Earlier this week the City of Montreal announced the winners of a design competition for the redevelopment of the area around the Champs-de-Mars metro station. The winning proposals as well as the other entries can be found here on the Réalisons Montréal website.
The purpose of this competition was not to solicit a practical plan for implementation, but rather to produce ideas and stimulate discussion. Its general premise was simple: if at future date the city proceeds with covering the Ville-Marie Expressway, what should we put in its place? Submissioners were invited to prospose projects for redeveloping the area around the Champs-de-Mars metro, as well as the new land currently occupied by the expressway’s trench.
This area has long been recognised as a scar on the downtown landscape. The Ville-Marie is an ugly mistake of the modernist era and it serves as a barrier between Old Montreal and Downtown. It is also a drag on the surrounding blocks, sucking activity off the streets. The City is to be commendend that it is seriously considering covering it and reintegrating the surrounding area back into the urban fabric.
That said, looking at the proposals and the winners chosen, I was somewhat dissappointed. Of course it is important to remember that practicality was not one of the parameters of the contest. Contestants were encouraged to innovate and let their creativity run wild. Nevertheless I was left feeling that many of the proposals were high on imagination, but low on understanding of how urban environments are used and lived in.
One of the winning proposals featuring a large green space and undulating monumental buildings. (Bélanger Beauchemin Morency)
All of the winning concepts proposed constructions on a monumental scale, heavy on awkward and poorly defined public spaces. Many proposals involved turning the entirety of the land recovered from the expressway into open areas, with little effort made to reintegrate the sector into the rest of the city. Other entries proposed public spaces full of nooks and crannies that looked to me like magnets for drug use, prostitution, and other such activities that are realities in an urban context. Such concepts would look stunning on a postcard, but I have trouble seeing how they would improve the city for residents.
An urban space is not an installation piece. What makes a place great is not how visually impressive it is, but rather how well it works for the people who live in and use it. My intention is not at all to be anti-design, but creativity without a sense of how people actually live in a built environment is what lead to problematic spaces like Square Viger and other modernist monstrosities.
In my opinion some of the best proposals were the simplest. The project above proposes to rebuild the street grid and put a reasonably sized public square around the metro station. The rest of the recuperated land (and surrounding parking lots) would then be filled in with mixed use buildings and smaller, neighbourhood public spaces. New residents would animate the appropriately scaled public spaces, and new local businesses would draw activity to the streets. It may not win an international design competition, but it would be a sure fire way to rehabilitate the area on a human scale.