Peeling back the layers of urban landscape 

By Karen Herland

Magnifying glass

A palimpsest is an overwritten manuscript upon which traces of the earlier text still remain.

Taking that as a theme, students in Cynthia Hammond’s graduate seminar considered buildings and sites around Montreal as something other than planned architectural spaces.

“We asked how cities are created by their memories or communities,” said Hammond, in introductory remarks to an afternoon conference at which 12 students presented their work.

The once majestic estate of Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine, just across from the VA building, has come to represent urban planning mishaps and the disappearance of affordable urban housing. Magnifying glass

The once majestic estate of Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine, just across from the VA building, has come to represent urban planning mishaps and the disappearance of affordable urban housing.

The end result was a satisfying tour of Montreal, uncovering some buildings whose current incarnation might belie their more glamorous past. In other cases, the meaning ascribed by a community might be more than the sum of the bricks that built it.

The conference, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Shaughnessy House represented a collaboration between the department and the museum. Students were encouraged to use the CCA’s archives, library and photography collection to research and build their work. This marks the first such project between the department and the museum, and took the better part of the year to plan and organize.

One recurring theme was gentrification. Regarding the Overdale site just south of the VA Building, Anna-Maria Moubayed discussed the ways that “a city is constantly renegotiating with citizens in a multi-layered narrative.”

The site, which once housed the estate of Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine has been the focus of speculators and squatters over the last two decades. Projects have been approved and left on the drawing board over the years because “the condos satisfied neither existing tenants nor potential new residents.”

This pattern has a long history, as Allan Zigayer pointed out. The former city of Maisonneuve, in the east, bankrupted itself when city fathers poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into monumental edifices that the community could neither sustain nor afford. That city was then annexed by Montreal and much of it now sits in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium.

A similar story can be told of the Benny Farm Project in NDG. Erin Silver described what was once housing for a vibrant community, including many of her own relatives. It now is a site for planning by a committee with no direct ties to the community that once thrived there.

Philippe Mari examined the residential redevelopment of the brownfields, or industrially polluted land, around the former Angus Shops. The redevelopment of different scales of housing from subsidized through rental units and townhouses was intended to encourage classes to mix.

Instead, the ratio of subsidized housing to the rest dropped and many of those who had lived in the area were squeezed out. As Mari observed, these projects are often unidirectional, with rich people moving into an area and allowing some of the existing poorer residents to stay on. The reverse, inviting those with fewer resources into an upscale neighbourhood to encourage mixed residential opportunities, remains unlikely.

But not every example involved residential redevelopment. Bianca Mancini explored the ways that the Turcot Yards, one of the largest unused lots in North America, has changed purpose while maintaining a mission to move bodies through space. Initially the train yards featured a 40-locomotive roundhouse and was a recognizable hub of industrial and mass transit. Just before Expo 67 the space was redefined as part of the “city of the future” with a tangle of autoroutes some 30 metres above the contaminated ground below.

Marianne Drolet-Paré des-cribed how the Beaubien movie theatre has become a symbol of community sociability in the east end, while Claudia Oliveira explained how a synagogue on St. Urbain has become a community centre for the Portuguese people who began to move into the neighbourhood when the Jewish community left.

Pavel Voinitski considered how the Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery has become a vibrant site of transmitting family history, cultural values and the relative importance of Montrealers of various affiliations despite the fact that most of those who occupy the space are “extremely passive.”

The conference ended with a keynote address by Anne Gérin, of UQAM. In her discussion of Montreal in the years around Expo 67, she reflected on the fluid relationship between public spaces and buildings, and the meanings we ascribe to them. “It was an apt end to the day’s discussion of communities, cities and change,” Hammond said.


Concordia University