Making of a Square

Place Gérald-Godin

Place Gérald-Godin in 1979 and 2009. Compilation by Guillaume St-Jean

Over the past decade, Montreal has invested heavily in big-ticket squares and plazas, including the remarkable Place Jean-Paul Riopelle and redesigned Victoria Square, both completed in 2003, and the surprisingly successful Place des Festivals, which opened earlier this year. But some of the smaller new squares are just as impressive, perhaps doubly so for the fact that they’ve been perfectly integrated into the city’s life without any kind of the fuss or introspection demanded by their bigger counterparts.

Place Gérald-Godin is the best example of these small new squares. It sits just outside the sole entrance to Mont-Royal metro, one of the city’s busiest stations, and as a result it’s busy throughout the day. Until recently, however, it wasn’t so much a square as a patch of grass traversed by a couple of asphalt pathways. A building that housed a caisse populaire (and before that, a bicycle shop) occupied the corner of Berri and Mount Royal, next to the station, making the space in front feel like more like an afterthought than a real place.

That changed in 1999, when the square as we know it today came into being. The caisse pop was demolished, opening up a memorable vista of Mount Royal Avenue and the Sanctuaire du Saint-Sacrement and giving the square a sense of centrality and importance that it didn’t have before. The grass was removed and replaced by stone paving blocks (though a grassy patch was left along the side of the square). A kiosk was built to house seasonal businesses, including a round-the-clock fruiterie in the summer months, a Christmas tree shop in the early winter and a maple syrup emporium in the early spring. Behind the metro station, Gérald Godin’s 1983 poem, “Tango de Montréal” — an homage to the city’s immigrants — was mounted on a blank wall in brass letters.

The square has become a neighbourhood hub; if the Plateau can be said to have a centre, this is it. During the summer, there’s always people hanging out on the low stone walls that flank the square; street performers are drawn here by the crowds and there’s an annual art installation. This is simple urbanism at its best: whereas it was once a confused patch of quasi-suburban landscaping, caught between a building’s blank wall and the metro station entrance, it is now a blank slate for the kinds of activities that naturally take place on a busy commercial street.

Place Gérald-Godin

Place Gérald-Godin

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday November 23 2009at 01:11 am , filed under Art and Design, Canada, History, Public Space and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Making of a Square”

  • Kyle says:

    I have an idea: Take a metro train car and turn it into a classic railcar-diner diner in the square, so people using metro Mont-Royal have a year round coffee shop, Metro style! The metro cars are going to be replaced soon, so there will be a great opportunity for this to happen in the near future! It’d be a fun way to recycle a metro train, and give the station even more cachet. The metro car could house historical metro pictures and be the home to Montreal’s metro museum…something we need!

  • C. Szabla says:

    I like Kyle’s idea. I’m actually surprised I’ve never seen / heard of a subway car converted into a diner before, although I’m sure one has to exist, somewhere.

    Chris, do you know what the reaction was to the square’s transformation? In a city like Boston there would be neighborhood activists screaming bloody murder over the destruction of a “park” for concrete paving and anger among amateur environmentalists who confuse preserving every scrap of grass with meaningful conservation.

  • SMD says:

    Kyle, that is one of the best ideas I’ve heard all year. A classic railcar diner with a twist! So appropriate. I’ll pitch in $20 to make it happen.

  • Steve says:

    A metro car is turned into an ice cream shop and put on Ontario St. during the Just for Laughs festival. It’s a bit surreal actually:

  • William says:

    Beautifully written article, and you’re right, Mont-Royal metro station is at the heart of our beautiful borough. I like that it doesn’t feel overdone or contrived.