Classic European art and architectural influences meet with an urbane, design-heavy aesthetic in Montréal and Québec City. Here are some art highlights.
Frederick Law Olmsted & Parc du Mont-Royal
American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), best known for creating New York City's Central Park, also designed the park that surrounds the "mountain" in the center of Montréal. Parc du Mont-Royal, as it is known, opened in 1876. Olmsted's vision was to make the landscape seem more mountainous by using exaggerated vegetation -- shade trees at the bottom of a path that climbs its side, for instance -- to create the illusion at the lower elevations of being in a valley. Unfortunately, Montréal suffered a depression in the mid-1870s, and many of the architect's plans were abandoned. The path was built, but not according to the original plan, and the vegetation ideas were abandoned. Still, Parc du Mont-Royal is an urban oasis and is heavily used in all four seasons. For a walking tour of the park,
Bruce Price & His 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. With its castlelike architecture, soaring turrets, and romantic French-Renaissance mystery, it achieved the goal of becoming the most talked-about accommodation in North America. Today, it's a high-end hotel managed by the Fairmont chain.
The Château was one of many similar-styled hotels commissioned by the bigwigs of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century when they were constructing Canada's first transcontinental railway. The company calculated that luxury accommodations would encourage travelers with money to travel by train.
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.
Architecture professor Claude Bergeron of Québec City's Univérsité Laval noted that as the leading practitioner of the château style, Price "is sometimes credited with having made it a national Canadian style."
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 looks like a collection of modular concrete blocks all piled together. The vision was to show what community housing could look like. The complex is still full of residents, although it's not open to the public for touring. But it can be seen from the western end of Vieux-Port, and there are photos and information 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.
Montréal continues to be one of North America's most stylish cities. 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." With the distinction, Montréal joined Buenos Aires and Berlin, other honorees, as a high-style city worth watching.
Design Montréal (www.designmontreal.com) is an organization devoted to celebrating and networking the city's arts and fashion communities. It holds design and architecture competitions, and its Design Montréal Open House is an annual 2-day event in early May that opens the doors of the city's design-centric agencies and projects.
Much of what constitutes cutting-edge design is creative reuse of older buildings and materials. Among such venues is the industrial Darling Foundry, which houses in its raw, concrete space a contemporary art center and a small restaurant, the Cluny ArtBar. Fashion also simmers, with an increasing number of innovative locals setting up shop. It all comes to a boil during two events: the Montréal Fashion & Design Festival, which features fashion shows on outdoor stages in the heart of downtown (usually held in summer; the 2011 edition was held Aug 3-6), and Montréal Fashion Week at the Marché Bonsecours (whose date has floated around the calendar; the 2011 event was in Feb, right before New York Fashion Week). Details are at www.sensationmode.com.
The city's aesthetic was well summed up by one fashionista in the Montréal Gazette a few years ago: "I'm all about the black, the white, and beige. Fall is about comfort -- not that American style of sloppy comfort, but casual style."
The region's most compelling artwork is indigenous. In Montréal, the Musée McCord has a First Nations room that displays objects from Canada's native population, including meticulous beadwork, baby carriers, and fishing implements. The city's annual First Peoples Festival (tel. 514/278-4040; www.nativelynx.qc.ca), held in June and August, 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, "Nous, les Premières Nations" ("We, the First Nations"), provides a fascinating look at the history and culture of the Abenakis, Algonquins, Atikamekw, Crees, Hurons-Wendat, Inuit, Malecites, Micmacs, Innu, Mohawks, and Naskapis -- the 11 First Nation tribes whose combined 70,000 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 outside staircases on the two- and three-story houses. Many are made of wrought iron, and most have shapely, sensual curves. Some say they were first designed to accommodate immigrant families who wanted their own front doors, even for second-floor apartments. Others say that landlords 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 teens 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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