Lise Anne Couture

On Montreal’s design divide.

Lise Anne Couture is one of two principals at New York-based Asymptote Architecture. She and Hani Rashid co-founded the firm in 1998, deriving the name from a mathematical principle: a constant value that certain equations approach but never reach.

In 2002, Asymptote entered a bid in the new hall for the OSM competition. Currently, the firm is competing for the design of Mexico’s upcoming Guggenheim Guadalajara but would like to be more involved in Montreal’s architectural scene.

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After growing up in Ottawa, Lise Anne spends time in Montreal, teaching as a visiting professor at Université de Montréal. In 2004, she was a speaker at the McGill University School of Architecture’s Lecture Series. From her office in Manhattan, she weighed in on whether or not Montreal is a world design-capital: “The responsibility for architecture, would be in this case, to try to respond to that incredible energy within the urban realm, to build on it and contribute to it more […] The rich tradition of performing arts, music, theater, opera, comedy and circus is at the heart of the city’s creativity, particularly during Montreal’s summer season, making it an extremely vital city. The city councils have done well to encourage the whole tradition of festivals taking an already strong tradition and making it an incredible urban set of events melding the population within the space of the city.”

However, Couture cautions against Montreal’s seeming compulsion to construct monolithic, inward-looking complexes isolated in fringe neighbourhoods, Place Bonaventure, Place des Arts, and the new Quebec National Library, jump to mind. At stake is noting less than the survival of the colourful street life, at odds with the network of insular complexes and underground malls. “The Metro system has been fantastic, fairly efficient and clean, it has allowed the whole downtown area to remain extremely attractive. People not only come in for work but for leisure and cultural activities.,” Couture explains, “It’s been use as a model for other cities around the globe.”

But she’s leery of the other underground arteries: the network of retail and food connected to the Metro system and the city’s large complexes. “It was touted as this completely autonomous system, where you could live and work without ever having to put on your winter coat. Over time there has been a fear that everything above ground that was not directly linked with the subway would suffer and that life could disappear from the streets,” she explains, “Of course there is a certain weather factor and a comfort level that everyone enjoys but it doesn’t have to be either or.” Montreal manages to have a very vital life above. “I still don’t find it a very enlightened space of the 21st century to be in a mall, underground, deprived of natural light and ventilation and shopping at the same stores that you’d find in any suburban mall of any other city in North America.”

“Isn’t it interesting that, in New York City, every time someone tries to do a mall, it essentially fails? There’s just this desire to be out in the street, but, understandably, Montreal has a different climate and culture.” Montreal, as a design city, is a work in progress, with its own possibilities and boundaries. To be continued…

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