Its lively mosaic floor, from building front to building front, skillfully reveals and defines its new boundaries and creates a clear connection with the memory of the place. Furthermore, it highlights the rich history of Montreal while affirming its unique character, determinedly turned towards the future.
Place d’Armes, the second oldest public square in Montreal, and once nicknamed Place de la Fabrique, was laid out in 1693 on the initiative of the Sulpicians. Long considered the vital heart of Montreal, Place d’Armes, in the centre of the historic Borough of Old Montreal, is today one of the most significant and recognized historic sites in the metropolis. This value stems mainly from the important civic role that the Place played as the main theatre for the social and economic life of the city right up until the 20th Century. It is also based on the superb quality of the heritage architecture of the built environment that surrounds it, and the richness of the archeological vestiges that still remain.
An important site in terms of commemorating the founding of Montreal, Place d’Armes has exceptional symbolic value for Montrealers as the most significant square for gatherings and representations in Montreal. The layers of rich history laid down by more than three centuries of religious, political and public events held in the Place give the site its meaning.
The guiding principle behind the development of the Place is centred around the notion of a “story set in stone”. It is based on showcasing the monuments and the buildings, and on acknowledging the archeological vestiges that remain. It also takes its form from, and expresses itself through its paving with, a fragmenting of the surface of the site, paved in a mosaic of granite pavers. Trodden by passers-by over many years and now ready to capture the passages yet to come, fragments of stone recuperated from the site are set amongst new stones.
Several large-scale archeological digs have been undertaken prior to the development work. They have exposed the foundations of the first church of Notre-Dame and its cemetery. To underscore the presence of this former parish church, and opposite it the Gadois wells, which was the first source of drinking water in Montreal, the ground is marked to commemorate these two major testaments to the 17th and 18th centuries. This distinct paving marks the site at the moment of its founding and points to the importance of the participation of the Sulpicians in the city’s development.
Entirely restored as part of the proposed redevelopment of Place d’Armes, the Monument à la mémoire de Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve is a spectacular work created in 1895 by the Quebec sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert and architects Mesnard and Venne. This major piece in the City of Montreal’s public art collection fits well in the centre of the Place and is seen as a focal element, an identifying symbol from which emerges the happenings on the site. A reminder of the ethereal heritage of the Place, the monument is an active part of the story of Montreal’s founder, the 400th anniversary of whose birth we will be celebrating in 2012.
The vespasiennes, the work of renowned Montreal architect Jean-Omer Marchand and built in 1931, are considered a significant testament to the history of Montreal, recalling the constructive social policies of Camilien Houde, the mayor at the time. The entrances to these two underground public washrooms were however blocked off in 1980 when the vespasiennes were closed down. The concrete floor slab and the structural interior walls have been restored in preparation for the future re-opening of these underground spaces.
A large wooden bench was designed to cover and hide the entrance to the patrimonial underground washrooms (vespasiennes) in a dis¬creet and integrated fashion. Fully automated, it can open up to pro¬vide complete access for maintenance. Closed, it allows for a playful and open ownership of the space for the young and the young at heart.
Today, the square is regaining its true vocation as a place for greeting and exchange that once defined this site, while at the same time revealing the elements that shaped it. Expressing the site’s story redefines the street hierarchy by marking a pause, in the heart of Old Montreal. Without eliminating any traffic lanes, the surface treatment around the square matches that of adjacent streets. The floor surface of the square extends from one façade to the other, between Saint-François-Xavier and Saint-Sulpice streets, thus connecting all the significant buildings. The forecourt apron in front of the basilica now projects, the “seams” smoothed out, with only two rows of bollards defining the actual street space. The lanes on the other sides have a slight border in place of a real curb, interrupting the continuous paving to direct vehicular traffic and more randomly, pedestrian movements. Such an arrangement encourages free use of the square by pedestrians, while ensuring that cars may also share the space, and defines the Place as an urban space that is both central and structuring.
The redevelopment of the Place involves the conservation and enhancement of several of the original elements that shaped the square. To this end, the ‘Dark Grey’ granite pavers that once surrounded the planting beds have been re-used in the surface paving, just like the granite pavers inlaid with the bronze fleurs-de-lis that were added to the site during the installations carried out in 1960 by Edwin J. Skapsts. A drinking fountain made of granite with four water jet mechanisms, also dating from 1960, has been restored as part of the new development for the Place.
Eighteen Ohio Buckeye trees, four small-leaf lime trees and two Pennsylvania oak trees were planted around the square in 1960 during a full redevelopment to modernize the Place. After reaching sizes that no longer provided the filtering effect sought in the initial design, these trees were moved to Parc Maisonneuve to ensure their conservation.
Today, the vegetation grid distinguishes the centre of the square from the system of streets surrounding it. Interrupting the straight lines, it presents planting that is more mobile, in line with the fragmented canvas of the mosaic.
As the days unfold, the diversity of the movements breathes life into the generous, unifying nature of the street furniture. An interpretation of the street furniture typical of Old Montreal, the square offers a series of communal benches arranged to resemble a gathering. The lighting illuminates the surrounding buildings, changing according to the event and the season.
Intrinsic to the square, people participate in and contribute to the staging of the site in the same way as the street furniture, the lighting and the vegetation. As mobile components, they reflect the rhythm of the site, sometimes restless, sometimes peaceful. The square has thus recaptured its vocation as a place for greeting and exchange. Here we can stroll, we can explore a large slice of Montreal’s history, we can admire its surrounding built environment and we can meet other people.
• Site is part of the historic Borough of Old Montreal, and thus subject to numerous development constraints and approvals.
• Sensitive site situated in the heart of an older historic heritage area.
• Development of the Place in a “shared zone”, a new concept in Montreal, and one which requires much research, approvals and discussions.
• Mix of numerous forms of transportation (pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carriages, buses, taxis, cars, etc.).
• Archeological remains and showcasing of two vestiges: Gadois wells and the former Notre-Dame church.
• Restoration and enhancement of the central monument and its water basin.
• Partial renovation of the former vespasiennes with a view to re-using them in the future, with no alterations to their heritage integrity before knowing what their subsequent use will involve.
• Illuminating the Place, to complement the lighting for the surrounding buildings.
Landscape Architecture: Groupe IBI-CHBA Cardinal Hardy
Completion Date: September 2011
Project Location: Old Montreal, in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal, Canada
Schematic Design: Marie-Claude Séguin, Groupe IBI-CHBA, François Rioux, Groupe IBI-CHBA, Joanne Godin, Groupe IBI-CHBA, Robert Desjardins, Ville de Montréal, Luu Nguyen, Ville de Montréal
Construction Costs: Lot 1 – Partial renovation of the former vespasiennes: 1.7 M$, Lot 2 – Renewal of Place d’Armes: 12.5 M$
Total: 14.2 M$
Client: Ville de Montréal and Quebec Gouvernement
Sub-Consultants: Les Services EXP / Morelli Designers / Éclairage Public / Luc Nadeau, ingénieur forestier / Luce Lafontaine, architecte / Jonathan Cha, urbanologue / Claude Cormier et Associés
Size: 9020 square meters
Average cost of 1,575$/square meter
Photos credit: Isabelle Messier-Moreau, Kathia Leduc, Bao Chau Nguyen, Bernard Lewy-Bertaut, Martine Lessard, Isabelle Giasson, Benoit Goudreault