Archives for posts with tag: montreal

The city can be abstracted to be understood.

I have lived in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, three cities with comparable old-school style Institutional Universities.

I have noted that each of these universities, the University of Toronto, McGill and Dalhousie though very similar in overall design (a main quad, tower/front steps buildings, institutional architecture), their relationship with the city differs immensely.

Let me convey this visually with some abstract maps.

UofT sits in the middle of Toronto, and though a distinct entity, the city filters through it effortlessly. The effect is a university-city soup — space punctured by normal flows and spaces of city-life, with distinct areas of UofT inbetween.

McGill, also in the heart of downtown Montreal, too is surrounded by city, but keeps it at bay — is a special entity amongst an otherwise flowing urban fabric. But it stands open to the city of Montreal, it’s arms wide open, inviting passersby to use it as a shortcut between downtown and the Plateau.

Halifax’s Dalhousie University is less open to the city that surrounds it. It sits in a quiet corner, it’s back turned to the streetscapes it disrupts. Rock walls and inconsistent street patterns lend to the effect that Dalhousie stands apart from the city, providing only slightly permeable space to those passing through. 


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.

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.

Though spring-time is still far off in Montreal, the snow is rapidly melting from the warmer day-time temperatures.

The silent streets and muffled city of deep-winter are stirring.

The sound of water – dripping, rushing, splashing – grows louder.

Though this is the city – concrete and man-made – we are not disconnected from the cycles of nature. The street-side rivers flow through the forest of buildings and traffic lights. We are agents within an urban nature.


“As a state of mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities” – Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia

Over the years  my friends and I have experienced a major difference between crowds at concerts in Montreal vs. Toronto. No matter what genre, the crowds in Montreal seem to be much rowdier, more energetic, more into the music, more willing to jump and dance. Meanwhile, Toronto crowds are consistently quieter, have more inhibitions, dance and sing less, and are less into the music in general. My brother has confirmed that Halifax has a crowd culture itself, also more energetic than Toronto’s.

This is an extremely interesting element of city life – the very real existence of a ‘city attitude’. We always hear that people from Charlottetown, PEI, are very nice, while Parisians and New Yorkers are rude and self-centred; Londoners are polite, and Tokyonians are stressed; Montrealers are stylish and hip, and Torontonians…bland and energyless? Though these city stereotypes are indeed extreme generalizations, my experiences of city-based crowd behaviour patterns are testament to the very real existence of differing city cultures and attitudes.

The consistency of the quiet Toronto and energetic Montreal crowds demonstrate a certain urban unity that has a power to influence the public mood, and ultimately, individual behaviour. Through what I’m sure is an extremely complex mix of history, economics, politics, natural environment and climate and urban form, the public of a city develops certain universal traits.

These behaviours, I speculate, are self reinforcing. It would be extremely hard and awkward to be the only energetic, dancing person at a concert in Toronto, social convention there dictating a very strong sensitivity to the well being and lack of disturbance toward others (though I myself broke this convention at a New Pornographers concert last June). Similarly, it would be hard to not succumb to the Dionysian energy that consistently emerges in Montreal crowds. Even if you did resist, and instead stood still in the middle of the bustling crowd, this would do little to change the overall atmosphere and behaviour of the concert.

Notice the very still, quiet Toronto crowd on the left. I attempt to break the quiet urban-concert-attitude by raising my hands and dancing energetically in the centre and right photos. Alas, Toronto’s attitude remained stubbornly still.

Perhaps it would be fun to do a sketch of a theory as to why Torontonians are so much less fun at concerts. You could start with the city’s historical cultural heritage: British,  seen as traditionally prude and subdued. But then again, the city has experienced extreme diversification since its beginnings as a colonial backwater, and the influence of other cultures is indeed a reality. Perhaps it’s because Toronto is a relatively new larger city, and thus has not grown out of it’s small town attitude? Cultural behaviour tends to have a stubbornness and inertia, so this might be the reason. Conversely, many speculate that since Torontonians think Toronto is the centre of Canada (and…the world?), nothing really impresses them anymore. If this theory doesn’t satisfy you….then how about relating it to Toronto’s urban form? A very straight forward grid, leaves little to the imagination, and thus has held back a urban-attitude of energy and spontaneity?

Another example of very city-specific behaviour is sports-fan culture. Chicago fans are known as being extremely loud. Here exists a certain pressure that citizens of a city hold themselves up to, understood through the behaviour of others, rooted in individual behaviour, but expressed in a unified crowd.

Whatever the reason, the reality of differing city attitudes certainly exists. These are not unified or monolithic, and have many outlets, sub-cultures, and manifestations. Isolating one common urban event, such as a concert, demonstrates that you can talk very meaningfully about the common behaviour shared by people from the same city.

My roommate recently showed me a video of a group of biologists who poured concrete into an anthill in order to excavate it and determine the size of an ant colony:

The results were incredible, and the excavated concrete revealed an extremely large and labyrinth-like system of paths and nodes. This can be appreciated as impressively large when you think of the relative size of the people, and especially impressive and large when you think of the relative size of an ant.

The incredibly extensive result of excavating an anthill. Even the people look small beside it.

The video led me to thinking about Montreal’s extensive underground system. If a group of biologists were to pour concrete down that, they too would discover an incredibly immense system of paths and nodes. This is even more extensive when you consider the underground city’s linkages to the metro, and those underground metro station’s linkages with smaller, micro-underground cities.  If a group of biologists were to pour concrete down Montreal’s underground city, the excavation would reveal quite the impressive system of paths and nodes as well.

Two visualizations of Montreal’s underground, offer different conceptualizations of  the geographic immensity of the system. Imagine the system’s extent when linked to the metro, and the various smaller underground cities along the metro.

Toronto’s P.A.T.H. system is similarly extensive, and itself linked to the subway, those stations themselves linking to micro-underground city systems.

This winter I’ve been incredibly perceptive of Montreal’s incredible snow removal capabilities. As soon as there is a dumping of snow, armies of trucks of a myriad of shapes and sizes immediately unleash themselves onto the street, prowling every block until the snow is sufficiently dealt with.

There is a certain order to the way the removal teams approach the snow. First, a regular plow clears paths through the streets, two paths for two lane streets and so on. By doing this, however, a very large ridge is made that divides the street, making crossing it very dangerous. A second team deals with this: the first vehicle shoots the snow on the street into a humongous truck, who then eventually dumps the snow into the St Lawrence river (the environmental aspects of this are pretty questionable, I bet).

This is followed by an additional team, who artfully plow the remainder of the snow, and clear paths on the sidewalks. Normally, large banks are left on the side of the road, cutting the sidewalk off from the street. Here, the natural path phenomenon emerges in one of it’s most excellent and least predictable states: random paths between the road and the sidewalk, that some brave souls had the initiative to first establish.

Every now and then, however, Montreal’s snow removal crews annihilate these snow barriers that emerge between the street and the sidewalk. It’s always amazing to walk on the streets once this has been done – one feels liberated! Again able to cross the street at one’s own whim.

My roommate, Zoe, returned from Southern Ontario yesterday, confusedly reporting that there was much more snow in London and Toronto than in Montreal. Montreal is notorious for being a much snowier city, explaining her surprise.

I owe this to Montreal’s excellent snow removal service. It’s incredible how modern technologies have been applied to overcoming the harsh weather in this city ( – I often comment on how odd, and brilliant it is that people carry out their business despite these never-ending arctic storms). This city is too good at snow removal to just leave the snow on the street.

But then my thoughts wandered. What if Montreal did leave the snow on the street? There would surely be enormous snow banks on every street corner – piles of snow that would act as structures characterizing a streetscape for an entire season – mountains of snow that would impede vision at every distance – places where people would break through the snow banks and impromptu ‘doorways’ would emerge, dwarfing the natural paths that emerge from the current state of affairs.

If the snowbanks weren’t cleared, I imagine that often, natural paths through the snow would be replaced by ones that went over the snow. Ephemeral staircases emerging here, a slide, improved with each use there. Some residents would proudly maintain their snow structures, adding architectural elements on sunnier days with packing snow. Others would neglect the snow structures outside their homes, leading to dangerous and forboding entrances and exits through the mountain-banks.

I owe the theory of “seasonal snow structures” to my brother, who has reported their existence in the less snow-removal-able Halifax. And Ted,   helped imagine the snowy structures that would exist if Montreal wasn’t so capable at dealing with the snow.

When I sit in my living room and watch the street, I am amazed by the leagues of municipal snow removers, working “quietly” in the night so that the people of Montreal can enjoy their city the next day, unhindered. The yellow and black trucks and plows that patrol the streets are another instance where one can contemplate the odd nature of the urban –  an intense concentration of human activity; so many interests and motivations and reasons for why Montreal is here, and why I am here in Montreal; the weather patterns that bring in squalls and storms; the architecture and behaviour that has emerged because of them – this is the city – the complex urban.

With the upcoming expansion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art into the church at the north-east corner of Sherbrooke and Musée, the museum will now occupy a whopping four (4) (four!) different buildings, differing dramatically in architectural style and era.

You have the original building, the beautiful neo-classical columns that proudly proclaim “fine art museum”:

Another older building, that I imagine served another use originally, and was incorporated later (maybe it’s time to start doing research on this blog…):

Then there’s the Moshe Safdie addition, a statement-of-a-building, that now acts as the main entrance:

And finally, the latest addition, the church. This photo was taken before the construction of what I’m sure is going to be a beautiful glass atrium:

note: all images are from Google streetview

The growth of the MMFA over the years is another instance where beautiful urbanity boasts itself proudly: the fluid and dynamic uses that these buildings have had over the years, the spectacular original architecture, the seamless mix of styles and the utter adaptability of it all. This is remarkable proof that you can’t anticipate anything when it comes to the city.

The underground network that is growing as these buildings become linked is also notable. Montreal is known for its extensive underground city, and it is interesting to see another smaller, single activity oriented one develop. Through this mini-network of tunnels, one can afford themselves a unique experience of urban space: entering the gallery from one entrance, emerging from another, and feeling empowered by the ability to burrow through underground tunnels.