Archives for category: montreal

My undergraduate experience was defined by its landscapes — architectural and social.

Many thanks to all the buildings and people I’ve enjoyed over the years.


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Jan Gehl and his allies have a very sensible approach when it comes to urban design: design cities for people, not cars. In his books Life Between Buildings, and Cities For People, Gehl outlines very specific elements that must be included to make an urban environment tolerable for pedestrians, such as vertical facade articulation, opportunities to sit and watch the street go by, and providing places for people to gather to attract other people, to name a few.

I whole-heartedly agree with Gehl, and his clearly articulated, no-nonsense design philosophy. But I have to say, sometimes, an urban landscape designed for cars can be quite enjoyable when experienced on foot.

Of course, walking a desolate, highway-style streetscape for miles and miles would be no fun. Car-style infrastructure at a human scale, however, offers a change in the rhythm of a city and a truly unique urban experience. That is, if it doesn’t define the urban form, and if adequate space for pedestrians is provided.

The stairs to Boulevard Rosemont just off of St Laurent and Bernard

Boulevard Rosemont in Montreal begins just west of St Laurent at the end of Van Horne, where it rises dramatically over The Main, hovering high above the railways, eventually landing at St Denis where it resumes its life as a normal, people-scaled street. Taking the stairs from St Laurent and walking to St Denis on Rosemont is spectacular. Sweeping views of the city and its mountain are afforded by the height of the overpass. Walking along elevated Rosemont speeds the world up: long straight lines lead your eye all-the-way to St Denis, with cars wooshing by along an impressive and beautiful curve; the many streets between St Laurent and St Denis are quickly passed over, lost in the speed of the overpass. The same distance on a more southern street, passing St Dominique, then Coloniale, then Debullion, all the way to St Denis would feel much, much longer. On Rosemont, you end up at St Denis before you know it.

Of course, the Rosemont overpass-section would be awful if it were surrounded by an equally car-oriented cityscape. But it isn’t — it’s embedded in and surrounded by  the urban form of the Mile End, Petite Italie, and Rosemont, some of the densest, healthiest, most pedestrian-oriented streetscapes in Canada.

The pedestrian sized tunnel at the foot of St Marc in Montreal

Another example in Montreal is a tunnel at the foot of St Marc, south of St Catherine, just East of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Here, the opposite of the Elevated-Rosemont effect occurs: a pedestrian-friendly sidewalk follows the road into a rare subterranean tunnel streetscape. Again, this would not be enjoyable if it went on forever, but a quick and dramatic change from the surrounding downtown streets, to a sensory experience wholly distinct in feel and rhythm, provides pedestrians with a fine grain of diversity in their negotiations of the city.

The St Urbain bike lane, travelling briefly under an overpass

Also in Montreal is one of my favourite examples of a bike path, one that shows immense respect for bicycles and their role as a viable transportation option. Back up in the Mile End, the Clark bike path eventually leads you to St Urbain and  under a railway overpass. This is by no means a pretty section of a recreational bike-trail. This is a hard and heavy streetscape, one for pure utility. Treating bike path design the same as road design (not reserving it for recreational trails) is a powerful gesture, signalling the city’s dedication to bike infrastructure.  And the experience of using this section of the bike path is wonderful — much like the Rosemont overpass, it speeds up space and time. Catapulting your way down and up the path is an exhilarating and welcome variation in an otherwise highly urbaine route.


The Cogswell Interchange, in Halifax

Further east, in Halifax, is the very sad Cogswell Interchange, an Overpass to Nowhere that was born of the wayward plans of 1960s urban planners. While every time I biked along Cogswell in the dead quiet of early Saturday mornings last summer I was reminded of the beautiful communities that were destroyed to build this purposeless infrastructure, I also came to enjoy this section of my ride to the Market. Between the North End and Downtown, Cogswell is a wide expanse in an otherwise dense urban form. Early in the morning, with barely any traffic, I would zoom down Cogswell Street and glide up to the Overpass, feeling empowered by my bike’s ability to overcome an otherwise hostile car-centric environment. Cycling Cogswell offered a variation in space in time on my route, marked the malleability of urban space and its effect on our experiences of reality.

Montreal versus Toronto comparisons are a common conversation I have with people who have been to both cities. It’s also something I have a lot on my mind, as I grew up in Toronto and spent some formative years living in Montreal (and am now back in Toronto — for a bit).

The cities are incredibly different — fundamentally so, especially considering that they are only five hours away from each other (which is considered very close in Canada, for all you European readers). Yes, they are both North American cities, former colonial economic outposts of European countries, and are based on a grid, but the cities that have grown around these shared circumstances are completely different.

I could write an extensive list outlining the differences from my own musings and the many conversations I’ve had with families, friends and strangers (this is a hot topic for those taking rideshares between the two cities), from the most nuanced to the most banal, from the most material to the most philosophical, but these will be topics for other posts.

For now, I’d like to sum up the differences in an elegant analogy that makes use of the cities’ prominent geographic features that my mom used earlier today, an analogy that eloquently describes a lot of my thoughts about these two very-different  yet-similar and thus-irresistibly-comparable places.

Montreal has its mountain, a raised point in the heart of the city; and,

Toronto has its ravines, forested valleys that lie below the street level and are spread throughout the city.

Montreal is easy to read: it is not challenging to find out “where-to-be” to have a good time out with others. Its culture, much like its mountain is centralized, pronounced, prominent and unmistakable.

Toronto is more difficult: one must know where-to-go to find the “good” spots. Much like its ravines, its culture is diffused, sprawling, mysterious and hard-to-find. It’s iconic skyline leads visitors to assuming that this is all Toronto’s got: what’s on the surface, without ever looking below.

So when you visit Toronto: as I say to anyone, “give it a chance”. It is a booming, exciting city, as any city of three million inevitably is. But its articulation, its manifestation of the “good life” is less marked, visible then in Montreal.

So get out there, climb that mountain —
but also explore those ravines.

Yesterday, I used Toronto’s version of the popular Montreal bikeshare, Bixi for the first time.

The experience was fun: riding through the very un-cyclist friendly streets of Toronto on a very progressive, efficient mode of transportation. It was like a puzzle piece not fitting properly into its spot.

The experience of riding a Bixi is not like riding a normal road bike. It has a unique frame, which results in a broad steering capacity They also boast a wide, comfortable seat, and gear shifters of a design distinct to Bixi bikes. The bikes have a certain sound and rhythm distinct to them; the internal chain clicking away, the sound of the gears shifting.

As a result, it was a strange experience of riding a bike in the streets of Toronto, a bike I had grown to know in Montreal and sensually associate with that city’s streets. When I closed my eyes, the feel of the bike, its rhythm, its feel as it meanders through the streets all made me feel as though it was just another breezy day on some Plateau street in early Autumn. But then, suddenly, I hit a street car track and opened my eyes, remembering that I was far away from the Bixis of Montreal, a small biker on the wide streets of Queen and Spadina in the heart of Toronto.

See also same-space different-place

There is a distinct quality to a row of houses that sit directly on a park in a dense urban core. Though they do not differ at-all architecturally from their regular-street counterparts, it’s the very situation of these houses that creates feelings of fleeting breeziness, of opportunity. These houses are concrete openness.

The houses open to Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto

Concrete openness toward Parc Jeanne Mance, in Montreal

Openness in Halifax, at the Windsor Parkette, just west of the Common

The other day, walking into the Shoppers Drug Mart at Almon and Robie in Halifax for the first time provided me with an interesting experience of urban space.

After walking through the automatic doors, with a quick right turn, I swear I had been in this store before. The layout: cosmetics on the right, followed by hygienic products, food, with the pharmacy at the back, the photography centre at the far right and and the magazines at the front, presented a space that I surely had negotiated many times in the past.

I quickly realized that besides a few minor differences: a “healthy food” section instead of Canada Post, exclusively English signage instead of bilingual, the layout of the store was exactly the same as the Shoppers Drug Mart I frequented in Montreal, on St Laurent, just north of Avenue des Pins.

After recognizing this fact, I found myself caught in a strange experience of convoluted space and place, the result of occupying the exact facsimile of a store I had gotten to know very well over the past four years, within a profoundly different context. Instead of the neighbouring yoga studio, the Banque National, Pawn Shop, The Main, St Cuthbert with it’s beautiful triplexes and the mountain in the distance, from the same windows I saw a very different street scene in Halifax: a suburban parking lot, and auto-body shops at the fringe of the North End.

The streetscape outside Montreal’s Pharmaprix – the heart of the Plateau, on greasy St Laurent

The more “suburban” setting of Halifax’s North End Shoppers offers a completely different scene as gazed from its windows

My experience of the same space, same store-layout, experienced in different places, different cities was an opportunity to think about the unexpected side effects of the homogenization and mass production of architecture and the layouts and designs of big-box, suburban developments and stores. In cases that suburban design infiltrates urban settings, the lack of differentiation in design of the layout works to emphasize the differences between the stores, as opposed to having the more expected adverse effect of making every place seem the same.

My experience of living at the lovely-and-bustling corner of Duluth and St Urbain in the south-west corner of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood has taught me a valuable lesson about how minor features in informal urban design can transform the most intolerable, noisy thoroughfares into places where people want to be. This adds evidence to my theory that the smallest, slightest changes to anything, can make enormous differences.

As I previously described in “a st urbain parade“, St Urbain is a major north-south thoroughfare that transects the entirety of the island of Montreal. Primarily a one way street, which works to reduce interruptions in traffic flow, speeding up traffic, St Urbain connects the north shore, Autoroute 40, and mid and downtown Montreal to the Old Port and Autoroute 20, creating a mini-highway that is frequented by large trucks and buses, along with the steady flow of regular traffic.

Keeping this in mind, St Urbain can be a very harsh place for pedestrians and bikers. Though lined with Montreal’s archetypal beautiful triplexes and requisite small, local businesses sprinkled in-between, the street is much wider than is typical of the Plateau, and the constant flow of speedy one-way traffic creates an, at times, intolerable urban environment.

St Urbain, looking south from Duluth, does not look like the most appealing street to spend time in, even more so due to the constant passing southbound traffic.

Living on the first floor of a triplex on St Urbain gave me first-hand experience of its constant traffic. Besides the consistent wooshing of passing cars, intermittently, gigantic trucks and buses would pass, literally shaking the ground. The inconsistency of the traffic noise made it hard to tune out, like other kinds of “white noise”.

Another angle of Duluth and St Urbain further reveals its barren landscape.

Despite these conditions, the front porch of my apartment, and the corner in general, was a very pleasant place to be.

I attribute this to a number of factors. My porch was a very well defined space – protected by the apartment on one side, a wall of vegetation and a mid-level fence on the other sides. The corner in general was extremely green, the shade and wind that was provided compensating for the constant passing traffic.

An old roommate good friend enjoys the pleasant space created by a wall of vegetation and well defined dimensions of the front porch of our apartment.

With these minimal features — an otherwise desolate, unpleasant place becomes an extremely pleasant space to spend hours in.

My experience of my front porch at St Urbain and Duluth has taught me an important lesson about humans: people are extremely adaptable, and with a few amenities, are more than willing to spend time in otherwise harsh environments.

This is important to consider in urban design. A city inevitably (and due to poor planning/design decisions of the past) has spaces that few people would enjoy spending time by – industrial parks, highway overpasses, water treatment facilities, and ports, to name a few. As cities become the focal point of human culture, and urbanization continues, we must look to these formerly neglected places as the sites of future densification. People will probably shy away from the idea that sites near highways could foster beautiful neighbourhoods and urban spaces — with this post, I am attempting to illustrate the inhabitability of these “desolate places”.

Already, the greyest, most industrial parts of a city have the ability to evoke a certain aesthetic. As the city recycles itself, we will have to confront these decaying industrial parts of our city, and learn to appreciate their beauty, transforming them into habitable spaces. A very possible urban future involves the transformation of formerly industrial areas and highway overpasses to urban parks and densification neighbourhood projects. We’ve seen this already with Toronto’s announcement of the future Don Lands neighbourhood, which will be on formerly industrial land and incorporate industrial features into its design, including an underpass park; another example is New York City’s High-Line: a beautiful elevated park that snakes along formerly industrial areas in Manhattan. Former industrial spaces can indeed be the subject of a shift of aesthetic perception.

This shift in aesthetics can also be detected in contemporary forms of gentrification. Whereas in the past, artists, students and marginalized groups inhabited decaying inner city areas that had been fled by the middle- and upper classes in the mid 20th century, restoring the beauty to the abandoned architectural treasures, since these inner city “heritage” areas have become extremely expensive, the most recent wave of gentrification is in the formerly industrial fringes of cities: Montreal’s St Henri and Point St Charles, London’s industrial areas, Toronto’s Junction Triangle to name a few. We are seeing people take up what they’ve got in terms of affordable housing stock and making, indeed, beautiful places in conventionally desolate spaces.

The examples in this post, my porch on St Urbain, the conversion of industrial areas to neighbourhoods and parks, and gentrification occurring in the industrial areas of cities, are an attempt to acknowledge the malleability of pop-aesthetics and further, to highlight the ability, with thoughtful informal urban design and a minimal amount of elements, to transform desolate spaces to urban oases.

Obviously, a city is a complicated place. Any municipal project involves causing inconvenience and aggravating someone. It’s always difficult to establish a park, crosswalk or or pedestrian thoroughfare that satisfies everybody.

Often urban planning conflicts are the result of the relative permanence of city infrastructure. A pedestrian thoroughfare may upset some businesspeople who miss the parking, and congest traffic along parallel routes, but brings delight to it’s users who enjoy the experience of walking on the street (though, studies have shown that pedestrianization is good for business – the attraction of more people outweighs the loss of a few streetside parking spots). Mont Royal Boulevard in Montreal experimented with pedestrianization in the 1970s. The road was great on a sunny weekend afternoons but during weekday afternoons, it wasn’t very busy. On the flip side, the transformation interrupted traffic and bus routes, congesting nearby residential streets so much that Mont Royal was deemed better as it was – a regular car-traffic street.

The solution today seems obvious. Pedestrianize the street on the weekend, and maybe weekday afternoons, but leave it open during weekdays. This seems such a simple, straightforward solution. But the bureaucracy and rigid infrastructure of the city makes this difficult, and it’s easiest to do it one way – or the other.

Flexible city infrastructure could solve this problem. We have the technology now, let’s do it! Traffic lights should turn to stop lights at night in the quiet corners of the city, major commercial streets should have automatic barricades that can go up on nice days, bike paths that become void in the winter should be active if it’s been unseasonably un-snowy. Fortunately they do close down Mont Royal on many weekends during the summer, and these weekends are multiplying so much that in the future, I’m sure it will be every weekend.

Montreal is in fact brilliant with its experiments with pedestrianization. Ste Catherine’s east of Berri to Papineau is completely pedestrianized in the summer. This is a beautiful and successful project, made even better with the ceiling effect created by the purple beads that cover the street for many blocks, transforming the space into truly a laterally extended outdoor room. The flexibility expressed in this project is impressive – in the winter the street returns to its normal thoroughfare status  — though I’m sure it would be just as successful in the winter.

I ride and walk these Montreal streets. Four years of memories scream out from every street, every corner, of facade, every park.

Cities are vessels for layers and layers of memories.

A meditation on those private ones that make a place significant.

Granted, the “world’s longest street” is apparently Yonge Street in Toronto, but besides that I have noticed a very big difference in the naming of steets in Montreal and Toronto. Especially in central Montreal, many minor residential streets maintains their same name despite repeatedly stopping and starting due to hikes in the grid system, highways and train overpasses or parks. As a result, you can still be on Durocher, Hutchison, St Urbain, St Laurent, St Denis and countless other streets all the way across the island, from Rene Lesveque (and often farther south) to the Island’s north shore.

In Toronto, the names of minor residential streets are less consistent. A slight hike in the grid system often means a new name, and certainly the complete stop of a street for a park results in the name of a street’s inevitable death.

I really enjoy the effect of Montreal’s consistent system of street names. The train and highway overpasses that stretch east-west create a great disconnect between the Mile End, Outremont and the neighbourhoods to the north, as one can only traverse North to the South  in this area of the city on a few select streets (or else risk getting a ticket for illegally crossing the train tracks). The consistency of the street names counteracts that – Hutichison remains “the same street” despite the major divide caused by the overpasses.

The consistency of the street names remind you that any place in the city is by it’s nature connected with the rest of the city. It means that even though I’m in a completely foreign and distant neighbourhood, I can recognize where I am and feel connected to it. Good on Montreal for doing that. Perhaps this would aid Montrealers with what Kevin Lynch called the “imageability” of a city: citizen’s abilities to make sense of their city, which he identifies as existentially crucial and improveable by means of certain design feautres. Montreal’s long, consisted street names would result in people feeling more connected to a larger area, and enable easy orientation in an otherwise unknown neighbourhood).

As for the reason that Montreal chose to keep it’s street names consistent where as Toronto didn’t, I often speculate it’s another case of the cities’ English versus French heritage. Looking to the capital city’s of their mother countries, London’s major and famous thoroughfares are often extremely short, contrasted to Paris’  axial boulevards that stretch for miles maintaining the same names.

     

London above, Paris below. The streets in London are curved, compared to the broad, straight boulevards that bisect Paris.

The European roots of the consistency of Montreal streets versus Toronto’s inconsistencies are also reflected in UK versus France park design. The French favour geometric consistency and symmetry, whereas English parks are more chaotic in their attempt to replicate the nature. This can be seen in the parks in the map above. The English garden has chaotic paths that depart from the main trail, the French park is linear and rigid. This reveals elements of their view on nature, and how human’s relate to concepts such as “Wilderness”.

Skyscrapers are often built to be regarded from afar. Their designs involve immense vertical lines and overwhelming size evoking a sense of awe and wonder. One doesn’t often think of the skyscraper in its context, on the street (thankfully this has changed with recent design emphasis on tall buildings’ podiums – thanks Jan Gehl). 

In downtown Montreal, at the corner of University and Kennedy is the KPMG Tower. It is an extremely unique structure, it’s prominent feature being a series of triangular geometry at it’s crown.

Walking by it on street level, it becomes apparent that the design of the skyscraper was directly influenced from the relatively older, smaller house beside it.

It’s incredible, the arbitrariness of the way our city looks. This tiny house, a nothing in urban-relativity, has completely influenced the design of an enormous structure that can be regarded from kilometres around Montreal.

Many branches of contemporary human geography seem to be in a conundrum. Maps and models of reality continue to be produced in immense quantities, conclusions are made that the maps and models are ineffective since they fail to capture certain non-quantifiable elements of reality, yet these maps and models continue to be made. In response to the relatively-made-up quality I have noticed in efforts to quantify geographic phenomena, for my GIS (Geographic Information Systems, essentially computerized maps), final project I decided to instead explore cognitive geography – something that could never be rendered accurately on a computer – with the intention of creating beautiful maps that evoked questions and stimulated reflection, rather than tricking myself into thinking that the maps I made were accurate or representative of reality.

Here are some of my final maps. They don’t really mean anything…but the idea that we all have a different city in our heads, yet can function perfectly well with each other is a lovely thought.