Walk down some of its less distinguished streets and you could be in Cleveland or Minneapolis or any other steely northeastern metropolis. But turn a corner and you’re in Lyon, Nantes or Geneva. Montréal exudes a certain Gallic charm, and not just thanks to its myriad sidewalk cafes and the pleasantly accented Quebecois that fills its streets. The island city is compact, quietly beautiful and has a patina unlike any other in North America.
At the beginning of the 20th century Montréal was a big trading town on the St. Lawrence River, but grew exponentially to become Canada’s world-facing cosmopolitan centre by mid-century. Though it was surpassed numerically by Toronto in the early 1970s, it has since matured into a vital cultural hub and the world’s second-largest Francophone city after Paris. During its years of spectacular growth and transformation Montréal was at the vanguard of politics, diplomacy and design. It was also the centre of the universe twice in one decade, first playing host to a World’s Fair in 1967 and then a fondly-remembered Olympics in 1976.
In 1967 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built Westmount Square between De Maisonneuve Boulevard and Rue Sainte-Catherine, a complex of three of his trademark International Style towers. He went on to build his only petrol station, a sleek and low-slung beauty on Nuns’ Island, Verdun, in 1969. Perhaps more famous, and certainly more conspicuous, are two extraordinary residential projects that loom large in the city’s skyline: Habitat 67 and Village Olympique. The former was designed by Moshe Safdie as a whimsical exercise in utopian housing and is today one of Canada’s most desirable addresses. The latter was a grand, J.G. Ballard-esque gesture of progress for the ’76 Olympics, now used as residential apartments. Both might look dystopian or idyllic depending on your point of view.
Elsewhere around the city simple materials bent, moulded and otherwise formed into sharp angles and severe curves are a common sight. Béton brut, a raw concrete, is the signature of heavy Brutalist landmarks like the imposing flagship La Baie d’Hudson department store in Ville-Marie, or the Marriott Château Champlain which seems to look down upon Place du Canada with 1,000 frowns. Still, Montréal’s Modernism serves as a reminder of a bygone era of powerful cultural institutions and a deep-rooted optimism about design and society that we see fax too little of today. It’s the kind of sanguine outlook perhaps best summed up in the sweet, tangy and wholly-satisfying drink served up from inside my favourite Montréal Modernist landmark of all: the giant roadside building-as-sign citrus of Gibeau Orange Julep.