Fifty years ago today, on September 13, 1962, the iconic Montreal skyscraper known as Place Ville Marie opened its doors. In the wake of its construction, Place Ville Marie became a symbol of modernization in Canada, and specifically Quebec, that signalled the beginning of a new chapter in the national narrative. The project became a glittering cruciform icon of a Quebec betwixt and between industrialization and Roman Catholicism, with the use of aluminum throughout the project foretelling the direction of the province. With aluminum as one of the main exports of Canada as its cladding, Place Ville Marie was a symbol of a nation embracing its modernity.
This essay will focus on the plaza and the main tower of the Place Ville Marie Development, and will explain why the project is
The project known as the Place Ville Marie Development, designed by I.M. Pei & Associates Partner in Charge Henry Cobb, in collaboration with Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold and Sise-Architects, was a signpost that signaled Canada’s arrival on the global architectural stage. The spacious interiors of the tower and its soaring height superseded any office building in the Commonwealth. Architectural magazines featured Place Ville Marie as an advertisement for Canadian aluminum production and expertise. The project showcased Canada as a renewed nation. In contrast with the early twentieth century when Canada was the emulator, Place Ville Marie began a period in Canadian architectural history when Canada became the emulated.
To explain the architecture of the project in the greater scope of this shift, you have to follow the overarching changes within Quebec society. In Quebec, rural, agrarian proclivities were being replaced by urban, industrial advancement. The religious and insular society had shifted to a secular and open people. Place Ville Marie stands as an example of this change in both its urban composition, façade and interiors. The original logo of Place Ville Marie was an attempt to symbolize that struggle by illustrating a society wrestling between its Roman Catholic past and its industrial future.
One of the attributes of the International Style is the asymmetry in its composition. When the site plan of Place Ville Marie (below) is examined, it is clear that the idea of asymmetry is evident in how the plaza and the tower stand side by side. This is in contrast to previous styles in the early twentieth and nineteenth centuries when buildings were placed as the central focus of their sites. The focus of the Place Ville Marie is on the civic disposition of the plaza in relation to the tower and McGill College.
The imbalance found in the spatial arrangement of the site plan is similar to the imbalance that existed in the Quebec of the time, between French Quebecers who were rural and largely lower on the socio-economic ladder, and English Quebecers who were urban and in control of the business of the province. The site plan is both a representation of the imbalance of the past and the reorganization of the then present. There among the Victorian blocks of nineteenth century vernacular structures and picturesque urban parks of downtown Montreal, Place Ville Marie stood as a subversion of the status quo, both architecturally and socially (below).
When the idea of a nation elevating itself through the clarity of its conscious relinquishing of the past is compared to the cruciform shape of the main tower and its civic statement, linkages become apparent. For example, one of the advantages of having a cruciform tower is that each wing on every floor could be leased to a separate company, giving them the illusion of the prestige of having the entire floor to themselves. Another advantage of the form of the tower was that it maximized the number of office spaces that saw natural light. The Royal Bank of Canada and the Aluminum Company of Canada, two of the largest corporations in Canada at the time, were the first to agree to occupy the Place Ville Marie. Many of these companies, who were previously in older buildings of nineteenth century architecture, now found themselves in a building representative of the new Canada. The establishment of a corporate identity through the architecture of the Place Ville Marie became another symbolic gesture of a changing nation wanting to be taken seriously in the world. Place Ville Marie stood as an example of the re-branding of a province and a nation.
Place Ville Marie played a pivot role in the shift of the Montreal business sector from the old city to the new city. For most of the nineteenth century and until the middle twentieth century, the business sector of Montreal was in the older part of the city, what is now known as Old Montreal, which is a very popular tourist destination. Place Ville Marie became the catalytic project for a new Montreal to become the central business district of the city. The civic statement of centralization of business was crucial in order to create a new urban nucleus. The thinking at that time was leaning towards modernity as a solution for the past, as if the past was a problem that needed to be reorganized.
In terms of the façade of Place Ville Marie, the draping in aluminum I-beams (below) to delineate its fenestration and enhance its verticality also represents the increasing modernity of the Quebec society. Rising from a pious past and showing off its main industrial export in the International Style, makes Place Ville Marie an icon of the achievement of the Quiet Revolution. Furthermore, the commonality of the International Style which colonized the architectural language of cities around the world mirrored the growing claims of nationalism and counter establishment movements that swept the globe at that moment. Place Ville Marie can be seen as a shining example of a society that was ready to take its place in the world of industry and social sciences. Its façade is more than just cosmetic, but expressing the shift that was becoming apparent in the province of Quebec and in all of Canada. In this way, Place Ville Marie distinguishes itself from manifestations of the International Style around the world, as not merely a misrepresented repetition of Miesian aesthetics, but a structure imbued with the meaning of a changing nation. There is substance in Place Ville Marie and a cogent reasoning behind its materiality. With an aluminum façade, the Place Ville Marie tower was a modernist building which heeded the admonishing of one of Canada’s earliest Beaux-Arts practitioners, John MacIntosh Lyle, by using the “wealth of possible material” of Canada to define the architecture. In this case, it can be argued that Place Ville Marie is as much an example of Canadian Architecture as it is International Style.
On the interior, the modernization of the great banking hall rebranded the idea of finance in Canada (below). The Royal Bank hall at Place Ville Marie was a departure from their competitors, such as the Bank of Montreal, who were still in their early twentieth century headquarters designed by McKim, Mead and White, and the Bank of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Art columnist Robert Fulford described the banking hall as giving people the similar feeling of entering into a nave or vault of a cathedral. If the older banking halls could be considered cathedrals of banking or finance, it is not difficult to agree with of this assessment. It is also notable that comparisons to church architecture were made, which like the cruciform of the building, was a nod Place Ville Marie gave to the devout religiousness of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec.
As a result of Place Ville Marie and the cohesive development of other projects it influenced, Canadian architecture and the urban design featured in 1960’s Montreal became an example for other cities to emulate for its ability work on multiple levels. Place Ville Marie caused some to consider Montreal of 1966 to be “the first 20th century city in North America.” What differentiated this project more than others were its roots that spread below grade in form of the underground promenade. This form of organic urbanism became much admired and desired throughout the world, subverting the traditionally held position of Canada as being the country that looked elsewhere for architectural ideas, instead of itself being the tutor.
The Place Ville Marie was the signal Canada gave to the world that it was no longer a small country. However, as Quebec was showing its industrial might to the world, the whole country was in the process of shedding its British connection. Considering the lamentation of John MacIntosh Lyle in 1932 about the archaeological state of Canadian architecture, Place Ville Marie is a massive leap in the opposite direction. There were many buildings constructed prior to the Place Ville Marie that followed the critical exhortation of Lyle, but none that so drastically distinguished itself in style, scale or materiality. For Canada, Place Ville Marie was an announcement of its modernity and a new chapter in its national narrative. By jettisoning the British connection from the political and social spheres of Canadian life, Place Ville Marie became a symbol for the bold, new Canada. As the tallest building in the British Commonwealth, it established Canada as one of the most progressive countries in the world. It was a global role that was only reinforced five years after the construction of Place Ville Marie with Expo 67.
In true modernist style, Place Ville Marie was an example of a Canada shedding more of its historical ties to Britain, by developing its image anew with confidence. The fact that Place Ville Marie was built in Quebec made its modernist shift in tandem with the mood of the Quiet Revolution, emphatically reinforcing the shedding of historical, rural and religious ties to embrace a technologically advanced future. The construction of Place Ville Marie was not only a defining moment in Canadian history, but one of the most symbolic architectural moments for Canada.
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