Looking For Urban Fun

Probably one of the best examples in Montréal of how public investment can generate private investments and lead towards a more liveable inner city is the Quartier des Spectacles, the city’s cultural heart and one of the most concentrated and diverse grouping of cultural venues in North America. Dubbed “1-sq.-km. of Culture,” the Quartier has in some form or other been home to various types of entertainment, beginning in the 19th century as the city’s Red Light district. Evolving over time, the area attracted teaching institutions, theatres, cabarets, and museums, making it a popular cultural and entertainment destination. Then in the 1960s, during what the city thought was “modernization,” the area did what many neighborhoods in North American cities did and turn their backs on the street and pedestrians. In an effort to accommodate cars, many of the Quartier’s avenues became overly-broad canyons that led “from nowhere to nowhere,” says David Ross, culture and heritage project chief with the City of Montréal, “in an effort to accommodate a projected population growth that never happened.” As a result, development dried up and pockets of empty lots emerged like zits on the face of downtown.

Yet as unfriendly and unattractive as they were, these lots oddly became useful tools for music and arts festivals looking for space to run their outdoor events, for example the Montréal International Jazz Festival, which took root here. Others followed, and eventually the vibrancy of the area along with the many empty lots supported the proliferation and expansion of festivals.

To both capitalize on the area’s arts and cultural value, as well as stymie the loss of this downtown energy to burgeoning developments happening on the fringes of Montréal’s suburbs, the idea to create a Quartier des Spectacles and position culture as a key development tool for Montréal was born in 2001. The Quartier des Spectacles Partnership began extensive consultations in order to develop a vision for the Quartier’s expansion, and thanks to provincial and federal government support, the Quartier achieved solidity with the development of the Place des Arts in 2007.

Since then, new public spaces have been created (the Place des Festivals, Parterre, Promenade des Artistes) and several private and public real estate projects have been built, many with a cultural focus. $800 million in public investment, 6,000 residents in 2,350 housing units and 450 cultural businesses later, the district is now a year-round host to countless festivals and events, many of which include free outdoor shows and activities.

Summer In the City

Not every downtown rejuvenation effort need to come from up on high. While a City Council’s broad mandates and broad strokes ultimately have the broadest impact, often it is little interjections of life in the most unexpected places that can have equally profound impact. Such is the case for a small plot of asphalt under Jacques-Cartier Bridge, made orphan by the awkward and aggressive slice of Rue Est Notre-Dame, Rue Port de Montreal and Av de Lorimier. Decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly, the closest things to Pied-du-Courant (as the area is known) are a prison, a brewery, and Park Bellerive.

But overcoming these very obstacles was part of what attracted the bright minds at L’Association du design urbain du Québec (ADUQ). Their response was to extend a challenge to Montreal’s design community to come up with a temporary solution that “appropriates underutilized spaces.” Around 80 submissions were received in response to a call for proposals that went out in April, and 20 were chosen to create what Martin Paré, vice president of the nascent ADUQ, calls a “potpourri of elements” for the site. Built around several key components envisioned by ADUQ – a boardwalk, a plaza and 33 tons of beach sand – Village Éphémère is made up of eight pavilions (made using shipping containers and which serve as shelter for pop-up boutiques); eight urban furniture installations; and four art installations aimed at celebrating the site’s urban qualities.

ADUQ received a $10,000 grant from Montréal’s Festival and Cultural Event Office for the project, but according to Paré, had to pay $7,000 to the Province’s Ministry of Transportation to use the land. Nevertheless, with the remaining funds each selected design team received $500 to help offset the costs of building their proposed installation.

Lasting only two months this summer, Village Éphémère is both delicate and rugged, and vibrant example of a growing DIY-mentality of “urban guerrilla” citizens reclaiming city space. While not part of the City’s larger plans, this project is in-line with the spirit of renewal and regeneration that Montréal is working on. Passionate, unashamed and bold, arranged with precision and performed with joyful, sloppy fervor, Village Éphémère vividly illustrates how changes in ordinary urban settings often occur on a small scale, and, similar to acupuncture, can have a strong impact on a city’s spirit.

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