Indoor Places

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.

2. The CCA’s wireless spot.

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.


  1. On the subject of McGill facilities, I was always a fan of the Osler History of Medicine Library, in the McIntyre panhadle. It’s a touch of Old McGill in a newer building.

    Also, the Anatomy Museum in the Strathcona building is great, and the signs reading “Anatomy Students Only” only serve to keep out the gullible. It is the true hidden gem of McGill museums, and also has nice, quiet tables for reading.

  2. There are some parts of the underground that are quite pleasant. Although they are transient, and certainly not places to “just be”, I think these are the sections that get romanticized by tourists — probably because it was designed with tourists in mind. I’m thinking teh spaces below Palais des Congrès and Parc Jean-Paul Riopelle, Square Victoria metro, etc. Nice lighting and spatial design, art pieces, etc. I’ve taken mid-February tourists from Chinatown to downtown through a very scenic and non-frost bitten walk. :D

    P.s. nice list!

  3. Pas d’accord. Le couloir de Métro entre l’entrée “Guimard” de la station Square Victoria et le palais des congrès est, à lui seul, une œuvre d’art dans le plus pur sens du terme.

    On y contrastera celui qui passe sous la rue Université et qui relie la place Bonaventure au siège de l’OACI qui est une honte caractérisée.

  4. My favorite part of the underground city/RESO is the slight detour to the tunnel between the congress centre and place victoria station through the “Cite International” real estate imbroglio which has 1) an entire street covered with many-stories-high roof, a piece of the Berlin wall (Go democracy!), a truly beautiful fountain and reflecting pool. I do this on winter indoor promenades from Place des Arts metro to the Peel Metro -done all underground.

    Other delights are (besides the ones above)
    1) popping up from the Place Ville Marie food court onto the Place des arts outdoor plaza for that million-dollar view up McGill College to Mcgill and Mt Royal.
    2) the glory that is central (?) station with it’s art deco sculptures,
    3) the vast spaces that is place desjardins (ugly, but hugely vast, but did you know it used to be a street?)
    4) popping above ground (at the fed’s guy favreau) at china town and it’s tasty treats

  5. I absolutely love the Grande bibliothèque, and suggest that everyone take the tour they give that explains how much care went into the design and details to make this a very public space. It makes your heart sing, well mine anyway.

    As for the tunnels: well, the Place Victoria tunnel is part of the original, so I forgive it. But what’s up with the OACI section? Just bizarre — the whole thing feels like a cheaply redone basement apartment in the suburbs. But I actually like taking it; it shows the contrast between it and the new tunnels under the CDP, Riopelle, etc. very well.

  6. I second the love for the Grande Bibliotheque, although its design & role as public space erodes the very things people look for in a library (workspace that is relatively quiet).

    Also, am i the only one who has always wanted to play ball hockey in the RESO section underneath Quartier Internationale?

  7. I would never think to hang out at the CCA. Even in the picture, it seems like a small, clique-y scene.

    I will offer one other locale: the bottom floor at Guy Favreau. Its benches offer a place to hang out for elderly Chinatown residents, adding a nice local feeling to what would be an otherwise banal mall.

  8. Pingback: Project for Public Spaces » Blog Archive » Places in the News: December 29, 2008

  9. Shawn, I think there was a post about how the elderly Chinatown residents (and perhaps elderly Chinese who live elsewhere and return there) have re-appropriated the expropriated part of Chinatown that became Guy-Favreau.

    Near by at Complexe-Desjardins, elderly Portuguese men also congregate as in a public square back home. And elderly Italian men do the same inside the Fabre métro station at the corner of Jean-Talon and Papineau.

    I love the Grande bibliothèque, though it is a victim of its own success. I believe the original plans were for a larger, taller building, and were cut back. Too bad, as often it is too crowded and noisy to actually read and study.

    I have one quibble with it (other than the problem wiht the falling glass panels outside). Periodicals may only be consulted in the periodical area, and the lighting is very poor at the tables to read them. People over 40 will notice this one; I doubt younger people would. I confess I have “stolen” a periodical I wanted to read and taken it upstairs to a place with more light – though of course I returned it to the periodicals section afterwards as I understand their reasoning – people might not want to read a periodical days after it got through the sorting system.

  10. I like the variety of workspaces at the Grande bibliothèque, which is done on purpose. You have more public areas for people who want to read AND people watch, places made for laptop use, listening posts for movies and cds, the children’s space downstairs (with, did you notice, child-height handrails for the stairs down), and the little more private “loges” on the west side where you can read and look over the tops of the buildings of the Latin Quarter.

  11. Maria, that opens up a whole other thread, one that is quite poignant, I think. Where do seniors go?

    I have an 80 year old friend who is a regular at McDonald’s. For all their efforts to snag the young customers, McD’s is a hang out for many elderly Montrealers.

    Before the Brown Derby closed, there was always a long table with a group of elderly Jewish men. I think some of them went across the street on Victoria to that Second Cup…

  12. Please expand this section! Any other interesting indoor spaces in Montréal? Surely, there must be more than the three you mentioned!

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