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Champ-de-Mars neighborhood: A crossroads to urban innovation
by Simon D. Bergeron, published 2011-12-09
Two competitions, amassing a total of 78 submissions, were stepping stones toward a great collection of innovative ideas. Rethinking the development and planning around the Champ-de-Mars metro station was the goal of this “two in one” competition in which the first component addressed professionals and the second, students. This event has not only provided a great variety of contemporary ideas, but has also allowed both students and professionals to participate side by side.

The questionable nature of the crossroads formed by St-Laurent Boulevard and the Ville-Marie highway is not a recent topic of discussion. In June of 1997, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada had launched an international competition with the goal of amassing ideas on how to occupy the space at the crossroads between these urban arteries. While this competition received 116 submissions, it had not resulted in urban redevelopment. Twelve years later, the city of Montréal has proposed a competition of greater ambition, in which a larger surface area was to be involved. The site would span from the future site of the Université de Montréal's Hospital Center all the way to the Courthouse, it's northern border being the Saint-Laurent neighborhood, spanning to its southern border, the Champ-de-Mars.

This competition has received 78 different submissions, 47 in the professional category, and 31 from students. The challenge presented by this competition was to develop a 75,000 square meter zone located in front of Montreal's city hall. Situated at the intersection between the old and new Montreal and separated by St-Laurent Boulevard, which acts as the city's east-west divide, proposals had to transform this urban epicenter into an innovative architectural fulcrum. The competition managed to spark a great variety of forms and designs, while harvesting multiple visions on how the space must not only be occupied but also lived.

In regards to the professional component of the competition, two main approaches have emerged from the proposals. Some teams, inspired by the writings of Melvin Charney, opted to develop forms and architectural figures typical to Montreal, yet most teams decided to develop a contemporary urban architectural landscape. The way teams utilized context to develop their strategies varied widely however, as some teams have kept Marcelle-Ferron's canopy in mind, wanting to commemorate the atmosphere generated by the creative movement Total Refusal (Refus Global). Some have sought inspiration through global urban culture, while others have not hesitated to develop a singular approach, spectacular in its communication and in the spatial experience. Overall, each team managed to find its particular methodology and approach to spatial appropriation within the liberty provided by competitions searching for ideas.

Regarding the student's submissions, the proposals were developed in a very different tone in comparison to those of professionals. The ideas show great freedom with regard to constraints imposed by reality. Most proposals attempt to stimulate the imagination and appeal to an emotional experience. Rather than stating directly what should be physically built in provided spaces, the proposals reveal an ambiance that is meant to represent the spirit of this cornerstone of the city of Montreal. These ambiances are often generated through processes that rely on the urban or the history between the old and new Montreal, with many references to Marcelle-Ferron's work. Despite their diversity, a unanimous desire emerges to create a pleasant urban space where austerity is relegated to the past.

This event has reinforced, once again, the idea that Montreal is becoming a theatre for architectural competitions and urban projects, especially since the arrival of the “Réalisons Montréal” initiative: UNESCO city of design. Of all the competitions supported by this initiative, the development of the Champ-de-Mars neighbourhood has amassed the largest number of submissions. Having been free of cost and architectural program constraints, each and every project has provided its own vision on how to live our city, as opposed to simply building it. Furthermore, this competition has imprinted on notional architecture a mass of rich ideas of which the impact will manifest itself in the effervescence of architecture and urbanism.
(Translated by David Grenier)
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