The Big “Now What?”

Montréal’s Olympic Stadium is a monument, though to what is open to interpretation.

In a city well-known for its wide variety of historically and architecturally significant buildings, Montréal’s Olympic Stadium is truly in a league of its own. Like many of the city’s protected heritage buildings and landmarks, it satisfies the conditions for long-term preservation: its style and design are unique, and culturally significant events have occurred there. It is a monument, though to what is open to interpretation.

The recent passing of its architect, Roger Taillibert, provides a good opportunity to reassess the stadium’s history plus its form and function within Montréal’s contemporary urban environment. The stadium, in conjunction with the Montréal Tower, constitute his magnum opus, but it was the mayor at the time, Jean Drapeau, who deserves the credit for its development. It was Drapeau who pushed for the Olympics and chose Taillibert’s design. It is said the first sketch of the project was made on a cocktail napkin over lunch.

The story of the stadium intertwines with that of the Games it was built for, and that’s where things begin to get complicated. The Games weren’t a failure in their own right: it’s that they cost far more than what Drapeau had initially estimated. Furthermore, the promise of subsequent long-term economic stimulus never materialized.

Montréal’s mid-century modernization during Drapeau’s 30-year reign ran concurrent with suburbanization and de-industrialization. As the stadium went up, the city was losing both people and economic activity to the suburbs and greener pastures elsewhere in Canada. The stadium became emblematic (particularly to Anglophones) of Montréal’s decline. Even though the city fared far better than comparable American cities in the Great Lakes and Eastern Seaboard regions over the same period, the Drapeau years left Montréalers with considerable debts and a herd of White Elephant mega projects.

From a certain angle, it looks like the mothership has landed. Speaking of angles, the tower, angled at 45 degrees, is the world’s tallest inclined structure (and at 556 feet is one foot taller than the Washington Monument).

Problems Began on The Job Site

Simply put, corruption, collusion and outright fraud ran rampant throughout the stadium’s construction and undoubtedly added hundreds of millions of dollars to the bill. Materials were registered as being “delivered” to the site and then re-directed to private development projects elsewhere in the city. A great number of apartment towers are said to have been built with concrete intended for the stadium. In addition, labour disputes resulted in slow-downs, strikes and inefficient construction. A government inquiry later revealed the involvement of organized crime; the job-site union boss would be shot dead in his car years later, likely a mob hit. The situation was so bad there was serious discussion of postponing the Olympics until 1977. Ultimately, the provincial government would take over the project and succeed at least in completing the sports facilities in time for the Games. The tower would have to wait another 11 years before it was completed.

The stadium’s legacy is further complicated by that of the Montréal Expos, another of Drapeau’s many efforts to make Montréal a more “American” city. Though the Major League Baseball franchise had more than a few great years, attendance was never particularly strong. The optics weren’t great either; the Expos moved into an unfinished stadium without a roof, and even when there were large crowds, the stadium’s massive size meant it always tended to look half-empty.

The innovative retractable roof design never worked properly either. Part of the problem is said to lie in Taillibert — more accustomed to working in France than Canada — not adequately accounting for the weight of snow and ice on the roof during winter. As the Expos entered terminal decline during the 1990s, the stadium began falling apart in spectacular ways. A massive concrete slab crashed to the ground after support beams snapped, and in another instance large sections of the roof tore and caved in. It was a miracle no one was killed in either case.

Despite these difficulties and the ultimate loss of the Expos in 2004, the stadium lives on. It is in form and function the equivalent of a de facto heritage building. Its value is intrinsic, as well as practical, but its disproportionate public cost is also difficult to justify.

Olympic Stadium, and the other installations managed by the Québec government’s Regie des installations Olympiques (RIO), aren’t preserved heritage buildings in a traditional sense, but similarly constitute an on-going cost to Québec taxpayers. The justification is that the complex serves the public while also being a work of art worth the upkeep costs. Politicians of all stripes, both municipal and provincial, simply cannot argue against it. There are too many political and professional legacies wrapped up in it, with a cost too big to be razed and redeveloped, no matter what some might pay for the site. To acknowledge the Big O was a mistake is to question the legacy of former mayor Jean Drapeau, a man many consider as a visionary city builder.

Public debt since 1977 caused by the stadium is in the $2-billion range, which includes a planned roof reconstruction or replacement estimated at $400 million. While the stadium has been paid for, it hasn’t yet paid for itself: RIO estimates peg stadium revenue on average at $20 million per year since 1977. Given these conditions, it might take 20 years before stadium-generated returns pay for the roof reconstruction.

Olympic Stadium’s largest attendance occurred on July 6, 1977 when 78,322 fans attended a Pink Floyd concert, which beat the previous year’s 74,223 attendees for the Olympic Games Closing Ceremony.

Worth All the Cost?

Canada’s largest multi-sport complex is designed primarily to do one thing: host the Summer Olympics. Its secondary function: host a professional sports franchise. It currently does neither, nor is unlikely to ever serve these functions again. Professional leagues and international sporting associations are exercising ever-greater levels of control over requisite infrastructure, most insisting on new construction. Olympic Stadium can be used for exhibition games or as an over-size venue for some professional league play, but finding a new permanent tenant is doubtful.

The stadium’s history of torn roof segments, fallen concrete beams and a failed baseball team hasn’t left it with the best reputation, and reputation, ironically, plays an important role in why Montréal and Québec will keep pumping money into the stadium for the foreseeable future. Although the reputation of the stadium’s architect is well-deserved, his design was out of step with its surroundings and ill-suited for the particularities of a Montréal’s climate.

Though the stadium is iconic, it is far from being emblematic of Montréal’s architecture. It is in truth an imposition, bearing no relation to its surroundings. It shares nothing in common with the innumerable tree-lined streets of handsome red brick or grey stone duplexes and triplexes that more accurately reflect the evolution of local design and construction.

So, is it a White Elephant or a particularly expensive piece of modern art that’s also useful as a sports or concert venue?

It’s worth considering there are about a million people living within a seven-kilometre radius of the stadium, so it’s a natural hub for public athletics and recreation activities. The bulk of the city’s population lives within a short bus or Metro ride from the Olympic Park complex (indeed, it’s only about a 10-minute ride by subway from the major transit hub located at Berri-UQAM station). About a quarter of the metropolitan region’s four million people have more or less direct access to the RIO’s world-class fitness facilities, which include the former Olympic aquatics complex, and a variety of other venues, arenas, training centres and playing fields, all in one highly integrated public space.

The stadium is also at the centre of an impressive collection of local attractions, beginning with the Montréal Tower, a 165-metre tall tower inclined at 45-degrees, the tallest in the world of its kind. The tower in turn supports the stadium’s roof; the buildings are literally inseparable.

Adjacent to the stadium is the Biodome — a living nature museum with four distinct ecosystems housed in the former Olympic velodrome — as well as the city’s planetarium and a 20,000-person capacity professional soccer stadium (you read that right: a second soccer-specific stadium was built right next to the existing tenantless stadium). Gathered around them are the city’s botanical gardens, an insectarium, a historic house museum and a large city park.

Granted some of these attractions predate the stadium’s construction, and all the aforementioned could theoretically exist elsewhere and accomplish their public function. But it’s difficult to imagine half of these services and attractions existing at all without the stadium-tower complex. They anchor the whole sector. Moreover, despite the initial controversy of choosing to eliminate part of a municipal park and golf course to provide a location for the stadium, this is a relatively small loss given the sheer number of activities and their centralized location. And make no mistake, even though the stadium lacks an anchor tenant, the public still gets excellent use out of it and its related buildings.

Not Just What, But Where

In this respect, one could argue Olympic Stadium was ahead of the curve in the sense that its location is surrounded by high-density working- and middle-class neighbourhoods. Quite unlike many of the professional sports stadiums designed or built throughout North America from the 1960s through the 1990s — which tended to favour locations near highways with ample surface parking — the Big O is instead located adjacent to established neighbourhoods and connected directly to mass transit.

And yet, a peculiar complaint arose over the years suggesting the stadium was too far from the city’s central business district, and that this in turn played an important role in the downfall of the Montréal Expos. This remarkably prevalent argument tends to inform more about Montréal baseball fans than the actual location and function of the stadium within Montréal city life. Baseball is ever-so-slightly more of an ‘Anglo’ thing in Montréal, and the English-speaking population is predominantly located in the city’s western suburbs, far from the densely packed, predominantly Francophone neighbourhoods surrounding the stadium.

This is just one of many paradoxes concerning Olympic Stadium and its legacy: it no longer meets the requirements of the major leagues, which tend to favour stadiums built in close proximity to the office towers, hotels and entertainment districts of the city centre, yet it does meet the accessibility to residential neighbourhoods and connections to mass transit also typically favoured. While Major League Baseball in particular favours new stadium construction in which stadiums form the centrepiece to vast new urban development programs, the Big O benefits from immediate proximity to middle- and working-class neighbourhoods that have provided much of the cultural cachet of the league’s oldest stadiums, such as Boston’s iconic Fenway Park.

If antiquated stadiums work for Boston or Chicago, why can’t a retro-futurist stadium be the equivalent in Montréal?

Though it was derisively called Taillbert’s Stadium (or Drapeau’s mistake), nearly 50 years later it is Montréal’s challenge and celebration. Should the city ever consider another Olympiad it could theoretically save a lot of money simply by re-using existing facilities. Perhaps the governments of Montréal and Québec will be successful at least in convincing the promoters of the Montréal Baseball Project to seriously re-evaluate their commitment to new construction, though this is doubtful. What remains is a challenge for planners and builders alike, as the province will likely insist on keeping it and finding new uses for it. The recent decision by the Desjardins Credit Union to move nearly 2,000 of its employees into office space located in the base of Montréal Tower provides both a strong indication of what may be in store for at least parts of the site, while proposed roof reconstruction and planned World Cup games provide an indication of what future role the stadium might serve.

Whether Olympic Stadium is a success, or a failure is entirely a matter of perspective. While cities the world over may wish to take it as a cautionary tale (and the strongest possible justification for why public consultations are absolutely crucial), it is worth considering the story of the stadium’s survival as well. Those who’ve looked at the stadium as a challenge, as a series of solvable problems, have helped it survive and will doubtless find innovative future uses for it. Architects, planners and engineers, much like the citizens of Montréal and Québec, will likely have to contend with the stadium for the forceable future.

Whether it is treated as a monument or just another disposable sports venue will ultimately speak volumes about the society and culture that inherited it.


Taylor C. Noakes is a writer and public historian from Montréal

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