The downtown west end is one of my favourite parts of Montreal. Densely-populated, teeming with life and resolutely multicultural, it feels unique because it departs so radically from the low-rise scale common in most neighbourhoods. In the blocks around de Maisonneuve, Lincoln and Tupper, between Guy and Atwater, there’s almost something Manhattanesque about the mix of old rowhouses and walkup apartment buildings with big postwar towers.
But, for all its vibrancy, pretty much anyone would be forced to admit that this part of Montreal is ugly. Hideous, even. The true extent of its laideur becomes evident when you climb to the top of one of its many highrises and gaze out upon a landscape of dull concrete erections.
Built in the 1960s and 70s as quickly and cheaply as possible, most of these buildings have no architectural grace. Unlike the postwar highrises in coastal cities like Vancouver, which are bright, airy and replete with quirky spage age details, most of the tower blocks in downtown Montreal rely excessively on poured concrete. Even worse, their sides are blank, which means that any view of the neighbourhood from afar is marred by a skyline of empty concrete walls.
So here’s an idea I’ve stolen from Tirana, the capital of Albania: let’s turn our boring concrete blocks into colourful, eye-catching monuments to Montreal’s creative spirit. Like Montreal, Tirana witnessed the construction of hundreds of concrete apartment buildings in the decades after World War II. (Unlike Montreal, they were driven by Communist fervour, not profit, but that’s another story.) Until recently, its civic palette consisted of multiple shades of drab. That was before Tirana elected an artist, Edi Rama, as its mayor. One of his first acts was to order thousands of gallons of paint.
The New Yorker described what happened in a 2005 article:
Rama has been in office for nearly five years (he was elected in 2000, at the age of thirty-six, and reelected three years later), and the first thing he did was to order paint. He blasted the facades of Tirana’s gray Stalinist apartment blocks with color—riotous, Caribbean color—turning buildings into patchworks of blues, greens, oranges, purples, yellows, and reds, and the city itself into something close to a modern-masters sampler. (Art in America put a Tirana façade on its December cover; it looked like an abstract painting.)
It was an extravagant gesture, but Rama thinks in extravagant gestures. “The city was without organs,” he says, meaning that it was a dump, and that nothing in it functioned. (“Kandahar” is how he usually describes it.) “I thought, my colors will have to replace those organs. It was an intervention.”
If we had the will to do something similar in Montreal, I doubt it would be hard to accomplish. It would cost a couple of million dollars, sure, and it would involve negotiations with dozens of property owners, but it would be well worth the effort in tourist dollars, international press and a massive boost in civic pride. Why not?
First Montreal photo by Lyle Stewart; Tirana photos by David Dufresne and Rapsak