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of montreal

In his weekly column, Robert Everett-Green writes about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

No non-elected Montrealer has more clout in matters architectural than Phyllis Lambert. When the Bronfman heir and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture said this week that the CBC's Maison Radio-Canada (MRC), which others were calling a heritage building, was actually a piece of junk, her opinion was treated by the city's media as breaking news.

"It was a failed project from the beginning," Lambert said. "I just can't believe some people are trying to protect this tower," which the CBC would like to sell or see redeveloped.

"Some people" include local NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, who days before had expressed disbelief that the CBC would dare to get rid of a structure "that has heritage value and that belongs to the people." Laverdière launched a petition, with provincial MNA Manon Massé and city councillor Valérie Plante, to halt any sale, to keep the CBC's French-language headquarters where it is, and to build social housing on the desolate grounds surrounding the 24-storey tower. The CBC had adopted "a fire-sale mentality" toward the property, the MP said, and should be ordered by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to put aside the dozen offers it has received.

In fact, Radio-Canada has been musing on how to change, discard or escape its 43-year-old headquarters for the past decade. It made the long march through public consultations, a development agreement with the city, a request for proposals in 2013 and an evaluation of three consortium offers, all of which had been refused or withdrawn by May of last year.

The first request for proposals called for design of a new MRC within a redevelopment of the current site. But last week the CBC confirmed that it is "reviewing all possible options," including an outright sale and a move elsewhere, as well as a new home on the same site or a renovation of the old tower.

That drew another retort from Johanne Hémond, president of the francophone broadcasting union SCRC, who said she found it "incomprehensible" that with new money on the way from the federal government, the CBC would even think of selling its Montreal HQ. She too described the building as "a heritage site that belongs to all Canadians."

"Heritage value" can serve as a shield for a contested property, though it's clear that Lambert and her opponents are using the term in very different ways. Lambert sees neither architectural merit nor intelligent urban design in the MRC, so the heritage value for her is nil. But the city of Montreal also defines "le patrimoine" as a quality belonging to anything "collectively recognized for its testimonial value and historical memory."

You don't have to dig very deep to find that the MRC is rich in testimonial value and historical memory, both for what it is and for what it erased from Montreal's built environment.

An entire working-class district was razed in the early 1960s to make way for Radio-Canada's broadcasting centre. The demolition of the Faubourg à m'lasse and the dispossession of its 5,000 residents was part of a post-war craze for "urban renewal," which here, as in other places, meant displacing an urban underclass for a temple of cultural or political power.

That original sin haunts Radio-Canada to this day. "We cannot deny the difficult legacy associated with construction of MRC, nor do we wish to," the corporation said in a project update last week. A 2015 RC radio report on the fate of the Faubourg à m'lasse was actually called "How Radio-Canada destroyed an entire neighbourhood." The regret seems to have deepened with time, as we have learned to celebrate the kind of close-knit urban village that the Faubourg seems to have been.

The city administration remembers the Faubourg too, which is why it included a provision for social housing in the "development principles" it signed with the CBC for the MRC site in 2009. Those conditions are binding on any future purchaser, which renders moot at least one part of Laverdière's petition.

The CBC says that it could function happily in a building one-third the size of the MRC, which has a $170-million "maintenance deficit" and costs an astounding $20-million a year to manage and occupy. RC executive vice-president Louis Lalande acknowledges that this albatross is also "a symbol" – not just of loss, but of a gathering of francophone intellectual energies into a centre that has done much to create and foster Quebec's buoyant media culture. Everything Radio-Canada has been over the past four decades, from Passe-partout to Tout le monde en parle, happened here.

I think the building is better than Lambert would have us believe. Tore Bjornstad's hexagonal tower is a work of distinctive brutalism, with its recessed, contrasting glass-wall panels and curved window masking. The structure consistently opposes the rectilinear norm, through the triangular plaza tiles that mimic the steel trusses of the nearby Jacques Cartier Bridge, the curving interior hallways, and the shard-like shapes designed into carpets, floor tiles and ceilings. It's far more inventive than most of the glass-wall boxes going up all over North America, and it holds meaning for many Montrealers.

But the planning and design of the site was a disaster. The broad plazas and parking lots are mostly void space, and the cluster of bunker-like structures at the foot of the tower complete the impression that this is not a maison but a fortress.

Lalande says RC is looking beyond the current site for a possible future home, but there are good reasons to hold out for a better home where the MRC now stands. The area is already a centre for electronic media, with TVA, Astral and CTV buildings all close by. A new or renovated space within a mixed development where people actually live could do a lot to reinvigorate a public broadcaster beaten down by years of austerity. That long cycle of attrition seems to have fostered a mentality within the CBC ranks of clinging even to things that might be better changed or gotten rid of. The new federal money should provide a space for reflection and reinvention, not a defensive adherence to the status quo.