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Classic European art and architectural influences meet with an urbane, design-heavy aesthetic in Montréal and Québec City. Here are some art highlights.

Bruce Price & Château Frontenac

It is an American architect, Bruce Price (1845–1903), who is responsible for the most iconic building in the entire province of Québec: Château Frontenac, Québec City’s visual center.“The Château” opened as a hotel in 1893, and with its castlelike architecture, soaring turrets, and romantic French-Renaissance mystery, it achieved its goal of becoming the most talked-about accommodation in North America. Today this high-end property is managed by the Fairmont chain.

The Château was one of many similar-styled hotels commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century during construction of Canada’s first transcontinental railway. As part of the same Canadian Pacific Railway project, Price also designed Montréal’s Windsor Station; the Dalhousie Station in Montréal; the facade of Royal Victoria College in Montréal; and the Gare du Palais train station in Québec City, whose turrets echo those of the Château Frontenac. As the leading practitioner of the château style, Price is sometimes credited with having made it the national look of Canada.

Leading Edge Architecture

In 1967, Montréal hosted the World’s Fair, which it called Expo 67. The event was hugely successful—62 nations participated, more than 50 million people visited, and Montréal became a star overnight. With its avant-garde vision on display, it was viewed as a prototype for a 20th-century city.

One of the most exhilarating buildings developed for the event was Habitat 67, a 158-unit housing complex on the St. Lawrence River. Designed by Montréal architect Moshe Safdie (b. 1938), it still is arresting: it looks like a collection of modular concrete blocks all piled together. The vision was to show what community housing could be. The complex is still full of residents, although it's not open to the public for touring. You can view it from the western end of Vieux-Port and online at Safdie’s website, www.msafdie.com.

Palais des Congrès (Convention Center), at the northern edge of Vieux-Montréal, is an unlikely design triumph, too. Built between 2000 and 2002 as part of a renovation and extension of the center, the building’s transparent glass exterior walls are a crazy quilt of pink, yellow, blue, green, red, and purple rectangles. You get the full effect when you step into the inside hallway—when the sun streams in, it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope. It’s the vision of Montréal architect Mario Saia.

“Design Montréal”

Montréal is one of North America’s most stylish cities. Much of its most playful design is in the form of creative reuse of older buildings and materials.The municipality encourages and promotes that creativity in city-wide design competitions, with completed new works listed online at mtlunescodesign.com/en. They include “light therapy” video projections in the Quartier des Spectacles, pop-up stores featuring Montréal designers and publishers, and proposals to improve urban construction sites.In 2006, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated Montréal a “UNESCO City of Design” for “its ability to inspire synergy between public and private players.” Montréal joined Buenos Aires and Berlin, other honorees, as a high-style city worth watching.

Inuit Art

The region’s most compelling artwork is indigenous, and that includes work by members of the province’s First Nations. In Montréal, the Musée McCord has a First Nations room that displays objects from Canada’s native population, including meticulous beadwork and fishing implements. An annual First Peoples Festival (www.nativelynx.qc.ca; tel 514/278-4040), held in summer, highlights Amerindian and Inuit cultures by way of film, video, visual arts, music, and dance.

In Québec City, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec is home to an important Inuit art collection assembled over many years by Raymond Brousseau. Also in Québec City, a permanent exhibition at the Musée de la Civilisation, “Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century,” looks at the 11 Aboriginal nations whose members inhabit Québec today.

Those External Staircases

Stroll through Montréal’s Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End neighborhoods, and one of the first things you’ll notice are the exterior staircases on the two- and three-story houses. Many are made of wrought iron, and most have shapely, sensual curves. Two theories exist above their provenance: Some say they were first designed to accommodate immigrant families who wanted their own front doors, even for second-floor apartments. Others suggest they were the idea of the landlords, who put the stairs outside to cut down on common interior space that wouldn’t count toward rental space.

The Catholic Church, ever a force in the city, was originally all for the stairs because they allowed neighbors to keep an eye on each other. After the aesthetic tide turned, however, brick archways called loggia were built to hide the stairways. But the archway walls created ready-made nooks for couples to linger in, and the church helped push through legislation banning new exterior staircases entirely. That ban was lifted in the 1980s so that citywide efforts to maintain and renovate properties could keep the unique features intact.

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