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The Complexe Desjardins in Montreal on Dec. 2, 2021. The Complexe Desjardins is a mixed-use retail, office and hotel facility that is home to Desjardins Group and provincial government operations.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Most Quebeckers are familiar with Desjardins Group’s vital role in the economic development of the province. Not as many people may realize that the financial-services cooperative’s network of Caisses populaires, or credit unions, also had a direct hand in the emergence of bold architectural statements in the modernist vein and helped nurture a cohort of promising homegrown architects.

Several Caisses, some of which got their start in parish church basements, gave carte blanche in the 1960s and 1970s to forward-looking architects for the design of new branches. Not coincidentally, it was a time of significant socio-political transformation, secularization and economic emancipation of the francophone majority – the so-called Quiet Revolution – in an era notorious for domination by the Roman Catholic Church and anglo business.

Caisse branches presenting strikingly vanguardist designs – too jarring, even ugly, for some – appeared in modest working-class neighbourhoods, sometimes next door to, or across the street from, the local church. Their style tapped into the school of modernism but with a distinctive homegrown twist.

These days, the legacy of this intriguing chapter in Quebec’s architectural history is under pressure. As customers continue the great retail migration to the internet, financial institutions everywhere are compelled to shut branches in a move to consolidate and streamline operations.

In Quebec, Caisses are closing at a rapid clip, leaving many architecturally significant branches vulnerable to outright demolition or the loss or alteration of their unique features in modification for other uses.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Top and bottom: Interior of the Complexe Desjardins including the two upper floors, which are part of the basilaire, in Montreal on Dec. 2, 2021. The basilaire, a long horizontal section on which the towers are built on, was considered an architectural innovation when the Complexe was completed in 1976.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

“The Caisses populaires had a major influence on the development of modern architecture in Quebec,” Taïka Baillargeon, assistant policy director at Heritage Montréal, said in an e-mail.

“Caisses built from the 1950s to the 1970s are truly wonderful sites highlighting the evolution and modernization of a pioneering institution in Quebec’s history.”

The founding Caisse populaire was opened in 1900, in Lévis, Que., by former journalist Alphonse Desjardins and his wife, Dorimène; it was the first credit union in North America. The primary goal at the time was to provide non-usurious loans to French Canadian farmers, who were routinely shut out by the banks. Caisses were for decades closely aligned with the Catholic Church.

“The architecture of the years 1960-1970 carries the memory of the Quiet Revolution so it’s not very consistent to collectively praise this period and then go about demolishing these buildings that enshrine this golden age in our built environment,” Luc Noppen, professor of urban studies and heritage at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said in an e-mail.

A quirky structure from 1965 whose exterior, at least, has so far been spared complete erasure, is the Caisse populaire du Sud-Ouest de Montréal in the formerly working-class district of Saint-Henri. Known at the time as the Caisse populaire Saint-Zotique, it is a retro-futuristic two-storey edifice – created by architect Henri Brillon – boasting a steeply pitched accordion roof resting on two massive reinforced concrete crossbeams. The overall effect is highly sculptural.

The Caisse du Sud-Ouest de Montréal on Nov. 29, 2021. Known at the time as the Caisse populaire Saint-Zotique, it is a retro-futuristic two-storey edifice created by architect Henri Brillon.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

“At the time, the intent was to project a sense of dynamism,” said Jean Damecour, an architect who oversaw renovation work on the Caisse several years ago that involved modifications of the original design.

Jean Bélisle, a retired Concordia University art-history professor, has lived in Saint-Henri, not far from the Caisse, for more than 40 years. Saint-Zotique’s daring design was very much a conscious decision to shake things up a bit and send a message of modernity and progress, he said.

“The Caisse populaire wanted to get away from the image of a bank.” There was, too, a desire to go against the grain of Saint-Henri’s reputation as a poor, scruffy area, he added.

Mr. Brillon, now 85, says he had fun conceiving of the project as “like a hyphen between the two buildings on either side of it: the church and the funeral parlour.”

He laments the bland, boxy style of most Caisses built after the period of exuberant experimentation in the sixties and seventies. “The Caisses have abandoned publicly minded architecture for a functional style.”

Predating the Saint-Zotique caisse by a couple of years is Quebec City’s Caisse populaire Notre-Dame-du-Chemin. Designed by the fresh-out-of-school architect Jacques Racicot, the well-preserved four-storey building is unashamedly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Like Saint-Zotique, it makes extensive use of white reinforced concrete, the circular bands of the exterior alternating with generous fenestration on each floor. The upper levels were apartment units that could be transformed into office space.

On its heritage webpage, the city describes the project, located in the residential Montcalm neighbourhood, as “ambitious and costly” for its time.

Not everyone today is exactly enthralled. “It’s so ugly and above all it breaks the homogeneity of the district,” one reader says on the Société historique de Québec’s Facebook site that features an article about the Caisse.

Less flamboyant is Bernard Dépatie’s Caisse populaire Saint-Jean-Vianney in the Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie borough of Montreal. The architect worked with artist Jordi Bonet, who contributed an eye-catching grid of ceramic-tile squares to the exterior upper portion of the structure and more ceramic treatment on the ground floor. The fruitful collaboration is one of several between architects and artists in the design of Caisse populaires during that era; integrating artworks – notably murals and sculptures – into the planning of new structures was also a key element in the construction of Montreal’s Métro stations in the 1960s.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Top and bottom: The Caisse populaire Saint-Jean-Vianney in Montreal on Dec. 1, 2021. Sadly, the ceramics suffered from neglect over the years and subsequent renovations completely masked the original artwork.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Sadly, Bonet’s Saint-Jean-Vianney ceramics suffered from neglect over the years and subsequent renovations completely masked the original artwork. The Caisse branch has been replaced by an outlet of the provincial liquor-store monopoly, Société des alcools du Québec.

For Georges Adamczyk, an architecture professor at the Université de Montréal, “It’s not hard to see that the national affirmation movements inspired the architects recruited to design the caisses populaires.” He adds: “Generally speaking, the style of these buildings distances itself from the dominant styles of the banks,” whose look was traditionally neoclassical and later international.

In his eyes, the culmination of this innovative period of Caisse design is the Complexe Desjardins in downtown Montreal, a mixed-use retail, office and hotel facility that is home to Desjardins Group and provincial government operations; it was inaugurated in 1976.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Top and bottom: The Complexe Desjardins on Nov. 29, 2021. The concrete-clad Brutalist-inspired project consists of four towers of varying heights resting on platforms and a spacious, light-filled glass-atrium indoor square.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The concrete-clad Brutalist-inspired project consists of four towers of varying heights resting on platforms and a spacious, light-filled glass-atrium indoor square. The venture’s team of designers and builders included noted urbanist Jean-Claude La Haye.

Architect Jean-Claude Marsan argues in his 1981 book Montreal in Evolution that Complexe Desjardins represents the arrival of French Canadian architecture at parity with the rest of North American architecture.

One major event that helped spur the development of a more free-spirited architectural approach in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution – indeed in all of Canada – was Montreal’s wildly successful Expo 67 and its eclectic mix of national and themed pavilions in a riotous range of forms.

Also of note, ironically, is the direct role the Catholic Church played at that time in commissioning new places of worship that dramatically broke the mold of the traditional 19th-century European-style church by emphasizing sculptural forms and unadorned interior spaces.

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