The Montreal phenomenon

Montreal architects are becoming more and more prevalent on the Toronto development scene. What do they see in their cross border travels, and is the Queen City really ready for them?

“Allez vers l’ouest,” Montrealers.

“Montreal and Toronto’s film festivals have swapped places in terms of their significance,” Andre Perrotte observes of the Montreal World Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, illustrating the opposite economic and cultural destinies of Canada’s two largest cities over the past three decades. “You could measure it in terms of the number of A-list celebrities that show up on the red carpets,” the partner at Montreal-based architecture firm Saucier+Perrotte offers wryly as a litmus test for the pulse and presence of each city on the world stage.

Urban Capital Annual, 2011

For full text, click  “View full size” at bottom-right in slideshow. Or, continue below.

For Perrotte, Toronto’s initiative to build the TIFF Lightbox, a dedicated building for the film festival in the city’s downtown Entertainment District, was a defining moment in plotting TIFF‘s current status and success.

Lessons learned? “I think by now Montreal has realized you can’t do it all with tents and semi-permanent installations,” Perrotte says about Montreal’s often brick-a-brack festival infrastructure. Yet he remains optimistic about Montreal being able to achieve a similar boost to its live entertainment epicentre with its renewed commitment to Place des Arts, the city’s performing arts centre and downtown site for many of its major outdoor festivals. Over the past decade, compared to Montreal, Toronto has experienced explosive growth. According to Statistics Canada’s census figures, Greater Montreal’s population grew by 5.3 percent between 2001 and 2006, to reach 3.1 million people, a rate almost identical to the Canadian average of 5.4 percent. During the same period, Toronto’s population surged by nearly double, at a rate of 9.2 percent, for a total 2006 Greater Toronto Area population of 5.1 million.

The rapid growth has spawned a construction boom in Toronto. Many Montreal architects and designers have come to la Ville reine to crack the market of one of the fifty largest urban agglomerations in the world. They were drawn to the GTA by its pace, commitment to quality design, rigor in execution, openness to outside influences and the collegiality among diverse teams of colleagues — a heady mix of local and international talent.

“There’s no sense of territory,” explains Claude Cormier, principal at Claude Cormier et Associés, one of Canada’s most respected landscape architecture and urban design firms. “That’s Toronto’s reality of integration.” This openness to talent and influences from away is evident not only in the public sector, such as with cultural buildings and universities, but also among private developers, including us with our River City project. In putting together our team to compete in Waterfront Toronto’s public tender for the site, we specifically sought a Montrealbased architectural firm, thinking that a little “foreign” savoir faire would be just what we needed to give us the design edge.

Renée Daoust, partner at Montreal’s Daoust Lestage, also credits much of her success to Torontonians’ openness and generosity. Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects and Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance, who gave her her entré to the Toronto market, top a long list of people who helped Daoust establish a practice in Toronto.

“It’s a great opportunity to be able to work in the two contexts. For me it’s really interesting to see what happens in Toronto and what happens in Montreal, the way we do things is quite different,” she says. “Toronto’s mix of expertise from everywhere is what makes the experience of working in both cities such a win-win.”

Ten years after first arriving here, Saucier+Perrotte, Claude Cormier et Associés and Daoust Lestage are among a select number of Montreal architecture and design firms that can claim to have successful, parallel practices in Toronto. They’ve quietly amassed impressive portfolios of completed projects as well as scrapbooks filled with ideas, sketches and future plans.

Despite the allure of the brighter lights and bigger city, the three Montreal designers are unanimous about one thing– none plan to open a Toronto office. Instead they all wish to preserve the critical distance that being Montrealers in Toronto affords them.

For now these Quebec Inc. designers are content to commute for one or two days a week several times a month, often bumping into each other on Porter flights in and out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. On these occasions they share stories and compare notes.

Indeed, Billy Bishop is increasingly a two-way airstrip. Toronto architects also fly to Montreal for business, a budding “Go East!” reverse phenomenon. Cormier points to some recent wins, like KPMB’s vertical downtown campus, Le Quartier Concordia, completed in 2010. Or Jack Diamond’s L’Addresse symphonique, a new concert hall for conductor Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, currently under construction, which is the latest addition to Montreal’s Place des Arts complex. A future Place des Arts volume is already in the works to outfit Montreal’s opera and ballet companies with a new stage, following closely in the footsteps of Toronto’s success with the Four Seasons Centre.

Going forward, the two cities must continue this convergence between what Daoust calls “ephemeral” and “permanent” culture, investing in quality design for the buildings that house each city’s visual, performing or multi-media arts, like Place des Arts and the TIFF Lightbox.

In September 2009, Montreal’s mayor Gerald Tremblay inaugurated Place des Festivals, a pedestrian plaza designed by Daoust Lestage and the first phase of the city’s Place des Arts makeover.

The plaza sometimes doubles as an amphitheatre to a temporary stage for outdoor performances. Other times it is an urban fountain with 235 jets integrated at grade into the plaza’s stonework.

The most innovative part of Daoust’s design was her introduction of two long, transparent, glass cubes that are impossibly narrow and buzzing dining rooms, with their kitchens in the basement. Two of Montreal’s top chefs, Carlos Ferreira and Normand Laprise of Toqué opened “F” and “T” as two restaurants in Daoust’s cubes.

“We created these two little boxes, they were new architectural typologies in Montreal,” says Daoust. “I’m trying to convince people in Toronto to do the same thing.”

Convincing Toronto developers to recreate her glass-encased sidewalk cafes as a novel element in a master plan of a large-scale urban redevelopment project may be easier said than done. By Daoust’s own admission, “In Montreal we are very concerned with the urban design and this is our European background: the public realm, the outside spaces and how the buildings intertwine,” she says. “But I don’t think that’s part of Toronto’s genes just yet.”

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