August 21st, 2007

Phillips Square

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf


Phillips Square, it has always seemed to me, is inexplicably overlooked. In theory, it should be one of Montreal’s most prominent public spaces, situated as it is in the downtown retail district, across the street from a major department store. While it is certainly busy, though, at least during the day, it has none of the ambiance or notoriety of some of the city’s other parks, plazas and squares. It doesn’t seem like a particularly distinct place to meet and gather; it’s just there.

Yet Phillips Square is one of Montreal’s oldest squares. First laid out in 1842, in what was then an elite residential district on the fringes of town, the prestigious retail stores it lured uptown sparked the rise of Ste. Catherine Street as the city’s premier shopping district. Henry Morgan moved his department store to Phillips Square in 1891; he was followed by Birks, which opened its signature jewelery store shortly thereafter. By the turn of the twentieth century, Phillips Square had become a fairly important transit hub, a role it would maintain for the better part of a century: a 1941 map of the city’s streetcar network indicates that six tram lines passed through or terminated at Phillips Square.

More recent years weren’t as kind to the square. It fell into a sort of decrepitude until it was renovated in 1995. Today, a gaggle of about a dozen vendors ply their wares on the Ste. Catherine side of the square; behind, a midday crowd of office workers, shoppers, students and homeless people sit on the ledges of the square’s stone planters and the steps of the ornate monument to King Edward VII that provides the square with a visual focus.

Phillips Square isn’t a bad public space by any means. In fact, there is a certain solid respectability in its paving stones, flowerbeds and monuments: this is a square being a square, in contrast to other squares that pretend to be parks, like the verdant but much less successful Cabot Square on the western edge of downtown. Still, I can’t help but feel that Phillips Square lacks something. Perhaps it is because it is such a daytime space: when the sun goes down at the shops begin to close, nobody really lingers there. Compare that to Place des Arts, a much less intimate plaza that is nonetheless a popular hangout at all hours.

It has been more than a decade since Phillips Square’s last renovation. Maybe it’s time to once again rethink its design. I like the street vendors, which add a lot to the conviviality of Ste. Catherine Street, but they don’t do much for the rest of the square. Perhaps a café stand could be opened in one of the vending spaces, with loose tables and chairs scattered around the square like in Parisian parks. What do you think?



Top photo courtesy of the Phillips Square Hotel.

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  1. aj says:

    First, it definitely needs supporting neighbors to knit it together into a unit. Birks presents its side to the square, the Bay’s “front door” seems more like an emergency exit, and the Concrete Company of Canada building on the south side doesn’t really connect with it either. The southeast corner dribbles away into the parking lot next to the hotel (which presents an appealing facade of metal siding, maybe to match the Bay’s horrible brown siding “porch” which I hope they’re demolishing)

    It needs a redo similar to Square-Victoria, and the surrounding buildings need to be integrated. Create pedestrian crossings at the center of the block – forming pathways from building entrances directly to the square. Mark them symbolically with paving stones and traffic-calming measures. Widen the sidewalk all around the square itself. Create permanent glass-and-steel stalls for the artisans (like the flower shop at square victoria) facing both inwards and outwards with utilities and storage in the inner space. Let’s relocate the statue and replace it (or encircle it) with an amazing fountain/reflecting pool/wading pond. And yeah, a café-bistro with a terrasse – a modern, mini version of the Grande Cascade in Paris, or the Café des Eclusiers in the Old Port, might do…I’d even suggest making that short stretch along the restaurant row a carfree zone and joining it to the square so they can have extended terrasses as well.

    August 21st, 2007 at 6:58 pm

  2. Donal Hanley says:

    What a great photo of Square Phillips by night. And fully agreed on the need for a redo – it’s as if it was forgotten….

    August 21st, 2007 at 9:30 pm

  3. Liza says:

    I agree with aj that it’s not so much the square as its neighbours that makes it ennervating. The square is charming, but what you have to look at sucks the life out of you.

    August 22nd, 2007 at 11:40 am

  4. Velibor Bozovic says:

    It is a beautiful square, not typical for North American city, yet, as you said, something is missing. I don’t think it needs a glossy redo… The main problem is that people do not live close by. People work there and that is not enough… Should this square belong to European city, it would be a market place on Sunday… tomatoes, potatoes, papers, smelly fish…vendors and neighbors, life.

    August 22nd, 2007 at 2:06 pm

  5. Chris says:

    I too like the vendors but I feel their orientation to the street and design need to be rethought. i find they create a visual and spatial barrier between the rest of the square and the street. I sometimes like to sit along Ste-Catherine and people watch but this is very difficult if you’re sitting in the square because the view of the street is blocked by the vendors. Maybe if they were moved to the corners somehow and didn’t have the large canopies over top it would help a lot.

    August 22nd, 2007 at 2:08 pm

  6. Johnny says:

    My relatives work in one of the office buildings that cross the square (with the second cup, amirs, BK, and the asian restuarant), and I do wish to see another remodeling of it, but sometimes the homeless people detract others away from it.

    August 23rd, 2007 at 9:39 pm

  7. Mary Soderstrom says:

    Chris writes:

    Compare that to Place des Arts, a much less intimate plaza that is nonetheless a popular hangout at all hours.”

    And Johnny mentions the homeless.

    One of the things that Jane Jacobs mentions is the need to have a number of different kinds of users of a public space (she is talking about streets, but it’s the same with squares) at different times of day. Place des arts has constant traffic from early in the morning to late at night becuase of the Metro stop underneath, the stops for the 80 and 129 buses, the UQAM campus to the north, and the many cultural activities in Place des Arts itself. This means both that no one kind of user can “claim” the space (as socially marginal youth appear to have claimed Place Émilie Gamelin) and that the reasons people cross it occur all around the clock. A few condos in the immediate area, a day care for downtown workers which would use a tot lot on the square, and you might change the use of this Square profoundly.

    August 25th, 2007 at 3:55 pm

  8. A.J. Kandy says:

    I think Mary’s hit it on the head. The solution would seem to be to do many things to make it a destination, rather than just empty space between four buildings.

    I’d recommend expanding the square east and west to make an uninterrupted and larger space. If possible, through traffic could be routed underneath via short underpasses; or at worst, diverted to another street. I agree with the idea of a seasonal farmers’ market — at least once or twice a week.

    What’s interesting is that McGill Metro, being a central hub of the Underground city, has no direct surface exit on Sainte-Catherine. I wonder if some sort of tunnel would be possible from the square (maybe simply connecting to Place de la Cathedrale or the Bay’s basement?)

    August 26th, 2007 at 6:07 pm

  9. Desmond Bliek says:

    Lots of perceptive comments above. I’d echo them with respect to the difficulties being mostly due to the buildings fronting the square. The Bay is truly unfortunate but even where there are healthy businesses or intact urban buildings along the square, they tend to be office lobbies or banks, which aren’t particularly great generators of street life. The excessively wide street on the square’s west side is likely a very underutilized resource as well- it could be a great spot for terrasses, as it receives the afternoon/evening sun.

    But more importantly, it’s crucial to think of Phillips Square as the uptown terminus of likely the most important link between old Montréal and the ‘new’ CBD centred on René Lévesque and Sainte-Catherine; If recent attention to Square-Victoria could be extended up the hill, this link would be much stronger. On that note, it’d be interesting to ask how that square is faring post-renovation: though the landscaping’s nice, is it everything it could be? Strikes me that there, too, there is a preponderance of office lobbies and banks…

    For a historical perspective on Phillips Square (and the côte du Beaver Hall), check out Bertol Icart, Michele, ‘Urbanisme privé et structuration du tissu urbain par des places publiques: le plan Phillips à Montréal’ in Trames 7 (pages 18-28). It’s a nifty square that could and should be more…

    August 27th, 2007 at 4:58 pm

  10. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I actually find that Victoria Square is very well-used even at night. There are always people sitting next to the fountains.

    August 27th, 2007 at 9:59 pm