As a boy, Melvin Charney would take up his camera and travel to the farthest reaches of Montreal, taking photographs and trying to understand how each neighbourhood had grown up and changed. As he got older, he never stopped. An architect and an artist, it became a lifelong quest for him to tease out what he once called in a scholarly paper the “Montreal-ness” of the city. What made it special? What gave it its layers? Or, more prosaically, where could you get the best café au lait en bol?
“He made evident what is evident,” said Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal and a former student of Charney’s at the Université de Montréal’s school of architecture. “It sounds simple but the reality is that most people don’t see what is around them. Part of our job is to be a creator and a revealer – and Melvin was the master.”
Charney, who died Sept. 17 at 77 from the effects of a long, debilitating series of illnesses, was the kind of artist who stayed true to his vision, no matter the consequences. Like when he participated in Corrid’art, an outdoor art installation that was mounted to celebrate the 1976 Olympics. His contribution, a block-long montage of photographs of buildings along Sherbrooke Street that had been destroyed to make way for development, was an evocative and cheeky rebuke to the city’s administration. Jean Drapeau, the little mayor with the big ego who once famously said, “What the masses want are monuments,” was so outraged, he ordered the entire installation to be torn down in the dead of night.
“Mel had a pager on him, and a message came in that city crews had come to pack up the exhibition in trucks and remove it,” recalled his wife, the writer Ann Charney. “He dashed over and tried to convince them that they were taking away things that had been meant for them and their families. They were even taking away a playground. But they said they had their orders.”
In a way, Charney got his own back. Drapeau, in one of his last acts of office in 1986, granted the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) a 75-year lease on the parcel of land that is now home to the architect’s unique sculpture garden. On a plateau that overlooks a working-class part of the city, it contains everything from a church to a grain elevator, a Greek temple perched atop a column and even a small apple orchard – a nod to the site’s early use as a farm for Sulpician priests. As was Charney’s wont, it challenges visitors to think on many levels about where they live – including how Drapeau’s monument-loving masses were oppressed by big business.
“There was talk that the site was going to have a police station built on it,” said Phyllis Lambert, the founder of the CCA, who first met Charney when they were both architecture students at Yale University. “Imagine that – a police station! Melvin’s work ties the site and the centre back to architecture, all the way back to Montreal’s earliest years. It’s brilliant.”
Born in 1935, he was eldest of Hyman and Fanny Charney’s three sons. He grew up, first in the Plateau neighbourhood made famous by Mordecai Richler, then moved to a duplex on the edge of wealthier Outremont. The family was decidedly working-class, but steeped in art and music. His mother, whose family was from a town in what is now Belarus, toiled in a sewing factory and had a beautiful singing voice. His father, who came from Poland, earned a living as a paint salesman, decorator and woodworker; when he first arrived in Canada, he became known for an ability to turn a piece of cheaper pine into something that looked like rich, burnished oak. This meant he got a lot of commissions to create new doors for churches and synagogues.
In his spare time, Hyman Charney painted real canvases and counted among his close friends artists such as the Canadian expressionist Sam Borenstein. It was only natural that he signed his sons up for Saturday morning classes at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as soon as they were old enough. Young Mel, whose teachers included Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven, never looked back.
After studying architecture at McGill and Yale, he lived in New York and Paris for several years, perfecting his French and honing his skills. And he undertook a journey to trace the history of Mediterranean architecture, travelling from Marseilles to the very border of Syria to study examples of Byzantine, Greek and Roman structures.
Charney returned to Montreal in 1964, opened his architecture office and began to teach at the Université de Montréal. He was key, not only to the architecture school, but also to its urban planning department, influencing generations of students. They include Bumbaru and Renée Daoust, whose own work spans everything from Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles, with tiered green spaces, stonework, water and bicycle paths, to a long wood box of a cottage in the Laurentians north of the city that seems of the land rather than built on it – with a sculpture of children playing on a seesaw at the front.
“What Melvin taught us was that before doing something, anything, we had to understand the urban and social context,” Daoust said. “It was important to him that every project we do, be it a cottage or a public square, be rooted in what the area was. It takes many visits, much walking and a lot of reading!”
Besides the sculpture garden, Charney’s public art pieces include the world’s first human rights monument, a towering piece of red granite and concrete in Ottawa and the precarious, delicate Skyscraper, Waterfall, Brooks – A Construction, which stands over Place Émilie-Gamelin, a square near the Berri-UQAM metro station that is frequented by students, the homeless and pigeons.
Along the way, he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale and presented his work at the prestigious dOCUMENTA art show in Kassel, Germany. His numerous accolades include being named a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Québec by the provincial government and a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honour given by the French government for an individual’s contribution to culture.
Besides his wife, Charney leaves his daughter, Dara, his two grandchildren, brothers Morris and Israel – and a city that contains reminders of him at every turn.