Viger Square: Between Rupture and Nostalgia

It is time for change. Changing does not rule out conserving…

The announcement has been made. After being the subject of much dialogue in the Conservation field this spring 2015, the Viger Square, under the heavy hand of the municipal authorities of the city of Montreal, is about to have its future re-written. A future which ruptures very much with it’s past. A newly designed public square will replace the current architecture known as Agora, conceived by the sculptor Charles Daudelin in the 1980’s. The demolition is being done in the name of development and celebration; that is, a multi-billion dollar hospital complex now facing Agora and the square, and the 375th anniversary of the city of Montreal. The Agora, it should be said, is rather unloved, like many of its post-modernist architectural counterparts. Will it’s re-birth as yet another harried project “in time” for the city’s anniversary celebration truly bring it back to life?

The answer to this is unknown, but the question has not gone unnoticed by a large number of local actors.

To begin with, there are the students. UQAM’s post-graduates in Heritage and Modern Architecture have used their thesis projects to express possibilities for the future of Agora; the results are still on show at the school’s Design Pavilion (1440, rue Sanguinet).

There are also the citizens, and public organisations, whose heart lies in the conservation of Montreal’s built heritage – and with reason, considering the city’s past experiences with hasty demolitions – who have organized walking tours and activities centred on Viger Square, such as the Promenades de Jane and the collective Montréal Explorations.

As a young post-graduate in conservation of the built environment at the University of Montreal, my colleagues and I are not indifferent; here you will find our thoughts on the subject, particularly as we discovered the design of the project which will take its place : A garden-square for everyone, a safe and dynamic design.

This design proposal was released June 5th 2015 by the Mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, and the responsible party for the strategy, Richard Bergeron, only hours after the announcement of the demolition of Agora, and on the same day Quebec’s largest Heritage Conservation organisation Action Patrimoine were congregated at their annual conference.

Many points of the design are troubling; and not surprisingly, in a bid for public support for the demolition, the city ironically utilizes the power of nostalgia.

“… [The design will] return this major urban space back to its noble roots… “(Paragraph 1) 

Cited as the prime objective of the project, it is unclear what noble roots the city is alluding to. Are they not profoundly denigrating the roots of this place by wiping out a part of its history? It was equally the city that decided to “modernize” the space with Daudelin’s Agora. Originally, it was a majestic Victorian era park and it was disfigured by building a highway straight through it in the 1970’s. What kind of design do they imagine will honour these noble roots? Just one piece of Daudelin’s design, a sculptural element named “Mastodo”, will be restored, kept and moved to another location; the lone remnant of the narrative of a public park many already feel was taken from them 30 or more years ago.

“… [The design will] adequately respond to the needs of a diverse group of users…” (Paragraph 1) 

What kind of public consultation was conducted? The city must have forgotten to invite the people concerned for its conservation! Is this “diverse group of users” a synonym for the people who will now frequent the multi-billion dollar hospital complex (CHUM) recently constructed across the street? How should we interpret this concept of “diverse group of users”, who will they diversify at the expense of? We image it will be the homeless who seek refuge there. A stark contrast can been seen between the kind of user the city favours for this space, and the marginal groups who frequent it currently. A point brought to light first by Bernard Vallée, a well-known urbanist and heritage personality, who said one good thing about the monumental construction of the CHUM is that it may convince the city to maintain the space, over time, bringing life back to Square Viger.

“Viger Square is the first public garden created in Montreal in the 19th century…” “… [The design will] bring us back to the fascinating story of this place…” (Paragraph 2)

What a romantic thought to simply remove all that has been built since and return to the majesty that was Victorian design the 19th century! The Modern aesthetic given to the space when it was re-designed in the 70’s is nothing if but in contrast the Victorian tastes, but very much in line with what was popular in design at the time; is this not a story worth telling?

“The project to re-design the Viger Square, along with the project to cover the Ville-Marie highway, will contribute to the consolidation of the link between Old-Montreal and downtown.” (Paragraph 3) 

This ambition is not unworthy of attention, but is not being attempted for the first time by the cities’ urbanists; could it not be achieved through another path, one which does not erase an important vestige of built heritage? Could it not be conceived sustainably, harmoniously in line with the history of the development of the city of Montreal? This remark truly hits home when you consider the incredibly monumental scale of the hospital complex going up across the street, supplanted quite in the middle of the urban fabric, and which itself has been criticized as a rupture in the landscape of the city.

“Considering the principal suggestions made by citizens in 2014 during the public consultation…” (Paragraph 4).

When did this take place? Who was there? Which suggestions were taken into consideration? Those of the people with the loudest voices, the deepest pockets? If it did occur, who contextualized the issues at hand?

“… [The design will] permit differing and flexible experiences. Areas for relaxing conversation, trees and gardens, an important place will be made for public art.” (Paragraph 4) 

Was this not the aim of Charles Daudelin’s design as well? Lest we forget, Daudelin imagined a public square where the gardens would stay green all year, where the architecture could support dynamic activities in all four seasons, and with the objective of creating a pleasant, investable, livable space; despite the constraints given to him by the city who mandated the creation of space “closed off” from the heavy traffic flow around it. Must we really point out, that the responsibility for the fact that the space was never animated, or invested in, also falls squarely on the shoulders of the city? Will this space suddenly become dynamic, animated, and truly be ameliorated simply because Agora has been demolished?

“…the city has decided to dismantle Agora which, because of its configuration, presents a serious risk to public safety. It will be replaced with another, more open space …” (Paragraph 6) 

Does a space being “open” permit an increase in safety? Recently, the city re-designed the Émilie-Gamelin place near Berri-UQAM metro, known for being un-safe. Originally designed to celebrate the opening of the city’s 350th anniversary, it was a wide open space oft used as gathering place, for protestors and drug pushers mainly. To mitigate this kind of usage, the city installed a number of structures, like sculptures and temporary buildings, as well furnishings like wooden crates and umbrellas which obstruct the open space and “entice users” to come on in and walk around.

“Aware of the issues surrounding the sharing of public space and the presence of a large number of homeless people in Viger Square, the city of Montreal put together a committee… whose goal will be to ensure social services can be offered to the vulnerable members of society who frequent the square.” (Paragraph 4)

No project could be considered for this space without adequately responding to the needs of the vulnerable members of our population who have long frequented this square. How exactly did the city integrate this question into the new design? The city responds that the homeless people who frequent it are the ones who are difficult, they, it seems, refuse to be helped. How does the city propose to resolve this question? Itinerancy has been around much longer than even Charles Daudelin’s Agora, and thus it cannot be its sole cause. Does this 30 Million dollar project consider the homeless as one of its new users, or does it once again, push along this serious social problem hoping it will fall to another time, but mainly another place.

To conclude, the response to the proposed demantlement of Viger Square is not unanimously been negative, on the contrary, particularly by those who live in close proximity. But if those directly concerned are not attached to the identity of this place, why should and how can we protect it from being “dismantled”?

What it reveals is a lack of cohesion; between the city who hopes to eradicate a problem by starting over (again) and the experts and historians who defend this important symbol of Montreal’s urban heritage.

We leave you with this: If Montrealers considers themselves worthy of its title UNESCO City of Design, we cannot allow this. If we do, the city will continued to add to their list of ghosts, of places even more present and indicative of our social woes than they were before they were demolished!

It is the responsibility of the city to protect and care for these spaces, to educate people as to their value as part of an enlightened, sustainable city, and to and develop a dialogue with conservation professionals. The 375th anniversary would be a perfect occasion for the city to show it is beyond repeating the mistakes of the past, and capable of innovating, developing, while conserving it heritage!

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