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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Architecture of Evocation (or Hipster Architecture?)

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The Seville theatre in 2009 (above) and the planned Seville Residences (below) from a presentation by Cardinal Hardy and A CD F Architects, April 7th 2009 (PDF).

The developers behind the Seville Residences, which would demolish the historic Seville Theatre block on Ste-Catherine West in order to rebuild 1500 student housing units, retail, commercial and community space, have not underestimated the attachment that Montrealers have to our built heritage.

Although the Seville Theatre, which was built in 1929 and closed in 1985, is designated as a building with exceptional heritage value, all experts agree that the mouldy, crumbling brick facade is unsalvageable after 25 years of abandonment.

Even though preserving the original facade is virtually impossible, the developer commissioned a report by two UdeM architects, Jacques Lachapelle et Mario Brodeur, critiquing Montreal’s approach to heritage preservation and facadism in particular.

The report (pdf) is brings up some good points, including that Montreal’s 2004 urban plan designates almost the entire borough of Ville Marie as having heritage interest (map of Montreal’s built heritage), creating constraints on the space available for innovation and the flexibility to accommodate changing usages, demographics and ideals.

The two architects go say that facadism – the preservation of a historic facade within the context of a new construction with profound stylistic, volumetric and structural differences – as reducing our history to a mere image. When there is a lack of consistency between a building’s exterior envelope and its interior function, the authors ask, can facadism really be considered “good architecture”?

The Architecture of Evocation

None-the-less, the architects of the Seville Residences recently updated their original plans to include a “reminiscence on the facade of the old Seville Theatre,” an allusion to the theatre’s silhouette in yellowish brick.

In another instance, the 16-story hotel that will replace Ben‘s will incorporate a rounded corner and other architectural details recalling the demolished Deli.

Neither developer has a formal responsibility to acknowledge their site’s past, yet both are choosing to evoke the institutions that were beloved by many Montrealers through modern architectural symbols.

Is this an effective compromise between clearing the slate for innovative design and giving shape to our collective memory? Or is it a gimmick meant to provide a little authenticity to an otherwise uncreative design?

Is it, perhaps, the architectural equivalent of a buying a Clash t-shirt at Urban Outfitters?

Hipster Architecture?

Perhaps this kind of superficial reference to the past is a sign of the times. Last summer, Adbusters magazine wrote a scathing article that applied similar criticisms to Hipster fashion and art:

“An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning.”

Personally, I love the patchwork quality of streets like Saint-Laurent, in which architectural styles from the 1890s to the present are shoulder to shoulder. My instinct is to preserve historic facades in order to maintain an element of diversity in the streetscape. But then again, I am from the same generation as the aforementioned hipsters…

In any case, here are a few examples of facades from around town to fuel the debate:

UQAM facade
The steeple of Saint-Jacques church stands alone as an entrance to the Judith-Jasmine pavilion at UQAM

Concordia facade
The Royal George apartments as part of Concordia’s Hall Library building.

Greystone facade on Sherbrooke O.
The Beaux Arts condos on Sherbrooke West hide the entrance to this high rise. In this instance, the Greystones also conserve their individual entrances.

And here’s a list of other instances of facadism from the report mentioned above (untranslated):

– l’Appartment New Sherbrooke du pavillon Jean-Noël Desmarais du Musée des beaux arts de Montréal;
– le Wilson et d’autres immeubles de la rue Saint-Jacques du Centre de commerce mondial;
– l’édifice Roger and King et la caserne de pompiers no 20 du Palais des congrès;
– les immeubles en pierre de la rue Sherbrooke de l’édifice Mercantile;
– la First Presbyterian Church angle Prince-Arthur et Jeanne-Mance;
– le Dominion Express (201-215 Saint-Jacques);
– l’ancien siège social de la Banque Royale (221 Saint-Jacques);
– une partie des shops Angus;
– l’ancienne caserne de pompier no 18 du théâtre Espace libre;
– l’hôtel de ville de Montréal dont la coquille a été récupérée à la suite de l’incendie de 1922.



  1. I might also add the Hotel Opus (formerly the Hotel Godin) on Sherbrooke and St-Laurent.

    I have to agree that facadism is less than desirable, and often incongruous with the new buildings the “faces” are attached to — but the real question is, why can’t modern architects create buildings with attractive, modern facades? Why have simple architectural patterns like discernable entranceways, roof cornices, windowsills with actual depth to them, door and window lintels, etc. seemingly been lost to the ages?

    Real International Style Modern — as expressed by I.M. Pei’s Place Ville-Marie, the CIL Building (aka Telus Tower) by Skidmore Owings Merrill, and Mies Van der Rohe’s Westmount Square — still have a discernably human rhythm and pattern to their design. They carry their weight and materials elegantly. They have polish and finish.

    In short, they do not seem like Erector Set models, a thin plastic skin over a snap-together frame. Most post-modern buildings in Montreal, however, look like unfinished construction.

    Consider the Musée des Arts Contemporains at Place des Arts — an inward-looking box whose Sainte Catherine Street entrance is an afterthought, and which offers only loading docks and a heavy set of square “columns” — fronting air-condition vents — to Jeanne-Mance.

    The new building of the Ecole de Technologie Superieure is a squat, ugly echo of the Dow Brewery building, all dark metal-clad panels, offering only blank walls and emergency exits to Notre-Dame Street.

    The Hotel Godin’s new wing by Dan Hanganu is another dark brick box with galvanized metal extrusions, bare concrete pillars, and a corner entrance that is unceremonial to say the least; you walk in and wonder if you’re even in the right place. I’ve been inside it several times and while it has some attractive design qualities here and there, does it really enliven Sherbrooke Street at all? What marks this apart from a hospital or an office building, aside from beds and flatscreen TVs?

    If the Seville is to be demolished, let it disappear — fine. Don’t mock its memory with yellow brick; replace it with something of quality, something with depth, solidity and detail, with motifs that run throughout. We really don’t need another bland set of brick cereal boxes with a shallow skin of pixels and “creative” irregular window lines, or balconies made of pipe and rebar.

    We need beauty. Dare I say it, decoration, a word that is taboo to the Modernist credo. A building that is not art but craft, a high level of craft, which is honourable work. A building that is unapologetically beautiful, that doesn’t feel the need to kowtow to the latest post-millennial trends, that does not seek awards, but rather, that enriches the street it is on, and the lives of those who live and work in and around it. A building that reflects human scale, proportions, rhythms, patterns.

    We used to build buildings like that all the time. Why have we forgotten how to do that?

  2. Alanah,

    Kudos for bringing up an interesting debate, but the hipster comparison strikes me as lazy. Hipsters are not the end-all and be-all of stylistic appropriation, and they’re certainly not the first to be criticized as vapid for doing it. Postmodern representation of any kind has been subject to that kind of conservative critique since its inception, so I’d be wary to draw an analogy between an Urban Outfitters Clash shirt and facadism. Hipsterdom (whatever that really means now) is certainly talked about in the moment, but I don’t think it breaks as strongly with fashion lineage as people give it credit for doing. Similarly, facadism seems wrapped in a longer cultural/architectural discourse to me, in which hipsters may only play a part.

  3. Architecture of evocation won’t mean much when the next generation will have no clue that the brown bricks are supposed to recall the Seville. At least keeping the facade of some banks or the houses at the Beaux Arts are a clear reminder and blend in.

    Its unbelievable how the York or Seville theater were left to decay so fast in 20 years.

  4. “Unbelievable” is one way of describing how some buildings are left to decay over the decades; “shameful” and “negligent” are a few others.

    If a building is designated “heritage”, where are the teeth in that designation that require that the building NOT fall into unrecuperable decay? The Seville and York are only two of very many examples.

    The building on St-Laurent between Mt-Royal and Marianne that used to house Segal’s, before they moved to just south of Duluth, was reputed to be a former dance hall and brothel, and was also reputed to be a designated heritage building, one of the oldest structures on that part of the street. What happened to it?

    It was pulled apart piece by piece by workmen with no demolition permit (a call to the city was returned two months later) after its state of decay was such that it was utterly dangerous, and a condo building and new storefront now sits on the site. I guess it’s better than the cold mildewy stink that used to flow out of the building, but still..

    At the very least, a landlord should be required to secure the site and make sure it’s safe; the city should require this. Letting it rot for 25 years is disgusting on so many levels.

  5. We are in a time when “preserved a reference to architectural heritage” is probably essential resume fodder to ensure further contracts and various forms of adulation. For architects/developers to play it any other way would seem suicidal. Throw in the word “sustainable” and you are are a visionary!

    I really like this:
    “We need beauty. Dare I say it, decoration, a word that is taboo to the Modernist credo. A building that is not art but craft, a high level of craft, which is honourable work. A building that is unapologetically beautiful, that doesn’t feel the need to kowtow to the latest post-millennial trends, that does not seek awards, but rather, that enriches the street it is on, and the lives of those who live and work in and around it. A building that reflects human scale, proportions, rhythms, patterns.” Right on, AJ!

    It s really a farce that yellow brick thing. Gee, it reminds me of someone who invokes and manipulates “grandfather laws” when building on a heritage site yet actually preserves so little of the original property that you need one of those little heritage plaques in front to explain what the place was once all about. Maybe they can do that for the Seville? Just embed a little plaque in the sidewalk out front, or would it be more appropriate in the yellow brick? Sometimes you just have to laugh……

  6. Le cas précis du «New Sherbrooke» intégré au Musée est un bel exemple de préservation discutable. Le «New Sherbrooke» en tant que tel était (est) tout à fait ordinaire et n’a rien de spécial; il y a des dizaines de blocs à appartements qui lui ressemblent, à Montréal.

    Le nouveau hall d’entrée du Musée est somptueux. On se demande comment plus grandiose il aurait été si le «New Sherbrooke» aurait été démoli.

  7. If we’re going to destroy a building, keeping an existing facade often helps keep a more human scale when putting in a much larger building in its place. I think the Palais des congrès is an example of this.

  8. Some great comments on this. I particularly, heartily agree with AJ Kandy.

  9. The Beaux-Arts on Sherbrooke is hardly facadism. The townhomes exist in their entirety and were renovated to be townhomes again. The tower portion is simply an addition.

    The Rogers and King mess is a great example of facadism that is a failure. It is not harmonious at all with the Palais and the St Antoine facade in its entirety is awkward altogether.

    I do agree that if we have to lose a building such as the Seville case, I would much rather go in another direction. Let’s build buildings and architecture that will be a testament and a legacy to our time. Cities the world over are building exciting architecture. Why can’t we?

  10. Something that bothers me about most of the “exciting” contemporary architecture is that it focuses too much on the shapes and looks of the whole building, which is usually not appreciable from the street, rather than the fine details a pedestrian can see, and that are such an important feature of the old facades shown in this article.

    Here is a challenge for architects: Regardless of your opinion of facadism, make a building so beautiful that in 100 years, when it is set to be replaced by another project, future hipsters will fight for its facade to be preserved.

    So far I haven’t seen any “new” building worthy of this challenge. If someone knows of one, I’d be really happy to know about it :)

  11. Good article, and overdue. I haven’t seen much critical discussion of facadism lately.

    One correction: The Royal George Apartments facade is NOT connected to Concordia’s Hall building; it is integrated into the library building (across the street and around the corner from the Hall building).

  12. Thanks Alanah for this fascinating article on Facadism and Beauty in Architecture!

    I applaud AJ’s comments: We need beauty. And yes, “building that is not art but craft, a high level of craft, which is honourable work…building that reflects human scale, proportions, rhythms, patterns.” We need this: The Here and Now!!

  13. The problems with building with such intricate detailing is that 1) the craftsman don’t exist 2) if so, the cost in prohibitively expensive. Real estate and buildings are also a business and there has to be a cost-benefit analysis whether we like it or not. In a city like Montreal, and a market that is not terribly “rich”, it is even less likely to get the kinds of buildings some suggest. Would I love to see limestone, greystone, and brick used more often in buildings? Absolutely!!

    The irony is, those who want luxurious materials and workmanship are the ones who decry the kind of market conditions that could sustain it. (ie: gentrification, development, business growth, rises in the cost of living). That said, architecture is in the eye of the beholder isn’t it? The is plenty of mid-century modernism that is just as incredible today as for example, any building on the stretch of St James street between McGill and Place d’Armes. We can’t only look backwards and want to live in the past. How boring.

  14. Did the real-estate speculators of the past not have to keep costs under control as well? Unlike the pyramids, they certainly weren’t built by slave labour. I’ve spoken with architects who told me flat-out that there’s nothing that technically prevents us from building another Sun Life Building if we wanted to. Lost skills can always be re-learned (hey! Job creation!) or reinterpreted with contemporary methods (CAD/CAM carving). In any case, that’s all incidental to the point I’m trying to make.

    I do agree we shouldn’t look backwards and live in the past, but does that mean the present and future have to be dominated by bland boxes merely because they’re “new?” Or worse, “starchitecture” stunt pieces? As another commenter noted, it seems like new buildings are designed as models to be viewed in SimCity from a God’s-eye view, and not as structures that animate life at the street level, have human-scaled details throughout that iterate upwards.

    That’s why I mentioned the real International Modern buildings as notable exceptions. Westmount Square is minimalist black-painted steel, glass and travertine marble, but its scaling, rhythm, ensemble spacing, and proportion could not have been created by someone who was ignorant of the classical orders (or who chose to break with them thoughtfully, where they did.)

    If someone wants to build in a modern idiom with modern materials, more power to them, but it seems like we live in an age where doing the absolute bare minimum is acceptable. A box is not a home and a warehouse of boxes is not a city. We must demand more.

  15. Sure, nothing is preventing us from building another Sun Life Building.. but money. Past real estate speculators did not look at costs like we do today. And with an abundance of skilled labour and an age when limestone and grey stone did not cost as today much we had a different world. It is ridiculous to think that costs do not dictate the kind of buildings that get built. Sun Life and any other financial institution may be poor examples as they did not have any budgetary constraints in those days and arguably, today as well. Until the 1970’s, it was all about outdoing your competitor, adversary etc… whatever the cost. It was all about ego. Today, a bank won’t let you break ground on a commercial building for example if you don’t have 30% of it pre-leased. And unlike the old days in real estate, today we have a myriad of financial models and cost-benefit analysis down to the last penny.

    That said, I am not a fan of bland boxes in pre-cast concrete either. But there is some incredible architecture being realized out there and on the drawing boards today… by star-achitects as well… not all their architecture is gimmicky. Of course we should demand more. That is my one big complaints about Montreal. Usually in Montreal, we demand less by chasing development out of town. In most cases because it might be taller than 4 floors. Never do we hear about quality of materials or aesthetics. That is refreshing.

  16. Edward, where exactly are you drawing the facts that underly this bizarre certainty that organizations somehow had tons more money in the past, and absolutely zero budgetary restrictions?

    Nobody, not even the Queen of England, pays for construction out of the loose change in their petty cash drawer. And no business builds a brand-new building for itself (and incurs that kind of major capital expense) unless they absolutely have to – you would spend all your profits and go out of business (or lose confidence and incur a stock selloff). Any businessperson who constructed a place of business as an ego-folly would quickly lose the confidence of their partners and clients — particularly in the insurance business.

    In fact, the Sun Life building was constructed in stages over 13 years (!) and expanded over time, not built all at once. You can be certain that each stage had separate rounds of financing involved. They planned the move as their former red-brick offices in Old Montreal had become too small to handle their organization. In a way, they were pioneers, being the first of the Old Montreal financial houses to move “uptown” to the Golden Square Mile, when what we now think of as downtown was largely residential manor homes.

    I’m not sure if limestone, granite and greystone are more expensive now. Given modern technology for quarrying and shaping it, it arguably ought to be incredibly cheap compared to 1913; it’s just not in demand anymore. It’s not “too” expensive, merely “more” expensive compared to dirt cheap snap-on panels, vinyl siding, brick and glass, I suppose. The one missing factor is, I will agree, widespread skilled knowledge of classic stonemasonry, but this knowledge is not lost and can be re-taught.

  17. I think my point is simple: building a building like Sun Life is just too expensive. Period. Will never happen. I build buildings in New York and Los Angeles. That is where I am getting my insight. Limestone, grey stone are considered very luxurious materials. Not done unless it is a condo project that can sell in the range of $2000 a sq/foot.

  18. I agree, it might be “too” expensive in a world where we have come to accept rock-bottom quality materials, because we value cheapness above everything else. (How many condo buildings today seem to be made of bare cinderblock, like a high school gym?)

    That said, there’s a heck of a lot you can do with relatively inexpensive granite blocks and brick. I often point to Chicago’s Harold Washington public library building, completed in 1991, as a successful execution of a “new” Beaux-Arts building in nontraditional materials.

    It is the largest public library in the world, covering an entire city block, and cost approximately $144 million to build. Certainly, adding 1500 apartments to the block between Lambert-Closse and Chomedey will cost at least that much — so why not design something more in keeping with the Beaux-Arts tradition of the surrounding neighborhood — like the apartment complexes buildings on Atwater, Lincoln, Sherbrooke, and De Maisonneuve for instance, not to mention Dawson College?

  19. “so why not design something more in keeping with the Beaux-Arts tradition of the surrounding neighborhood”

    Because it’s likely that it would turn out to look like a cheap copy of an old Beaux-Arts building. The success of Chicago’s Harold Washington library is certainly controversial.

    I don’t believe that this project is somehow the best design for the block, but I don’t want to see this city full of concrete mock Greek pillars and suburban-style faux architectural details tacked on.

  20. MB, I certainly wouldn’t want a cheap copy of anything, and I throw out Beaux-Arts as a suggestion; I’d be happy with anything as long as it’s got some aspect of beauty to it. I’m writing a blog post for savegriffintown on this subject so I don’t want to monopolize the comment section here — anyway, the Harold Washington Library and similar projects demonstrate what’s possible with brick, glass and steel. It doesn’t have to be a bland box! I’ve been inside it; I think it’s a marvellous building, and, at least from the exterior, much more inspirational than our generic glass box Bibliotheque Nationale, and we could use some inspiration at this end of Sainte-Catherine (where I work, incidentally).

  21. Hey! I for one LIKE our generic glass box Bibliothèque nationale, especially for its beauty-to-cost ratio. True, it’s not a building that makes you stop and stare like the new ROM Crystal. But it was built incredibly cheaply and yet is incredibly well planned and thought-out. I find it’s a great match to Montreal in general: neither too flashy nor too cheap, and the limited money was put into the right things.

    And it certainly grows on you the more time you spend in it. The materials inside are beatiful and simple, and little touches all over the place — like in-floor ducts, the furniture, child-height handrails down to the kids floor, or the little theatre-box things with a view over the Latin Quarter — make it a pleasure to be in.

  22. wait a few years, and the space will be chinesified (see previous articles above for whats happening a block away).

    that would be a good outcome.

    its a marginal space, with cracktown (tupper st.) a block to the south, tower appartments to the north, and no natural pathways between institutions and facilities nearby (hospital, colleges, cegep, malls, forum redevelopment of fail).

    Decades ago, cabot square was an important bus terminal for the west and south west of the city. today the place has lost its lustre, and the complete anihilation of this built space is regrettable.

    Montreal already tried the modern is better thing, and now we wish we hadn’t destryed all those beautiful buildings and blocks.

  23. Tristou – yes, I agree the inside is wonderful, it’s just that the outside doesn’t say ‘public institution’ to me, it says ‘air conditioning unit / greenhouse’.

    marksab – that’s a good point. Whatever goes there could (and should) have an uplifting effect on the whole neighborhood (tupper / lincoln etc.). There are concrete tower apts, yes, but there are also really nice spaces close by like Haddon Hall and other, more modest brick apartment blocks on Sherbrooke. Could be an echo of what happened to revitalize De Maisonneuve near Stanley?

    And true – why does it have to be Western architectural styles – something with an Asian infliuence would be really interesting there. As long as it’s not a street-life-killing box with blank walls…

  24. A few other points about how and why we build today…We demand things that heavy stone buildings don’t apply to. We want lots of natural light and bright spaces, whether work or home. That means, large windows and in some cases, floor-to-ceiling windows. Also, because of technology we can have those big windows and bright spaces: we can heat and cool our homes/offices easily. Le Robert Simpson on Sherbrooke street is a good example of the style of today. It is commonly called Modern traditional – modern because of the bigger windows. I bet most people hate it. Yet, it is very successful in its design.

    Even a city like Paris is forging ahead and re-inventing neighborhoods with incredible, visionary architecture. There is nothing wrong with glass and steel. Should be tear anything down? Hell no! But should we be mixing architectural styles and materials? Absolutely. Otherwise we have a boring urban fabric. What does that say about out time? Our generation? If all we can produce are knock-offs of the past or worse, nothing at all.

  25. You guys are gonna love this one:

    Hespeler Library of Cambridge, Ontario

    “In 2007 the City of Cambridge decided to expand the building yet again. The city specified that the winning design would have to preserve the historic nature of the building.”

    … so they put the old building inside a glass box that includes the extension.

    — X

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