on the sidewalk.
Théâtre du Nouveau Monde at Ste. Catherine and St. Urbain
SM: This idea of using light to brand an urban space, to create a neighbourhood identity, is something pretty original. If you look around the world, you can see a lot of places that are defined by light, like neon in Hong Kong or the big advertisements in Times Square. But that’s all commercial. This is something new. How can light be transformed to really transform the way that people relate to this area now being called the Quartier des spectacles?
AM: The idea behind the Quartier des spectacles is to use different resolutions of light to bring all of the cultural heritage on the inside of these institutions out in the street. The lowest resolution is the common denominator, which is the signature lighting, the floor dots that are red and monochrome.
The second level of resolution is the dynamic illumination of façades, like at the TNM, where I used light to reveal the old main entrance on St. Urbain, which was the main entrance in its time before the renovation. I tried to tell an architectural story. Of course, there I have more ability than just the red dots — I have multiple colours, I can tell a little story with light. But still, it’s very abstract.
This summer I worked on something new, the Vitrine culturelle, which I call a dynamic light wall. It’s basically a screen, but it’s 3000 pixels, so it’s not a video screen and it doesn’t want to be a video screen. It’s a canvas for light, but the resolution is high enough for figurative expression. That’s the next level of resolution. There’s hours and hours of archival material that’s super interesting, and you can bring all of that out onto the façade, or even bring part of the rehearsals and part of the shows onto the street.
National Film Board at St. Denis and de Maisonneuve
SM: What makes the Quartier des spectacles so interesting is not only the wealth of cultural heritage and the number of cultural institutions but the diversity of its architecture. You have beautiful old theatres next to modern landmarks like Place des Arts. What role does light have to play in this architecture?
AM: You’re right, there’s an extreme amount of variety in the architecture you find in that area. It’s a challenge, because you have to develop a program that is flexible but also unifying. There are different tools to react to the different buildings. You have these three programs, the signature lighting, the dynamic illumination of the façades and the electronic marquees.
The signature lighting is the common denominator and it can be adapted into all kinds of situations, whether it’s an older or more modern building. The illumination of the façades, which is a play on architecture, works quite well on both contemporary and historical buildings too.
The one program that isn’t really done yet is the electronic marquees. A lot of the theatres have traditional-style marquees and one of the propositions is to replace those with electronic marquees. They’re very modern but well-integrated into the existing marquees, so they’re not just plasma screens stuck on the outside. The Vitrine is a bit of a bit of a test run where we try to do that with a whole wall. The marquees will probably be higher resolution so we can bring more information out onto the street.
The important thing is to really have a high-quality integration into what’s already there.
SM: How exactly does the lighting scheme work? Are you working with anyone?
AM: I’m an independent designer, so I’m not working for anyone. I mostly work directly with the cultural institutions, like the TNM or the Vitrine. The Quartier des spectacles, they’re helping finance these programs. The one difference is the signature lighting, which I developed directly with the Quartier des spectacles.
I think it’s important that each cultural institution keeps or displays its own identity. The idea is not to blend everything into one mash and say, “This is Quartier des spectacles.” The important thing is to have one common denominator but to ensure that each cultural institution has its own identity and its own character.
The Metropolis on Ste. Catherine near St. Dominique
The Vitrine culturelle on Ste. Catherine at Place des Arts
CLARIFICATION: Axel Morgenthaler designed the Quartier des spectacles’ signature lighting (the red dots), as well as the dynamic illumination of the façades of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, the National Film Board and La Vitrine culturelle. He is the co-designer of the lighting at the SAT. He did not, however, design the lighting on the façades of Club Soda and the Metropolis.