Place Ville Marie, Montréal (2007)

Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).

Mark Pimlott
artdesigncafé - design | 24 March 2011

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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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.” [4]

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. [5] 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. [6] 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. [7]

The sheer volume and density of the development made things happen around it. Its large captive population and location made it an inevitable crossing point in the city. Large office buildings were soon built very close to it, spurred by its construction to open at the same time. New developments were required by city authorities to connect with the extending network if they could. In order to determine how to realise this, many developers employed Vincent Ponte, the urban planner involved associated with I. M. Pei and Place Ville Marie, as a consultant. [8] Tax revenue generated by the abundance of new, inter-connected office space permitted the city to invest in enormous infrastructural projects that reinforced the centrality of the development to the growth of the new downtown. The mass underground transit system, the Métro, the extension of existing motorways and construction of several new motorways (including many elevated sections), were all consequent to Place Ville Marie’s construction. Several of these were directly plugged into its internal infrastructure. These schemes, very extensive and controversial in their implementation— frequently requiring extensive demolitions within low-income residential districts— were built in a fraction of the time that prevailed under normal economic circumstances. Their rapid completion was given further impetus by the city’s selection as the site for the Universal and International Exposition, Expo 67. The twenty years that motorway construction normally would have taken instead took just four; the Métro took just three. [9] As a direct result of the Place Ville Marie development’s mastery of topographical and infrastructural conditions, Montréal’s downtown shifted once and for all to the northeast. Place Ville Marie was the centre of an instant modern city generated through its command of connections.

Its interiors performed precisely like concourses, processing people on their way from one place to another, connecting places of work to places of leisure and transport infrastructures. The directories and indicators suspended from its low ceilings were reminiscent of those found in international airports. These spaces were set directly below the plaza, and so benefited from daylight provided by four courtyards set into it (these are now enclosed and filled with food courts). Connecting with street level at the northern edge of the site, the concourses were remarkably low, exaggerating their proportional predisposition. They were almost anti-spatial, so deliberately did they emphasize horizontal movement and enforce the view of displayed commodities. Floors were in polished terrazzo; the low ceilings were finished with white-painted, sprayed-on concrete, up-lit from the even lower, slightly projecting shop fronts. Glazed, with black-painted steel frames and continuous fascia, these struck another horizontal datum across the entire interior. All tenants’ names, whether those of banks, restaurants, newsagents or boutiques were set in the same bold, extended sans-serif typeface: white, back-lit and flush with the black fascia. The individuality of each component was subservient to the expression of the whole.

The sense of a single, continuous environment was not particular to Place Ville Marie alone: an internationalist aura was palpable in Montréal, which affected the character of all new construction in the city and its environs. The tone was explicit in mayor Jean Drapeau’s political platform of 1960, and was soon realised in the substance of his programmes, among which were various studies regarding the city’s future as a metropolis for ten million people by the year 2000; [10] the planning of a mass transit system along the Paris model and the use of Parisian consultants and designers for the Métro’s trains; [11] the construction of motorways along the model of Robert Moses’ plans for the New York metropolitan area; [12] the encouragement of large-scale office development and its tendencies of employing foreign architects with international reputations; and finally, the world exposition itself. Montréal was no longer merely a Canadian city, but an international metropolis, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. Its spaces, from the vertiginous heights of the elevated motorway, to the idealised promenades and utopian urban scenes of Expo 67; the stainless steel, marble and concrete concourses of its international airport, the sympathetic shopping concourses of its underground city; and the frankly monumental and evocative spaces of the Métro stations, each with its own motifs, all felt like— so sudden and synchronous was their emergence— the contiguous spaces of one urban environment.

The view, argued by Vincent Ponte, regarding extensions to the growing network of underground passageways was that they should be pragmatic, by nature and necessity accretive and opportunistic. As a consequence, the cumulative underground experience offered a series of surprises and anomalies, both spatial and functional, to the great crowds of pedestrians that passed through them. The character of its interior enabled the natural inclusion of extraordinary elements, such as entries to large adjacent structures or spaces, office buildings, hotel, train and Métro stations. Its accretive logic unified all elements as though they were simply part of a single, continuous interior.

The growing horizontal concourses that snaked under buildings and streets actualised this perceived continuity. Recently, these spaces have been overwhelmed with the paraphernalia of publicity, and are barely legible as they were; original coordinated or anomalous conditions have been simply ingested into the glut of unique moments offered by adjacent, discrete publicity-environments. However, posed against their horizontal domains are the large-volume spaces of the two main-line train termini and, most significantly, the individual stations of the Métro, which provide the underground city or Ville intérieure with episodes of civic gravity and monumentality. Directly beneath Place Bonaventure [Affleck Desbarats Dimakopoulos Lebensold and Sise (1968)]— a megastructure that included a shopping concourse, cinemas, trade halls and a 400-room hotel, directly to the south of Central Station— the Bonaventure Métro [Victor Prus (1966)] featured a complex of interlocking spaces topped by concrete arches and domes, and traversed by bridges that recalled the engraved Carceri of Giambattista Piranesi (1743-1745). The architect regarded the subway tunnel as an extension of the street, and the station as an essentially urban space.

[1] Sikander Yar Khan. Place Ville Marie: An urban concept. (McGill University School of Architecture) thesis manuscript, (May 1974).

[2] Peter Blake. “Downtown in 3D”. Architectural Forum, (September 1966).

[3] Leonard L. Knott. La Place. (Montréal, Rolph Clark Stone Benallack, 1962).

[4] Knott, ibid., p. 74

[5] Peter Blake. “Downtown in 3D”. Architectural Forum. (September 1966).

[6] Blake, ibid., p. 41.

[7] Webb & Knapp (Canada) Limited. Place Ville Marie. (Montréal, Trizec Corporation, 1960).

[8] J.M. Richard. “Multi-level City”. The Architectural Review, 42, (August 1967) p. 89.

[9] Vincent Ponte. “Montréal’s Multi-level City Center”. Traffic Engineering, (September 1971).

[10] André Lortie. “Montréal 1960: The Singularities of a Metropolitan Archetype” in André Lortie (Ed.). The 60s: Montréal Thinks Big. (Montréal, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, 2004).

[11] J.M. Richards. “Multi-level City” in The Architectural Review, 42, (August 1967), p. 89.

[12] Marcel Fournier. “A Society in Motion: The Quiet Revolution and the Rise of the Middle Class” in André Lortie (Ed.), The 60s: Montréal Thinks Big. (Montréal, Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2004).