Montreal seems to contract in the wintertime. The snow, we can handle, but when the bitter cold sets in, and every minute outside is feels like a slap in the face, our experience of the city is reduced almost entirely to its indoor spaces.What public spaces exist for a city in hibernation mode?
Many visitors to the city seem to be impressed (or perhaps only expect to be) by the “Underground City”. But I’ve never met a resident who is particularly enamoured with the sprawling malls and dull hallways connecting downtown office towers with transit. Although I suppose it will save you a few blocks of slip-and-slide in the dead of winter -if you manage to get your bearings in that underground maze – it hardly strikes me as a quality public space because it is so fundamentally commercial, its halls lined with boutiques and fast food, or advertisements.
So where are some of the best places to escape the elements and the cold, for free, and just be? Here are my top picks of the moment – I’m sure there are many more, so feel free to add your favourites in the comments.
1. La Grande Bibliothèque
Perhaps because I am easily excited by the charged potential of a great book collection, the Grande Bibliothèque seduced me from my first visit. The library has a feel-good design that is both solid and bright, grand and airy, and its collection attracts a diversity of Montrealers from all walks of life. I feel like this institution makes tangible a little piece of this city’s spirit.
They also house our National (Quebec) Archive, a collection of pretty much everything that was ever written in or about Quebec, or by Quebecers, going back to the days of la Nouvelle France. So you can keep exploring the city in all of its historical and fictional incarnations from your armchair.
Many readers are surely familiar with the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s exhibits and vernissage parties. But its a little known secret that the CCA recently set up free, public, wireless Internet in the Shaughnessy house.
Those who show up with a lap-top in town during the museum’s opening hours are welcome to make themselves at comfy in the bean-bag chairs tables in the historic house. It should be a great space to meet fellow students, bloggers, and people who work from home. A browse through the CCA bookstore’s collection can also provide plenty of inspiration to those working on architecture, design and urban planning projects.
3. The Redpath Museum
I have already blogged about this gem located on the McGill campus and free to the public. The museum’s imposing stone building, polished wood and ornate decoration give it a weighty historical feel, while shabby stuffed animals (including some that are now extinct or endangered), chatty display cards, and well-worn steps lend a comfy, Hogwarts-like appeal. During my bachelor’s degree, I attended classes in this building and admired plenty of century-old scratchiti on the underside of chairs and tables.
With a collection of natural and cultural wonders, from dinosaur fossils to ancient Egyptian mummies (a cat and a falcon as well as 2 humans), its a great spot to spend an afternoon with a curious kid – or a curious date for that matter. A commenter on this blog has indicated that the recently-aquired triceratops skull is now on display. The triceratops skull was found in 2006 by McGill Students during a vertebrate paleontology field course in Saskatchewan. Check the museum schedule here.
Images: 1. Entrance to the Grande Bibliothèque from the document “voici votre grande bibliothèque” (pdf). 2. Mingling in the Shaughnessy house after the CCA’s blogger round-table discussion, Sept 27 2008.