The finishing touches have finally been added to Montreal's celebrated sculpture garden at the Canadian Centre for Architecture -- 10 years after the site was transformed from a pile of rubble into a citywide point of pride. A stainless-steel chair now crowns the garden's most easterly column, or sculpture, that greets drivers entering the city from the Ville Marie Expressway.
Most motorists haven't noticed the addition. Their off-ramp has been routed through the garden at the CCA for so long they've stopped noting the fine details of Melvin Charney's sculptural columns. That's a shame. The new chair completes the symmetry of the garden and shouldn't be confused with an afterthought. It's the mirror image of another chair projecting from a column at the western edge of the garden; the coupling is now complete.
"Ten years isn't an inordinate amount of time to finish a piece of public art, especially after a big building project like the CCA," explained Charney, an architect and artist who's representing Canada at the International Venice Biennale of Architecture in June. "Look at Versailles. It's normal. It's always a question of available budgets."
Charney lobbied to get his garden finished over the past 10 years, eventually submitting a document in 1998 called Once Upon a Chair to Phyllis Lambert, founding director of the CCA and chair of the board of trustees.
"In a wonderful piece of prose, Melvin said that the chairs in the garden are set in the sky for the comfort of the imagination," recalled Lambert, who went to architecture school with Charney at Yale. "We always intended to finish the garden. It was in the original drawings, but everything in good time."
Lambert didn't want a traditional garden and she didn't get one. There are no romantic benches facing flowerbeds. That would clash with the spirit of the garden's location, which is wedged between busy René Lévesque Boulevard and the Ville Marie's ramps. Across the street is architect Pete Rose's imposing limestone museum for the CCA, the two wings of which are wrapped around the pre-existing Shaughnessy House, built in 1874.
"The site was a traffic island," said Charney, who is also working on the long-term completion of the National Tribute to Human Rights that stands in Ottawa. "But those challenges appealed to me as an artist working with architecture as subject matter."
Charney founded the Unité d'architecture urbaine at the University of Montreal in 1975. He earned notoriety a year later when Montreal municipal authorities demolished his outdoor installation, Les maisons de la rue Sherbrooke, in the middle of the night. His installation, a false façade that recreated old buildings along the street, shone a harsh light on the city's negligent attitude toward conservation.
In Kingston Construction, Chicago Construction, Toronto Construction and Lethbridge Construction from the 1980s, Charney's installations convey a strong architectural backbone. They tend to reclaim derelict sites, while giving a nod to the local history.
"But I'm not into postmodernism," Charney said. "I'm not into looking at history in a specific way, but what I do is about grasping where we are and demarcating land. I feel it's more of an ecological view."
Charney has done nothing if not demarcate land at the CCA. He went back to old maps of the area for inspiration and incorporated his findings into his overall design. The garden reveals the boundaries of old farms, which emerge from the sloping grass as fragments of walls running north and south. Moving up the slope toward the escarpment is the arcade, a mirror image of the CCA's façade. Rows of sculpture columns sit on a grid behind the arcade, overlooking the industrial quarter below.
The columns, called allegorical columns in CCA literature, line up with building types around town that can be seen from the escarpment. Chimney stacks, tenements, grain silos, and the twin spires of a church are reflected in different columns and are worked into narrative constructions about styles of homes and modernism.
Column #1, or the Obelisk-Chimney, is the recipient of the new chair. It's affixed to a bent tower, below which is a factory sitting on top of a traditional tenement housing block. The chair is empty, in opposition to the chair at the west end of the garden, where a mini-temple rests on the chair's seat.
At the western edge of the garden, where motorists leave the city, sits Column #11, or The Tribune. It sits on a north-south axis with a Montreal landmark on Sherbrooke Street, the seminary of the Collège de Montreal. The seminary's pediment is represented in replica form, hanging from the sculptural column. Extended behind this pediment is the chair with the temple. Charney creates dialogue between city structures in this fashion across the entire garden.
Charney's next challenge is installing his Dictionary Series at the Canadian pavilion in Venice. He'll be showing 232 plates from the ongoing work. Dictionary is based on international newspaper articles showing buildings caught up in political and social events.