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The Museum that Wanted to Eat the City

by Nicholas Roquet, published 2014-11-05
Launched in April 2013 by the City of Quebec, the one-stage ideas competition Pôle muséal du Quartier Montcalm promised to be an exceptional event in three ways. First, rather than designing a circumscribed architectural project, competitors were asked to rethink urban public space in a prospective way - an issue rarely addressed in Quebec through design competitions. Secondly, the competition was open not only to architects, but also to practitioners in the broader field of design, including urban planners, landscape architects, urban or industrial designers and even visual artists (provided these last joined a professional team). Finally, as the competition would not necessarily lead to a built project, winners were offered generous remuneration and exposure in relation to the work that was asked of them.

How, then, could such an ambitious competition generate such meager results? The disappointment begins with the list of competitors, from which the main representatives of the new landscape architecture in Quebec are strikingly absent. Where, for instance, are Claude Cormier, VLAN, NIP and BEAU? And where are the young architectural firms like In Situ, which has proven its skill at transgressing disciplinary boundaries, in favor of a more comprehensive approach to place-building? The disappointment deepens as one reviews the submissions. Despite the talent and imagination of several competitors, few succeeded in freeing themselves from the restrictions imposed on them from the start. If there is a fundamental flaw in this competition, it lies in its goal: to reduce the city as it is experienced to a memorable graphic identity.

Admittedly, my comments here are colored by my familiarity with the competition's site: the Quebec City neighborhood of Montcalm, where I have lived for the past twenty years. Built between 1913 and 1930, Montcalm has wide, shaded streets, lined by three- and four-story walkups. It is both utterly ordinary and a model of effective urban density. So if the City of Quebec and its institutional partners have the means and the ambition to invest in public space, why do so in an area that is already extraordinarily well endowed with parks, shops, workplaces and transport infrastructure? And how can the project truly serve the public good, given that the sector's potential for redevelopment is so limited?

Historically, Quebec City's development has been marked by repeated conflicts between its citizens and the power of state. In the 18th century, its suburbs were partly razed to maintain the walled city's military effectiveness. In the 19th century, the fortifications' expansion hindered trade and residential development. And in the 20th century, the suburbs of Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis were gutted to make way for a new governmental district, which is still incomplete. Nowadays, it would seem, the threat comes instead from the cultural and tourism industry.

The idea of Montcalm as a "Museum Pole" does not stem from a real urban dynamic. Rather, it is the product of a formidable alliance of institutional interests, including the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, which hopes to increase its visibility and attendance (the opening of its new pavilion on Grande-Allée is expected in 2015); the Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec, for whom the city is primarily a space of political representation; the City of Quebec and the Festival d'été de Québec, for whom blockbuster shows on the nearby Plains of Abraham are a major tourist attraction; and finally the local business association, which seems to fear the competition of rivals such as Laurier (a major shopping mall in Sainte-Foy) or Nouvo Saint-Roch (the trendy moniker given to Quebec's lower town by its commercial real estate owners).

For these partners, the conceit of turning Montcalm into an "Arts and Cultural District" quickly became a consensus, even though--apart from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec--this identity relies solely on the presence of two art galleries, two theaters, a couturier and an art cinema. Similarly, a plan to link the small businesses on Cartier Avenue with the institutional presence of the Museum was quickly hatched, regardless of whether this idea made any sense in terms of urban design. In practice, the new cultural axis is a bizarre triangle that encroaches both on historical landmarks--Grande-Allée and Battlefields Park--and mundane residential and commercial streets. One can imagine the project's initiators exclaiming: "Away, grocers and publicans, barbers and cobblers; we want Art, Culture, something truly Grandiose!"

Despite its ingenuity and conceptual clarity, the winning project by young architects Élizabeth Bouchard and Éric Boucher inevitably plays into the hands of the competition's promoters. Here, Jean-Claude Riopelle's monumental triptych Hommage à Rosa Luxembourg is abstracted into a bright pattern of paving blocks in front of Cartier Avenue's pubs, and the hovering planes of OMA and Provencher Roy's design for the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec are reinterpreted as an iconic range of streetlamps, benches and planters.

Is all this really necessary? The references shown by the City of Quebec at the competition's public launch include some very famous examples of public art, such as the Île de Nantes in France or Chicago's Millennium Park. But we are not to trying to reinvent a rail yard or a derelict industrial site here. The city is already present in modest but tangible ways: on Cartier Avenue, the grocers at Provisions have been peddling their apples and turnips on the sidewalk for the past fifty years, and on the Plains of Abraham, in front of the Museum, joggers run and dogs do their business every morning. If our public institutions feel the need to draw inspiration from international projects, they would do well to avoid grotesque "urban icons" like those the City of Barcelona is busy erecting on the industrial wastelands east of the Diagonàl. More limited and sustainable investments on public land--such as the recent refurbishment of the Rambla de Poblenou--would no doubt prove a more appropriate model.
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