Defrosting Public Space

Sphères polaires at the Place des Festival

By the time February rolls around, Montreal has already been buried in snow for a couple of months and your mental map of the city has changed considerably. Places you’d normally linger — the steps at Place des Arts, the plaza in front of Mont-Royal metro, the giant chess board in Berri Square — have vanished from the landscape, inaccessible under the snow, unpleasant in the sub-zero wind.

Montreal’s seasonal extremes are a challenge to urban planning: how do you create a vibrant place that can function just as well on a frigid January day as on a balmy August night? Some spaces are more adaptable than others. Neighbourhood retail streets will always be lively, since people still need to hit up the supermarket, coffee shop and drug store even when it’s cold. Park lawns make good toboggan slopes and hockey rinks in the winter. But hard-surfaced plazas and squares — those quintessentially urban spaces — have a hard time finding much use between December and April.

For most of the years I lived in Montreal, the only time of the winter when a downtown square came back to life was during February’s Nuit Blanche festival, when performances and light installations take over the snowbound tarmac at Place des Arts. Lately, however, some of the ideas behind that one night of wintertime festivities has been extended throughout the winter. Last year, the recently-built Place des Festivals played host to Champ de pixels, which transformed the square into a giant Lite Brite studded with illuminated “pixels” made from overturned plastic buckets. Each bucket was equipped with motion sensors; when you walked by, the colour of the light shifted from white to red.

This year, Champ de pixels was moved to Berri Square, where passers-by can manually power a portion of the lights by riding stationery Bixi bikes. Meanwhile, another project called Sphères polaires has taken over the Place des Festivals and Place des Arts with huge glowing spheres. It’s like a giant was blowing bubbles that froze in the frigid winter air.

Champ de pixels at the Place des Festival

Both the Champ de pixels and Sphères Polaires were organized by the Quartier des spectacles, a quasi-governmental organization that is reshaping the area between Bleury and Berri into somewhat amorphous arts and entertainment district. The project has been controversial — these kinds of top-down themed districts always are — but I find it has a lot more conceptual rigour that most such initiatives.

These wintertime light installations are a good example of that. Instead of being obvious, cheesy and heavy-handed, they playfully reinvigorate public space that would otherwise be dead. They’re fun without being cloying. They leave a lot up to the imagination, setting the scene and let people stage the drama. And more importantly, they’re seasonal: when the snow melts, so too will the pixels and spheres disappear, making way for other kinds of public life.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday January 31 2011at 01:01 am , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

7 Responses to “Defrosting Public Space”

  • DCorbeil says:

    At the beginning, most people were saying that “Quartier des Spectacles” was a bad project, and that it will never be an interesting urban space..

    At the end, they actually transformed this part of the city, as they did before with both “Quartier du Multimedia” and “Quartier International”, and now, it is very nice to walk by Place des Arts, on the way to the Business district or Old Montreal…

    One thing great : those simple red lights, like dots, giving an homogeneous presence and identity to that district..

    A good example of contemporary urban planing and how you can transform a city with such a small budget, using art and creativity !

  • Yes, exactly! The QDS has transformed an entire part of the city simply by creating new public space and using art and lighting installations to create a neighbourhood identity. It’s a much more effective strategy than bulldozer urban renewal or theme-district kitschification.

    That said, the independent projects provoked by the creation of the QDS are more of a mixed bag. The Maison du Jazz is fantastic for having saved the derelict Blumenthal Building and turned it into something that gives the Jazz Festival a year-round presence in the city. But the project that has eviscerated the lower Main is horrible.

  • C. Szabla says:

    It still sounds like a theme district, though it’s replaced the typical corrupting kitsch with the ahistorical vagueness of the term “spectacle”, and seems to be using pop-up gimmicks that are tastefully minimalist enough to assuage culture critics.

  • DCorbeil says:

    Well, of course, at the end it was made to be a theme park district, like the QIM for example. Those were the official intentions of Montreal…

    Then we can argue about this fact, if its wrong or not and, at the end, if the city of the 21st century isnt just another product of marketing..

    From my knowledge, cities always lived on reputation and always been products of marketing, from Roma to Paris, until Dubai today..

    Well probably because one of the first purpose of a city is to express the identity – and power – of a nation..

    From that point of view, could we argue that QDS does express the creativity of Montreal, a relatively poor city with best intentions and a strong determination ?

  • C. Szabla says:

    This kind of anyplace art actually works against the city’s “brand identity”. Creative or not, there’s a level of abstraction here that fails to harness anything unique or special about its setting – which underscores the irony of prescribing “best practices” for “placemaking” in general. You can’t highlight a specific location with ahistorical, ageographical art. It’s a “theme district” that’s dispensed with any connection to the “district”.

    Hence “spectacle” — for its own sake. It still commodifies the city, which becomes a showpiece for consumption, but this is a commodification more reminiscent of the spectacles of Las Vegas than the identities forged by iconic symbols or images of Paris or Rome.

  • I would agree with you if these were permanent installations, but I think you can cut them some slack for being seasonal and ephemeral. They imbue otherwise dead, snowbound spaces with a bit of life. They are a lot less guilty of commodifying city space than any of the summertime festivals or performances, because they exist for no other reason than to encourage public interaction at a time when most people simply stay home.

  • DCorbeil says:

    Well, i believe all your comments are right, and i also think that branding the city by creating theme park districts is creating a kind of fake city.. but what is fake, what is not ?

    Still, one thing witch is difficult for me is the historical or ahistorical aspect of the city itself (even if already in the 1940’s Place des Arts was considered as the main theatre district of Montreal..)

    I believe nothing is truly historical, no more Old Quebec (witch is a recreation of the imagination of the ’60s and the aspiration of french canadians to recreate their own history) than Parvis de Notre-Dame, Paris (witch is an horrible ahistorical recreation of Viollet-Le-Duc) and so many examples of fake cities that look historical (St-Malo, Mont-St-Michel, etc..)

    The old door of Quebec ? A romantic idea of the english at the late 19th century..

    TIme Square, NYC ? A simple business idea (i believe by Disney itself)

    Well… even my father, who grew up in the violence of the Mile End, will tell you that nothing is more fake than St-Viateur street today… Especially if you bring him to the fake left-side café Cagibi…