Student: Alan Adriano MacQuarrie
Instructor: Howard Davies
Studio: Arch 406
Year/Term: Winter 2016
Description: Downtown Montreal has been remodelled by the predominance of the open program. What was once an inflexible 19th century city center, populated by row houses and horse stables, gradually transitioned into a functional, car-fed downtown core replete with flexible commercial spaces. Expedient demolition ruled this transition. First came the larger commercial buildings and the department stores, which, at the turn of the century, began establishing a robust system of urban façades and city blocks. By the end of World War II, these systems were disregarded and set to be supplanted by even larger programs (like skyscrapers and superblocks), multiplying skyward the idea that a typical unit of interior space could suit ever changing, profitable needs. Although we are seeing, according to the city’s plan, more residential programs returning to downtown, housing developments do little to address this destructive shift. The Mighty Block project imagines an alternative history for Montreal where the same programmatic mix can occur without the physical destruction of turn-of-the-century buildings, examples of which still exist near the project’s site and throughout downtown. Currently, along Mayor Street and towards Sainte-Catherine Street, these structures have been reimagined as commercial and residential programs, with bars, restaurants, and shops spread out at street level. This surviving stock of buildings, far from being standalone pieces of heritage, form a network of tectonic, street-defining facades that have come to be idolized by preservationists and planners alike. If we imagine this network as a consistent layer – untouchable, timeless, not to be punched through by more dominant programs – could it not serve as the base for vertical expansion? Could it not host (instead of conceding to) our need for open, lucrative programs to eventually form a completely separate layer of the city? (right) Here, vertical phasing is the operating term borrowed from the real-estate vernacular; it describes the addition of floors to an existing building after its construction has been completed. In ideal cases, the added building volume resembles the original structure. In this fictional case we are setting up, we consider the added programs to be materially and volumetrically differentiated (through cantilevers and other structural ‘separations’) from their ‘host’ buildings. This differentiates the ‘street’ layer and promotes the implicitly predatory relationship that the open programs (skyscrapers) have with the 19th century city fabric. Throughout this strategy, the skyscraper retains its famous functionality while being quite literally elevated above valued heritage. A recently proposed commercial project in Montreal, addressed as 2144 Bleury, explored this idea quite courageously.
ON THE MIGHTY BLOCK
The Mighty Block project highlights this tenuous relationship as an entirely new building. Filling out the network of facades already present along Mayor and Sainte-Catherine Street, the project hosts a dense assembly of different housing units, claiming the entire bock and producing a façade that is intuitively classical and tectonic. A courtyard, accessible from Mayor Street, provides ample light and natural ventilation to all units, which vary in size and type from double-height “townhouse” apartments to smaller, single-storey units. High above, 7 levels of completely open program are stacked atop the parapet line, unapologetically differentiated from the base through a space-gaining cantilever. Vertical circulation is pushed to the side (with the fire stairs further cantilevered to the north) as a means of keeping the floor plates as open as possible. This total stacked volume is pushed to the west side so that it doesn’t encroach on the courtyard. At grade, all facades have openings; along Mayor, we imagine a bar, a small coffee shop, and some commercial space, all of which can open up to and animate the courtyard. A marquee, reminiscent of the Hudson Bay’s own awning along Saint-Catherine Street and Union Ave., covers the large sidewalk along De Maisonneuve. One floor of retail space below grade is connected to McGill Metro Station.
The Mighty Block is perhaps not what we might consider a distinctly Montreal building. During the design stages, some have even commented that it is in fact closer to European
(Barcelonian) typologies of dense, urban residential buildings. That the project is not imbued with a sense of “Montrealness” is perhaps not negative in itself, especially when you consider the project’s overall attitude to the city, which is quite attuned to Montreal’s sense of urbanity. The Mighty Block ultimately forges its own logical identity through a robust, uncompromising façade. It does, however, carefully develop a sense of belonging in the area; the gently scalloped cladding has the effect of softening and breaking up the tectonic order. I will not identify this project with a style, nor will I directly tie it to external influences; I will instead say that the
Mighty Block was developed with archetypes and architectural clichés in mind. It is, after all, attempting to be the great unifier of the city’s competing programs and fabrics, a fight which in itself is the source of Montreal’s storied, mid-century identity crisis. Perhaps, in this sense, it is good that the project does not explicitly refer to Montreal’s past. In the end, what emerges from this project is the physical expression of the city as a set of layers and the suggestion that the two should no longer be mutually exclusive.
Credit ought to be given to my studio professor, Howard Davies of Atelier Big City. His firm designed the Unity 2 project which pushed me to consider a complex arrangement
of double-height units, the value of a semi-public courtyard, and the manner in which means of emergency egress could become usable spaces as well (something which I must say was not fully explored for lack of time). More importantly, what Unity 2 touched upon was the idea that a new construction could effectively unify a series of existing building to complete a given ‘network’ or ‘layer.’