Place Ville Marie, Montréal (2007)
Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).
Place Ville Marie, Montréal
The Place Ville Marie project was built by William Zeckendorf, who, by the late 1950s, was noted for his genius at assembling land, with that for the United Nations Headquarters land being his most noteworthy achievement to that time. His in-house architectural firm Webb & Knapp— directed by I. M. Pei— targeted development opportunities in derelict American downtowns. Their projects were distinguished by extensive analyses of existing and potential land uses, infrastructure, and awareness of trends in demographic and economic movements within each city.
William Zeckendorf’s plans for Montréal were the result of an approach by the Canadian National Railroad Company in 1955.  It owned a 22-acre (nearly 9 hectares) three-block site that had remained a deep void— containing its rail lines and terminus— in the urban fabric for many years.  The plan as developed by I. M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb— who was the architect-in-charge of the project— concerned itself with an area much larger than the three-block site, which was analysed in all aspects in considerable detail.  The master plan also focused on possible and necessary infrastructural developments across the site’s particular topography. One conclusion of its study was that the site effectively lay in the centre of the downtown core’s nascent migration to the northeast, and that it was also the likely confluence of all major infrastructural routes. The topography of the site suggested that a solution to this, previously impossible to resolve at street level, could be achieved over a number of levels, mostly underground. Pei’s office designed an iconic, cruciform tower for the site that was Corbusian in plan, Miesian in appearance, and appeared to float above a plaza set slightly above street level. That plaza was visually linked to the existing, north-south running McGill College Avenue, making it appear as if it was, and had always been, the heart of the city. William Zeckendorf’s objectives were, in his own words:
“[...] to transform these three blocks into a city within the city. It calls for a complex of modern buildings related to each other within their own spacious setting, organically wed to the rest of Montreal.” 
The plaza was framed by two buildings that enclosed the site’s northern boundary, and one to the west, which blocked an adjacent, hulking neo-classical building from sight. The composition of modern buildings of different sizes and expressions set back from open plazas as modernist interpretations of Francesco di Giorgio’s Città ideale had quickly become a convention of I. M. Pei’s corporate developments: the design for the plaza at Place Ville Marie echoed that of the Mile High Center in Denver.
The most radical aspect of the Place Ville Marie project was that nearly one-half of its 280,000 square metres area were beneath street level.  Directly beneath the plaza was a retail concourse covering 59,000 square metres, deriving the obvious benefit of being protected from Montréal’s extreme winter and summer climate, precisely the justification raised by Victor Gruen in his scheme for the Southdale Centre in Minnesota. Below the concourse were two levels of parking for 1200 cars; and below them, platforms and rail lines to the city’s northern and southern suburbs. The complex was an infrastructural node: the mastery of many functions within, as well as the fact that it held a daytime population of thousands of workers, guaranteed its successful operation.
Place Ville Marie was immediately considered the pre-eminent address for offices and retailers; tenants’ rents within Place Ville Marie were higher than the city average, yet these costs were offset either by the prestige associated with the address or the greater levels of sales achieved in its boutiques. The development was furthermore integrated with adjacent properties by underground connections. The underground spaces were in fact designed to anticipate such connections. Those properties beyond the development that were connected to the extensive underground system with Place Ville Marie at its hub attracted better tenants, achieved better rents, and acquired full occupancy more quickly than those that were not.  Finally, the direct link to Canadian National’s Central Station ensured that 60,000 individuals, or ten percent of those coming into the city’s downtown each day, were compelled to pass through the development. 
 Sikander Yar Khan. Place Ville Marie: An urban concept. (McGill University School of Architecture) thesis manuscript, (May 1974).
 Peter Blake. “Downtown in 3D”. Architectural Forum, (September 1966).
 Leonard L. Knott. La Place. (Montréal, Rolph Clark Stone Benallack, 1962).
 Knott, ibid., p. 74
 Peter Blake. “Downtown in 3D”. Architectural Forum. (September 1966).
 Blake, ibid., p. 41.
 Webb & Knapp (Canada) Limited. Place Ville Marie. (Montréal, Trizec Corporation, 1960).