Culture & Conversation

Place d’Armes: Foundations of the Montreal Vibe


Like any global city, Montreal has its fair share of idiosyncrasies. These unique peculiarities make up the city’s distinctive identity, provide a persistent systematic motion between city dwellers and their dwellings.

That in mind, what’s to be said of Montreal’s architectural influences? This city is noted for its plethora of old buildings, long gone novelties that have survived, transcended cliché, to become something more reflective, in their ability to evoke the marvels of originality, and the past.

Place d’Armes, one of twenty-one squares the city has to offer, is ripe for such a scrutiny. A bird’s eye view towards the multi shaded mosaic tiles already suggests something far from exclusivity.

The surrounding buildings, a juxtaposition of old and new, generate feelings similar to being in a room full of wise elderly folks and innocent young toddlers. Staring down at you, the buildings’ façades can’t help but stimulate curiosity.

What feels like south of the square, but is actually east – due to Montreal island’s perplexing geographical tilt – lies the ‘Notre-Dame Basilica’ (completed in 1829), from the Gothic Revival era. Booming with theatrics, the twin towers might just create a yearning to kick a field goal through what appear to be goalposts. Nonetheless the view alone is enough to suggest a touchdown in heaven. Architecturally, the intent was to create nostalgia for a time of religious supremacy. Regardless of one’s place on the spectrum of faith, the basilica invites questions pertaining to life after death.

Directly across from the basilica sits Canada’s oldest financial institution, the ‘Bank of Montreal Head Office.’ Completed in 1859, this detailed sculpted pediment set between six Greco-Roman columns and a crowned low dome reveals neoclassicism’s skilled craftsmanship. The taste of power and wealth can be felt, akin to garnishing a meal with thousand dollar notes. Is this the “good life” or simplicity the correct pursuit of happiness?

There’s also the easily discernible ‘New York Life Insurance Building’ (completed in 1887), a red sandstone building: eclecticism, an architectural genre embracing freedom, creativity and expression.

The adjacent Aldred (completed in1931) is an Art Deco building with bold geometric shapes. Standing 316 feet tall, the Aldred all but declares, “get out of your comfort zone already and see the world.”

But ironically, it’s the new kid on the block, ‘500 Place d’Armes’ (completed in 1968), sitting directly across the Aldred and New York buildings, which communicates a more mature mellow sensation. Upwardly elongated, pointing straight to the skies as if conveying that the way upward is through balance, and harmony. This sort of functionality is vintage International Style.

Place d’Armes exemplifies Montreal’s overall character, proof that architecture is about visceral emotional connections to the places we occupy, a pendulum-like motion – from architectural innovation to reengaging symbols the public will recognize as unique and universal.

Zeshaun Saleem has lived in Vancouver, London, Teramo, Fez and Damascus. Follow him on twitter @zeshaunsaleem.

– photo: Jonathan Malboeuf, Flickr Creative Commons

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