On a late July evening, with the last fingers of dusk lingering in the sky, Karl Harrison and Roma Lake were looking for a roof to climb. They headed south to the Lachine Canal, toward the old Silo No. 5.
“We’re going up really soon. I know the way in,” said Harrison, pointing toward the silo.
But not tonight. Instead, they veered west to tackle another abandoned building in Point St. Charles.
Harrison, a photographer who works in IT, and Lake, an event planner, have been sneaking onto rooftops for several years, taking in the view from dozens of buildings around Old Montreal and the Lachine Canal.
“Once you get up there, it’s as if you’ve climbed a mountain,” Harrison said. “There’s this aspect of getting these beautiful views that nobody else is seeing.
To him, the city’s fire escapes and abandoned buildings are gateways to an extra dimension of urban space. They offer a chance to escape the bustle of city streets, but also to see and understand how the different elements of Montreal’s urban landscape fit together, like pieces of a vast toy metropolis.
His rooftop experiences have left Harrison with some indelible memories.
“There’s this three-storey building (near the Old Port),” he recalled. “We went up in the winter, it was like minus 20, snow blowing everywhere. We had a beautiful view. You could see Farine Five Roses, the silo, all the main industrial landmarks. The windows in the street below looked red, a very warm glow.” Lake, for her part, got an early start to rooftop exploration when she was growing up near St. Viateur St. in Mile End.
“The roof of the Rialto on Park (Ave.) was my hangout of choice with my best friend. We were 13, 14, looking for a place to hide. We would hang out up there and look down at Park, seeing everyone pass by. You could dangle your feet off the edge,” she said.
There is certainly something enchanting about the view from above. Yet, in a city with as many tall buildings and flat roofs as Montreal, there is a strange dearth of publicly accessible places from which to (legally) gaze down at the city. Unless you are lucky enough to live or work in a building with a roof deck, the city’s aerial vantage points are monopolized by Mount Royal, the Tour de Montral and a handful of rooftop restaurants.
Marc Mayer hopes to change that. The director of the Museé d’art contemporain wants to convert Silo No. 5 into an art museum topped by a public observatory.
“From the mountain you’re seeing the city from behind, but from the silo it’s the best possible view,” he said. “You can see so much more than from the Big O. It’s a panoptic view of the entire metropolitan area.” The MAC’s $100-million plan for the silo is one of three finalists in a competition organized by the Montreal Port Corporation; the other two both call for the construction of a mix of residential and commercial uses near the silo, including high-rise buildings.
Although the winner was supposed to be announced last spring, a final decision was postponed indefinitely when control of the silo was transferred to the Canadian Lands Corporation, the federal agency that also owns Benny Farm.
Mayer, however, is optimistic that his art museum will eventually be built. Part of the reason, he explained, is his plan to devote the top floor to an exhibition on the evolution of Montreal art. “It’s a unique setting to see the work. There isn’t any other place in the world where you can see art with a view of the city that created it,” he said.
“Montrealers aren’t as proud of their city as they should be. I think this would make them more optimistic. If they had access to this view, they would be so much more civic-minded.” For now, though, Mayer’s plan remains just that — a plan. Until an observation deck is built on top of Silo No. 5, finding a unique view of Montreal from above involves sneaking onto an empty roof or earning access to a private rooftop terrace.
Back near the Lachine Canal, Harrison and Lake found their own makeshift terrace on top of an abandoned grain silo. Emerging from a narrow shaft filled with black sand, about 150 feet from the ground, they stood next to each other and gazed upon the city.
In the distance, Mount Royal loomed behind the brightly lit skyline, the illuminated cross atop St. Joseph’s Oratory poking up above the Westmount summit.
Harrison opened a bottle of port. Lake moved toward the roof’s edge. “How’s that for a view?” she said.
Harrison and Lake on an Old Port rooftop.
Photo by John Hahoney of the Gazette
Harrison and Lake on an Old Port rooftop.
This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on August 9, 2007.
Tags: Exploring the City, Montreal, Old Montreal, Rooftops