Three years ago, I lamented that Place d’Armes was just a pretty picture: The public space that had been the heart of Montreal for over 300 years had become nothing but a spot for tour-buses to dump snap-happy tourists. After nearly 3 years of construction, a redesigned Place d’Armes was unveiled this Spring, and I happened upon it last Sunday. So how does it compare?
Well, there ares still lots of cameras out (including my own!), but it also feels like people are lingering more in this space, even on a chilly Sunday morning. The photographer above seems more interested in his little girl tottering across the paving stones than the Gothic church behind her. People sit and talk or hang out with their dogs, and kids are happily climbing on the street furniture. And aren’t those over-sized benches are just asking to be transformed into an impromptu stage?
Previously, the whole square was raised and, set apart from the surrounding streets by short flights of stairs and planters (a pair of long-disaffected washrooms lay underneath). Now, with everything is on ground-level, Place d’Armes feels more like a dynamic destination and less like a like a traffic island.
A more subtle yet profound difference is the massive reduction in traffic around the square. The redesign uses cobblestone to explicitly stretch the boundaries of Place d’Armes right up to the edge of the buildings and down the surrounding streets. But landscape architecture is not the only thing curbing the traffic flow: the Place d’Armes website includes this map for tourist bus drivers, showing designated drop-off points for passengers on Saint-Antoine and de la Commune, a 2-block walk on either side of Place d’Armes. (I’m pleased to note that’s exactly what I had proposed in this post.)
Three years ago, I critiqued the plans for treating Place d’Armes “more like an observatory of historic buildings than part of the city.” In hindsight, the function of the square ultimately has less to do with design and more to do with who uses the neighbourhood and what draws us there.
The numerous incarnations that Place d’Armes – battlefield, market, marching ground, Victorian garden, and trolley-terminal, to name a few – speak volumes about our city’s evolution. What will the latest redesign tell future Montrealers about our present-day values?