Alternately cheap and chic, downtown west is a study in contrast. Window displays of shoddy souvenirs and itchy stuffed bears alternate with Diesel sneakers on glass pedestals. Three tall women dressed in immaculate leather file past a vagrant from Edmonton collecting coins outside the Canadian Forces building. The contrast of upscale boutiques bordering those of the other extreme selling cheap thrills is the conundrum that is Ste-Catherine Street.
A giant hole, four stories deep, has been dug up on the corner of Ste-Catherine and Guy. In three years a new building will fill the void allowing the ever growing population of Concordia students, now at 29,000, an addition to their downtown campus for faculties of engineering, visual arts and computer science.
This startling absence allows the district to appear in stark cross-section from the shops to the south, Concordia’s pale buildings anchoring the north in a hail of buses and traffic, the concrete apartment blocks interrupt the old grey stone streets to the west all while downtown hovers on the eastern horizon like a great billboard of steel and stone. The massive empty space was however not always such.
Until recently, at least a portion of it was occupied by the 1938-vintage York Theatre, an edifice recognized in a book called Montreal Movie Palaces by Dane Lankin as one of the great movie palaces of Montreal. The York was something of an oddity on the outside. Its streamlined style seemed tarnished by an excess of fire escapes and railings, and many of the extravagant details particular to the building, were replaced by cheap knockoffs in the early 1950s. Inside it was a marvel of gilded age design; Murals of nymphs and oblique lighting recreate cinematic escapism for the modern age.
Remembering this, Heritage Montreal researcher Robert Klein says the destruction of the York last year was ill informed. He points out that since the structure had only sat empty since 1989, structural decay was minimal. “It was just a case of taking a trowel, not carving angels and statues. It’s modern.” He points out that Concordia, who bought the site in the late nineties after a condos-and-offices scheme failed to materialize, could easily have rehabbed the building and incorporated it into their plans. Concordia, however, didn’t need a movie house.
Their plan involves a striking pair of postmodern towers that will occupy both the hole north of Ste-Catherine and a vacant lot at Guy and de Maisonneuve designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg in joint venture with Fichten Soiferman and Associates. The buildings are reminiscent of KPF’s IBM-Marathon tower on Rene-Levesque, all tinted panes and beamed planes.
This is where urban planning grows difficult; neighborhoods change. Where a movie house may once have been the best anchor for an area, sixty-four years hence a university complex might better fit the bill. In some cases, according to Lankin, such as that of the World Trade Centre on Place Victoria, older structures can be imaginatively re-adapted. The purpose-specific buildings such as movie houses or for that matter, public baths or churches can be hard to reinvent.
Business owners in the area are applauding the new construction. Toufik Abiad is the proprietor of Influence-U, a clothing store on Ste-Catherine near Mackay. He says that he feels the new building will help to stabilize the area. “It will be very nice for the neighborhood with all the students passing by. The security will help take care of the bums.”
Abandoned buildings, however ornate, often bring people to the area who may not exactly be the type interested in dropping a few bills at a boutique or a restaurant.
Concordia’s new buildings, rising as this is being written, inevitably represent more than just labs and hallways. The university is seeking to remake this stretch of downtown in its own image, Cartier Concordia. Glassy atriums and media screens will give a new centre to the multifaceted district that stretches away from them. Towards the new forum, towards the museum, towards downtown, it will uniquely hold.