By Ellen Gedopt…
If you tell people in Montreal to meet you at the Mountain, it might be a little confusing; Mount Royal Park is Montreal’s largest green space. When you tell them to meet at the Angel Statue though, it is clear. The 35-meter high monument between Park Avenue and the eastern slope of the Mountain is easier to spot than the famous cross on top and definitely easier to reach.
The monument does more than mark an entrance to the park. It is a valuable urban space in and of itself. Every summer weekend, this space draws many people when the drum circles—known locally as “tam-tams”—give the space an unusual atmosphere. The variety in the crowd is remarkable. Take a seat in the shade and look around. You will no doubt be able to spot a man in a full body spandex suit, a group of tightrope walkers, a few people carrying duct taped styrofoam swords headed for the LARPing area and an elderly lady dancing to the beats of the drums. Then there are the hundreds of others, relaxing in the sun, enjoying the day at the foot of this giant winged figure.
In other seasons, the Statue does not draw as many people. Yet it remains a meeting spot for friends getting ready to go tobogganing on the snowy slopes, a starting point for a stroll through the autumn colors, or a place to take a little break in the early spring sun. This small urban space in Montreal is one of the most successful public places I know.
Based on research conducted around the world, The Project for Public Spaces found four key qualities of successful public spaces:
1. The space is accessible;
2. People are engaged in activities there;
3. The space is comfortable and has a good image;
4. It is a sociable place: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.
By that definition, the site around the George-Étienne Cartier Statue does really well. So let us look at the actual design and physical characteristics to see how they help make this small urban place so successful.
An obelisk with a large angel, “La Renommée”, at the top is the most eye-catching element. Surrounding the obelisk, we find no less than 17 bronze sculptures. Sir George-Étienne Cartier himself faces Park Avenue. A soldier waving a flag faces the opposite side and on the south and north, we find scenes depicting legislation and education. (They both depict a woman, a boy and a girl with a book, in one case a ball is added – education? – in the other, the sword of justice appears behind the woman.) The remaining nine figures represent the nine Canadian provinces at the time the monument was inaugurated. The obelisk and the pedestal on which it stands were built with granite from a local quarry. The bronze statues, including the lions that guard the whole ensemble, were cast in Belgium.
With all these works of art present, it is surprising that the sculptures do not dominate the area. Without disrespecting the legacy of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, I do not think he is the one who makes the statue a successful urban space. Nevertheless, there are physical aspects of the monument, the surrounding paved areas, granite steps and grassy slopes, which contribute to its success.
A variety of places to sit, offer people a choice between sitting in the sun or the shade, on a bench or in the grass. The space is large enough – and has no real boundaries anyways – that multiple activities can take place at once and people can choose how to engage in them. The area is easily accessible by foot, bus and bicycle. It is located next to one of the city’s main boulevards, which allows you to be in two places at once: the recreational park setting, and the dynamic city. Its setting at the foot of the mountain provides it with a beautiful background, as well as a panorama over downtown. Finally, the vertical marker of the angel makes the place recognizable, a landmark, and a meeting point.
Planned as one of many beautification projects in Montreal, the monument was designed by sculptor George Hill in collaboration with the architects E. & W.S.Maxwell# and sculptor Joseph Brune. It was to be dedicated to Sir George-Étienne Cartier, considered one of the fathers of Canadian Confederation, on the one hundred anniversary of his birth. Delayed by World War I, it was finally inaugurated in 1919. Almost a hundred years later, we can still learn from its design. I can only be grateful that the city decided to clean it and restore it in 2005. After the angel was given “a low-pressure bath, coated with an apricot powder, and waxed to a high-polished sheen”#, she was ready to look over the tam tams once again.
Ellen Gedopt is an architect in Rotterdam who has lived, worked and studied in Montreal, Quebec. She explored Canada coast to coast and canoed into the heart of the boreal forest.