MONTREAL – To developers, Montreal is a giant, incomplete jigsaw puzzle. It’s their business to come up with the missing pieces: an office tower, a hospital wing, a condo complex, a concert hall, a museum.
But before they can complete their part of the puzzle, they must get the design approved – by government, by investors, by prospective tenants and, if only for good PR, by the general public.
First pitch, then build – that’s the idea behind Le Montréal du futur, a six-day exhibit of architectural plans that opens Tuesday afternoon at Complexe Desjardins and continues through Monday.
Forty presenters, 60 projects and lots of ways – from architects’ drawings to cardboard models to computerized 3-D simulations – to show how it will all look are featured at the free show.
Some of the projects are already under way (the new hall for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the renovation of the Montreal Casino, the enlargement of Molson Stadium), while others are waiting to be built or are still at the pipe-dream stage.
Whether it turns out to be mere fancy or concrete fact, each project is being promoted as a new way to work, live and do business in the metropolis. But the timing may seem a bit strange.
Developers aren’t exactly flying high with good publicity these days. Construction scandals have engulfed Montreal city hall and the Charest government. And on the heels of a worldwide economic recession, it’s surprising to see developers trot out their fanciest and costliest ideas for public review.
But the show is somewhat of a marketing tradition. It has been held twice before, in 2006 and 2008. The difference this year is that the economy has made developers think more conservatively.
Gone are the plethora of big hotels and skyscrapers of more prosperous times. There are still some, but the accent now is on lowering financial risk.
How? By building places where people work and also live – so-called mixed-use commercial and residential complexes – as well as taking on government-sponsored “institutional” projects like hospitals, railway stations and performance centres.
“It’s funny, we were supposed to be in a recession and yet I have more exhibitors presenting more projects than ever this year – and higher ones, too,” said chief organizer Robert Vézina.
“When you actually see the show you’ll go, ‘My God, there’s a lot of stuff going on in this city.’ It’s all here in one spot.”
Put together by BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) Québec, whose 350 members control more than 50 million square feet of property mostly in and around Montreal, the exhibition showcases some striking designs.
There’s the eye-catching dome of the SAT (Society for Arts and Technology) centre under construction on the Lower Main. There’s the horsetrack shape integrated into a rethink – by UQÀM urbanism students – of the old Blue Bonnets hippodrome off Décarie Expressway. There’s the green-think of the Montreal Biodiversity Centre, a project going up in the Botanical Gardens.
Some are designed with maximum fun in mind (a high-speed roller coaster opening next month over the drained Lac des dauphins at La Ronde), some propose to expand on existing landmarks (such as Pointe-à-Callière archeological museum), some transform historic buildings for new use (the Erskine & American United Church will house Canadiana from the Museum of Fine Arts).
Other projects impress by their height and scale – or their hubris, depending on your perspective.
“Of course, a lot of it is simply mercantile utopias,” said Dinu Bumbaru, an architect with the conservation group Heritage Montreal.
“It’s probably nice to flip a property but it’s nothing really essential to the revitalization of the city. A lot of the projects are excessive.”
On display at the show will be plans for the mega-expansion of Ste. Justine Hospital (with a simulated bird’s-eye view that’s new to the public), the conversion to condos of the Mont-Jésus-Marie convent on Mount Royal (done by developer Frank Catania and approved under great controversy last month) and two shiny new skyscrapers planned over Victoria Square and Phillips Square.
“I think it’s important for developers to show what’s on the drawing board,” said Richard Corso, vice-president of Canderel, the firm behind the Phillips Square project, which would see a 32-storey tower rise after demolition of the east side of the historic downtown gathering spot.
The tower’s facade went through as many as 40 redesigns before a final one was completed eight months ago and approved by city hall. Now the trick will be to find tenants interested in the 400,000 to 900,000 square feet of space that would be available if ever the tower – which would have an inner courtyard for shops and restaurants – gets built.
Le Montréal du futur is “a way to make the public aware of what the concepts are for the site and what’s forthcoming,” Corso said, describing the 3-D aerial view that visitors can see of the tower, as if they’re getting a guided tour by helicopter.
“Will these projects occur? Maybe, maybe not. But at least the show gives you an idea of what the city will look like five to 10 years from now, because at least some of them will happen.”
Designing the future is one thing – but what kind of future? That question preoccupies development watchdogs like Heritage Montreal. “We’re interested in the real future, not the salesmen’s future,” Bumbaru said.
“When you do buildings and architecture and landscaping, you should have in mind what their condition is going to be 25 years from now.
“That’s not something most developers are concerned about. They’re more interested in getting the photo op and the building permit, with no real vision … of the long-term development of the city.”
Bumbaru will stop in at the Complexe Desjardins show, just as he did in 2006 and 2008.
“The great value of this kind of event is it sheds light on many of the rumours or bits of information that appear in obscure vocabulary in public notices about zoning – have you ever tried to read these things? They’re not made for people to understand. So at least an open event connects the public to visuals, so people can appreciate what’s going on.”
Developers are getting more sophisticated in their presentations, Bumbaru added. They show a greater interest in graphics – for example, by simulating nightscapes of their projects, which show the buildings lit up after working hours.
But he cautioned that while computer imaging can produce very realistic views of a project, those views can also be manipulated to minimize a building’s visual impact by playing with perspective. One example, he said: Molson Stadium, whose new upper deck is to be completed for the start of the 2010-11 season.
“Everyone said from the visual simulation that the (upper deck of the) stadium wouldn’t be seen,” but now it’s like a wall between the mountain and the city,” Bumbaru said.
Also misleading are developers claims to thinking “green,” he added. “Green roofs and bike racks slapped on to an awful project don’t make it any less awful.”
And what about the big picture? The City of Montreal will display a 3-D mock-up called Imagining-Building Montreal 2025, but otherwise there’s no master plan, no overview, no model or computer graphic of what the city would look like if all 60 projects were to be completed.
For the next show in 2012, Bumbaru suggested, someone should draw up a grid of past projects and indicate whether they ever got off the ground – and slap all the rejects up on a website for people to keep track of. Instead of Le Montréal du futur, he said, they could call it something else: The Future That Was Promised But Never Came.
Now that would be quite a development.
The third edition of Le Montréal du futur, an exhibition organized by BOMA Quebec, begins Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the Grande-Place of Complexe Desjardins and continues through Monday. The event, which is free, is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Monday, to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and until 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For info, go to www.boma-quebec.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 514-282-3826.