By day and by night, there are adults flying through the air at Montreal's Quartier des Spectacles on oversize, colourful swings. Streams of cyclists whip by on dedicated bike paths. Warmed by the spring sunshine, students and gallerygoers lounge on the steps at Place des Arts, where the joys of museum, opera and symphony are recognized with fortissimo.
It would seem that everything is just as it should be in Montreal, where bonhomie thrives and an art has been made of small-scale urban architecture. In the leafy neighbourhood of Saint-Louis, where many artists have made their homes, the ghost of architect Luc Laporte lives on. From an 1880s commercial building on Rue St. Denis, he punched a generous, rounded arch through the masonry to connect his instant landmark bistro directly to the street; rather than depending on loud signage, he preferred to emphasize the building as sign. L'Express is a classic, with a heated, black-and-white tiled front terrace, still beloved – still packed – 33 years after he designed it.
But the sweetness of the small architectural intervention is sadly being offset these days by the weight of large public works gone wrong. The corruption charges levelled against Montreal politicians have contaminated the reputation of the venerable metropolis. Last October, the city froze all non-essential public-works projects following widespread allegations of impropriety. With more arrests being made and former mayor Gérald Tremblay now ousted from office, it's as if a slick of toxic oil is creeping along the streets, darkening the large civic projects touched by city builders and the SNC-Lavalin engineering firm. The Montreal-based global entity had its tentacles in many of the big public-sector works in the city, including the Maison Symphonique, with its handsome wood-lined concert hall but bargain-basement public lobbies; the shiny new planetarium on the eastern edge of the city; and the still-incomplete McGill University Health Centre hospital, a massive behemoth, estimated to cost $2.35-billion, and as ugly as its multilevel parking garage. It's impossible to travel through these facilities without contemplating what troubling scenarios might have gone on.
For now, then, it's the modest, meaningful works of architecture and joyous pop-up landscapes that are left standing with integrity fully intact. Like the fans of L'Express, Montrealers are right to turn to them as places that citizens can depend on. In the open, and often under the open sky, is where the healing can begin. When, during last weekend's Portes Ouvertes, I walked the city's streets touring dozens of young architecture firms and funky design studios in former textile warehouses, the joy of their public-space work was intoxicating.
Wanted, a two-person landscape-architecture firm, finds its motivation in the power of design to effect social change – or simply to contribute more urban comfort and delight. Last summer on Victoria Street, next to the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Paula Meijerink and Thierry Beaudoin installed an urban forest of cushy carpets of purple turf, artificial palm pavilions and curvey benches. People lounged with friends; couples posed among the outlandish neon set piece for their wedding pictures. This month, alongside the McCord, Wanted installs a temporary urban forest – ash trees with their root balls in massive sacks.
Further east at Quartier des Spectacles, the colourful swings, suspended from white steel box frames, have been custom-designed by a six-person studio called Daily tous les jours. Back by popular demand for a third summer, 21 Balançoires (check out the video at vimeo.com/40980676), notes studio principal Mouna Andraos, comes complete with a musical score: The more people swing, the more intricate the melody becomes. The studio has also produced massive sing-a-longs at fairgrounds outside of Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Dallas, offering large microphones and Auto-Tune to evoke decent collective sound.
An installation of projections and sound that they hope will inspire audiences to move like the stars or the Earth is being prepared by Daily tous les jours for the $48-million planetarium. The planetarium's design features rounded, wood-clad cinemas that push out on the upper levels as aluminum-clad cononical shapes between slanted green roofs. Designed by the city's competition-winning Cardin Ramirez Julien & Aedifica, with, among other consultants, SNC-Lavalin, the three-level building will help anchor the Olympic grounds.
"It's definitely a shame, the huge problem the city has," says Andraos, referring to the corruption scandals. "We're hoping that some of the projects that we do can create exchanges for people in public spaces, and spark a sense of ownership."
In the Plateau district, a group of us – including journalists from international design media; Marie-Josée Lacroix, director of Montreal's Bureau du design; and Élaine Ayotte, a member of the city's newly formed executive committee responsible for culture and design – are led on a tour that begins by paying design homage to Laporte, who died in 2012. Heritage advisor Nancy Dunton leads our group to a stunning row of grey limestone townhouses fronting onto genteel Saint-Louis Square. Distinctive black steel railings and simple stone stairs on the Victorian exteriors are the work of Laporte, a man variously described as a bon vivant and a curmudgeon, who was often given commissions by local residents who knew him well.
We file into Laporte's still-functioning live-work studio: At the front, an efficient bar/kitchen – designed with the rigour of a boat's cabin, complete with built-in cabinets and espresso-maker – sits alongside a work table with shelves lined with historic architecture books. An old photo of the staff at L'Express is propped on the white tile floor. Toward the back of the long, narrow space, Laporte had renovated a horse stable to become his studio, and, past delicate glass doors, a small terrace where vines grow up a brick wall.
It was from here that he designed many of Montreal's most enduring bars and restos, including the elegant Laloux (1980) with its seamless black-steel front entrance and cream-coloured walls of black-framed mirrors; and the high-end housewares boutique Arthur Quentin (1975) with walls and ceiling lined and strapped in plywood.
Human-scaled and warm to the touch, these are the places that never stop giving back. They continue to amuse and endure in ways very different from those who choose to become their city's laughing stock.
For more on Montreal architect Luc Laporte, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org