An Architect's Tour of Montreal
by Mark Gardner
Traveling with an architect is the best way to see a city. Okay, I'm biased: I am an architect. But here's the thing: You have your own tour guide speaking the strange language of buildings, city form, and wayfinding.
My wife and I recently went Montreal for the jazz, the food, and the architecture. We each had our priorities, and mine were the city's many landmarks and landscape features.
Of course I had to see the beautifully preserved and once-walled Vieux Montreal and the lush city parks, but my most anticipated visit was Habitat 67, a housing complex off the Saint Lawrence River designed by Moshe Safdie, who was at the time a very young architect.
Visiting the building required a bike ride through the old city along one of the networked bike paths winding through industrial waterfront canals. The Habitat is a beautiful arrangement of stacked cubes forming a single structure in the area known as La Cité du Havre. It was built for Expo '67, entitled "Man and His World," from the title of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's masterpiece. Housing was one of the main themes. Saint-Exupéry wrote: "We have to make lively this new house that doesn't have a face yet. The truth for one was to build; it is, for the other, to occupy it." (Anyone else miss the Montreal Expos?) This particular exposition was the we-have-arrived moment that changed Montreal into an international destination.
Habitat is now private residences, which makes it hard to get a sense of the interiors and how people have converted a concrete structure into warm, inviting homes. The building is a wonderful example of pre-fabricated construction, a movement that has come back into fashion for its idea of sustainability and re-use. But Habitat is more than a building that only an architect could love, because it seems timeless. Safdie wanted to the building to "offer a bit of paradise to everyone." Maybe it's the materials, maybe it's the futuristic design, but architects are still exploring the same themes today. (I'm thinking of the Mountain Dwellings by BIG Architects in Copenhagen.)
Also on my must-see list: newer, modern structures with beautiful glass façades, like Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec by Patkau Architects, Institut de Tourisme et d'Hôtellerie by Lapointe Magne with Aedifica, and The Schulich School of Music at McGill University by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes.
The final stop was the Canadian Centre for Architecture for the wonderfully crafted exhibitions and the expansive, thoughtful bookstore and reading room. This place would thrill any architect, designer, or student, though if my experience is any indication, their traveling mates might have to drag them away.
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Inside Habitat, photographs by Alexi Hobbs (Monocle)