In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Much can be excused in the name of art. Some such thought must have raced through Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre's mind recently, as he faced a media grilling about the cost and merit of proposed design additions on Mount Royal, to mark the city's 375th birthday next year.
"It's art, so of course it's subjective," Coderre explained during an eight-minute scrum at City Hall. "Every piece of art, you will have some people who will be against it, who will say it [costs] too much." Montreal already has an abundance of public art, he said, citing in particular five recent additions to the Quartier des Spectacles by sculptor Stephen Schofield. The new public art planned for Mount Royal would only increase enjoyment of the mountain, the mayor said.
Far from settling the issue, Coderre's comments rolled through a media echo chamber for several days, always linked to a more hostile description of the Mount Royal additions by an opposition councillor. Typical headline: "It's art not granite stumps, Montreal mayor says."
Unfortunately for the mayor, he was wrong about his own project. The objects he was defending were never conceived as public art, by the city, the province – which controls the Site patrimonial du Mont-Royal – or even by those who created them.
"This is not public art, and we're not artists," said Peter Soland of Civiliti, the Montreal urban-design firm retained to develop portions of a much larger $8.26-million enhancement called Escales découvertes. The full extent of this plan, or even of Civiliti's role in it, was absent from all local media reports, in part because the city had done nothing to make the plan public knowledge.
The Site patrimonial, which spans 750 hectares, encompasses the park, two large cemeteries and three summits. Most Montrealers know only parts of the park leading up to the big terrace at the Chalet du Mont-Royal. The idea behind Escales découvertes was to make subtle interventions that would help people get the measure of the full site, and to notice things that could easily be overlooked. Those include natural features such as the lesser-known summits – Westmount and Outremont – and historic elements such as the avenue of trees that once led to Smith House, the 1858 farmhouse that now houses Les amis de la montagne.
Soland's team, which included wayfinding designer Julie Margot, created 12 bronze 3-D maps, one metre in diameter, to be placed at different entrances. They also designed 10 bench-like seating stations that are flush with the terrain or marginally elevated above existing outlook points. Each bench will be ringed with the words of a short evocative poem commissioned from one of 10 Montreal poets. These "haltes," as the benches are called, will be placed to draw attention to a view within the mountain area, Soland said, as opposed to a view over the city.
Civiliti's third set of interventions are 30 clusters of three low conical sections of varying sizes, set at different heights and angles and sheered off at the top. Each of these indices can be sat or stood on, and also read: Each set is engraved with a phrase that alludes to an under-noticed feature of the immediate area. One example: "deviner, l'empreinte d'un ruisseau originel" (imagine the traces of a native stream) – a clue to the continued existence of the unseen Raimbault Creek, which was buried in a sewer pipe in 1961.
These indices were the items that drew the headlines, for how they looked and what they cost: $3.45-million, for a total of 90 custom-made objects of grey unpolished granite, inset with engraved strips of bronze and placed in 30 different locations on foundations of packed gravel. That sum will likely drop by around 20 per cent as a result of a meeting with the province and other partners on Wednesday, Soland said, at which five or six of the 30 clusters were removed from the plan.
Granite was chosen for the haltes and indices because it's permanent, Soland said. It won't be as comfortable as the park's wooden benches, but the purpose is different. The indices are less about settling down to read or eat your lunch than about making a brief stop on a journey. The same rationale applies to the hard benches of steel and concrete found in Montreal metro stations.
The City of Westmount signed on to the process of Escales découvertes when discussions began two years ago, Soland said, but has refused all concrete proposals. "They were very critical, from the start, of any intervention," he said. You can trace that attitude back to Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Mount Royal Park in the mid-1870s, and who believed that the visitor should never be distracted from a direct encounter with nature.
But Olmsted's design itself required massive interventions in the mountain's flora, including the replacement of many trees and planting of imported species. He gave each sector a different scenic quality, so that the visitor would experience "successive incidents of a sustained landscape poem." Every visit to his apparently natural forest park was to be mediated by his thorough manipulations of the environment.
"It's a constructed landscape," Soland said. Only long familiarity, and the absence of ornamental gardens, have made it seem a natural space.
Civiliti's interventions were intended to be "extremely delicate," Soland said. "They integrate into the environment, they're not alien objects just plopped down." We won't be able to judge till they're deployed over the next year or so, though the rush to judgment had already started before the mayor began calling them art.
One interesting thing about the unfair "granite stumps" remark is that it identified the fault line, in the popular mind, between the right and wrong way to imitate nature. People often complain that abstract art doesn't look like anything. Here the complaint was that an object that was clearly abstract – although not art – looked too much like something. But if Civiliti's indices had been made to look like realistic stumps, would people still object? Perhaps that detour into kitsch would have been just natural enough to pass, for some people, as art.