Vancouver: Mural Festival Fun & Fantasy

I love it when Everyday Tourist readers send me information and photos of places they think would interest me while travelling in other cities.  Recently Harry Hiller, an urban sociologist professor at the University of Calgary, send me some photos he took while exploring a mural festival that took place in the back alley along four blocks of Vancouver's inner city community of Mt. Pleasant.  

Hiller loved the fact the murals are permanent so you can enjoy them even when there is no festival.  

He was impressed by the thousands of people over the course of the day walking the back alley with food trucks, music, and even skate board performances.  

He loved the creative use of back alleys which are often perceived as ugly and unsafe places.

He liked how parking stalls, garbage bins and containers all became canvases for artworks. 

 

No Angst!

One thing I noticed is that all of the murals are bold and colourful -  more decorative than provocative. There didn't seem to be any political or social angst that is often associated with street art - just good clean fun.

Nobody is going to confuse these works with the great muralists of Mexico City - Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro. However, they do have lots in common with the Psychedelic and Op Art movements of the '60s.  

Link: All You Need To Know About The Mexican Muralist 

VMF

In fact, what Hiller experienced was the second year of the Vancouver Mural Festival, which involved numerous sites in the city's east side communities.  A total of 50 new murals were created from August 7 to 12th, attracting an estimated audience of 100,000 people. It was billed as Vancouver's biggest free art event.   

In fact, they looked a lot like the back alley artworks I saw in Montreal's in December which were left over from their annual mural festival. This year's festival happened in June and more than a dozen new murals were left behind for everyone to enjoy.  I was told that in Montreal, murals have become so popular many festivals include creating a mural as part of the legacy of the event.  As a result, Montreal's inner city has become one giant outdoor art gallery.  A fun and free tourist attraction with mass appeal. Just what Hiller was talking about. 

Hmmm...I am thinking this could be a great new weekend event for the Calgary Downtown Association and the Alberta College of Art to collaborate on.   For that matter mural festivals would be a great annual event for many of Canada's downtowns - Hamilton, Winnipeg, London or Edmonton - adding a sense of play and colour would make them more attractive places to hang out for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

As I wrote, I received a tweet that Calgary's Beltline Community is indeed going to host something called BUMP (Beltline Urban Murals Project) this fall. This reminded me that Calgary's 17th Avenue had a mural program in the '80s and '90s, however due to maintenance cost they are all gone.  

Wouldn't it be great if Calgary could get a mural like this one as part of BUMP?

Wouldn't it be great if Calgary could get a mural like this one as part of BUMP?

Last Word

I also couldn't help but wonder if there isn't a link between the fact Vancouver, like Montreal and Berlin have fostered a strong street culture (murals, street art, graffiti, outdoor festivals, food trucks) and the fact they have also become three of the most attractive cities in the the world for young entrepreneurs and creatives who are roaming the planet looking for interesting places to live, work and play.   

More and more, I am thinking cities like Calgary should be fostering a free, improv street art culture, rather than a formal, expensive, controversial public art program as a means of making their city centre more attractive to the next generation of innovators who will create the economic engines of the early 21st century.  

Perhaps a policy of "No Blank Walls!" should be park of Calgary's urban design policy. 

Harry's Postcards From VMF 2017

Diversity Beats Density: Montreal vs Calgary

While Calgary’s downtown density looks similar to Montreal’s with hundreds of high, mid and low-rise buildings, the diversity of building uses is significantly different. In Montreal, especially near the St. Catherine Street, every block has is a good mix of office, retail, residential and hotel buildings while Calgary's downtown is a sea of office buildings.

Typical Montreal City Centre streets are cluttered with small shops, cafes and restaurants with apartments above creating a vibrant pedestrian environment. The streets don't have any banners or fancy furniture and the sidewalks are often cracked and uneven, but that just adds to the urban patina.  Pristine streets too often are sterile streets. 

Typical Montreal City Centre streets are cluttered with small shops, cafes and restaurants with apartments above creating a vibrant pedestrian environment. The streets don't have any banners or fancy furniture and the sidewalks are often cracked and uneven, but that just adds to the urban patina.  Pristine streets too often are sterile streets. 

Office buildings kill urban vitality

Calgary’s downtown is dominated by a 50+ block area - Centre Street to 8th Street SW and from 9th Avenue to 2nd Street SW) that is almost exclusively office buildings. There are 135 of them in fact (Source: Building Owners Managers Association Guide, 2016). Some blocks having three and four office towers.  Even, in Montreal, the streets next to their major office complexes were dead on evenings and weekends. 

It was only where hotels, residences and shops are located next to each other that you find urban vitality in the evenings and weekends. Montreal’s downtown benefits from having 75 hotels (including five 5-star) compared to Calgary’s 14 (with no 5-star hotels).

In addition, unlike Montreal, almost all of Calgary’s urban residential buildings sit are on the periphery of the downtown core, each with their own pedestrian streets to eat, shop and hang out on evenings and weekends.

The streets around Montreal's office towers are devoid of people and animation, as they are in every city. 

The streets around Montreal's office towers are devoid of people and animation, as they are in every city. 

Huge Student Population

Another huge difference is Montreal’s City Center being home to several major universities (Universite du Quebec, 66,000 students; Universite de Montreal, 55,000 students; Concordia University, 44,000 students and McGill, 32,000 students) that is more students than Calgary has office workers. Many of these students also live in and near the city centre, making it their place to “live, learn and play,” not necessarily in that order and not just weekdays from 7am to 7pm like office workers in Calgary.  Montreal’s downtown cafes and shops are full of students all day, everyday.

In comparison, Calgary’s City Centre has just two post-secondary schools - Bow Valley College (14,000 students) and University of Calgary’s downtown building offering primarily non-credit general interest and professional development courses.   Neither has a student residence, as most students leaving the downtown to homes in the suburbs at the end of the day just like the office workers.

Crew Collective & Cafe in the historic Royal Bank headquarters building is a commercial cafe and shared workspace but in reality, it is a huge study hall for students seven days a week. This was taken on a Sunday. 

Crew Collective & Cafe in the historic Royal Bank headquarters building is a commercial cafe and shared workspace but in reality, it is a huge study hall for students seven days a week. This was taken on a Sunday. 

Tourists love Downtown Montreal

Montreal is also a mega tourist city, with much of its tourism being downtown-oriented. Its $9.2 billion tourism industry (9+ million visitors, 7.7 million hotel room nights) blows away Calgary’s $1.7 billion tourism industry (4 million visitors, 3.1 million room nights).   And, in the case of Calgary, most downtown tourists are weekday business travellers, or those enroute to Banff – they are not here to shop and play in downtown.

Montreal’s mega Palais des Congress (convention and trade show venue) was shortlisted in 2015 as the World’s Best Congress Centre for hosting the most international events of any North American facility.  It annually host 300+ events attracting over 800,000 visitors.  Calgary’s Convention Centre hosts only 41 conventions/tradeshows attracting 250,000 visits, of which only 50,000 are non–residents.

In addition, Montreal’s St. Catherine Street retains its long-standing reputation as a popular shopping street with locals and tourists, while Calgary’s Stephen Avenue is mostly an upscale restaurant row.  By nature, restaurants don’t generate the same street vitality as shops as they are used mostly at lunch and evening with patrons staying inside for longer periods of time. Shoppers on the other hand, are frequently and continuously moving in and out of the stores, giving the street more vitality.

Montreal's Quarters des Spectacles, the equivalent of Calgary's Olympic Plaza Cultural District was animated day and night over the Christmas season with shoppers, culture vultures and families enjoying the diversity of things to see and do. The diversity includes Desjardins Complex (shopping centre, office, hotel, grocery store), as well as a contemporary art museum, theatre, cinema, convention center and two Christmas Markets.

Montreal's Quarters des Spectacles, the equivalent of Calgary's Olympic Plaza Cultural District was animated day and night over the Christmas season with shoppers, culture vultures and families enjoying the diversity of things to see and do. The diversity includes Desjardins Complex (shopping centre, office, hotel, grocery store), as well as a contemporary art museum, theatre, cinema, convention center and two Christmas Markets.

IMHO

Calgary’s downtown core has limited street vitality in the evenings and on weekends not because of the +15 system (which is also empty), but because it is dominated by office buildings that are empty in the evening and weekends.   Even on weekdays street vitality is limited to noon-hours as office workers are inside working, not out playing like tourists, students and residents.

Vibrant urban streets, like those in Montreal are created by a healthy diversity of building uses - residential, hotel, office, post-secondary schools, shopping, cultural and government.

If Calgary wants to foster more vitality in its downtown core, we need to focus less on the mega office towers and find ways to encourage more projects like the Le Germain building (hotel, office, residential and restaurant at street level) or TELUS Sky (office, residential and retail at street level).

Plaza St. Hubert is a funky (some might say tacky) canopied street that offer something for people of all ages and backgrounds.  

Plaza St. Hubert is a funky (some might say tacky) canopied street that offer something for people of all ages and backgrounds.  

St. Catherine Street at 10am on a Sunday morning in December is already full of people. 

St. Catherine Street at 10am on a Sunday morning in December is already full of people. 

Old Montreal plaza is also busy on the same Sunday afternoon. 

Old Montreal plaza is also busy on the same Sunday afternoon. 

Montreal's Underground is also busy on Sunday next to St. Catherine Street. 

Montreal's Underground is also busy on Sunday next to St. Catherine Street. 

Something to think about?

Imagine if instead of two office towers - Bankers Hall, TD Square, Eight Avenue Place, Western Canada Place - each had one condo and one office tower how the dynamics of Stephen Avenue would change.  Perhaps the un-built second towers at Brookfield Place and First Canadian Centre on 7th Avenue should become either downtown’s next hotel or condo tower?  

Perhaps some of downtown’s vacant office space could be converted to a new post-secondary school for Calgary. Great cities have lots of universities and colleges.

Downtown Calgary is dominated by office buildings.

Downtown Calgary is dominated by office buildings.

Montreal: Canada's Best Urban Playground?

Forget Toronto. Forget Vancouver. If you are looking for a fun urban adventure, plan a Montreal getaway.  And, not just because Montreal will be celebrating its 375th anniversary with numerous special festivities in 2017, but because Montreal’s everyday “joie de vivre” makes it a great urban playground anytime.

In the underground of the Les Cours Mont-Royal building is the world's largest collection of Barbie Dolls - over 1,000.  How playful is that? Click  here  for more info

In the underground of the Les Cours Mont-Royal building is the world's largest collection of Barbie Dolls - over 1,000.  How playful is that? Click here for more info

Colourful

Montreal has done a spectacular job utilizing colour to add a sense of play and warmth to their winter pedestrian experience.  The large red dot lights projected on the sidewalks in several locations and a half block-long window with its rows of neon dots that change colour as you walk distract from the cold outside.  

But the piece de la resistance is the block-long west wall of the Palais des Congres (Montreal Convention Centre) composed of 58 glass panels of yellow, pink, green and blue that really brightens up a cloudy day. And on days when the sun shines, the inside is a magical kaleidoscope of colours.  

With Calgary’s abundant sunshine and amazing collection of glass towers and +15 glass bridges, we should be a world leader in the use of coloured glass as a means of creating a unique sense of place. Instead of all the black, beige and grey facades imagine if more buildings were like Battisella’s Beltline condo, Colours.

The glass facade of Montreal's Convention Centre at night. 

The glass facade of Montreal's Convention Centre at night. 

No this is not the Montreal's Red Light District, it is just a way to add some fun to those who are out for an evening stroll, even in the winter.

No this is not the Montreal's Red Light District, it is just a way to add some fun to those who are out for an evening stroll, even in the winter.

Even Montreal's Metro Stations are colourful and playful.

Even Montreal's Metro Stations are colourful and playful.

Scavenger Hunt

I thought Calgary was doing pretty well with its proliferation of funky street art, but it pales in comparison to Montreal.  Wandering Montreal’s rues and avenues, I was forever pulling out my camera - over 100 street art photos in all (and I didn’t take photos of every one).  It was a fun scavenger hunt experience.

And while street art is fun with its cartoon-like characters, Montreal’s urban landscape is full of clever murals. It turns out local and international muralist transforms St Laurent Boulevard into an outdoor gallery every June during its annual Mural Festival. (I have added it to my bucket list).

Imagine how much more pedestrian-friendly our City Centre would if more of Calgary’s blank walls had murals like Doug Driediger’s “Giving Wings to the Dream” on the east wall of the old CUPS building on 7th Ave SW.  

This cartoon-like street art is just one of a many pieces that convert a back alley into an art gallery. 

This cartoon-like street art is just one of a many pieces that convert a back alley into an art gallery. 

Another playful piece of street art. 

Another playful piece of street art. 

 On The Wall

Montreal En Lumiere festival (February 23 to March 11, 2017) is one of largest annual winter festivals in the world - attendance exceeds one million every year.  

The festival’s amazing light installations create a circus-like atmosphere at the Place des Festivals (Calgary’s equivalent being Olympic Plaza).  What I particularly love about this festival is how it continues, on a smaller scale, throughout the year.  Year-round, blank walls throughout the City Centre come to life at night with changing colourful images projected on them. Imagine what it must be like when 1000 projectors and 185 loudspeakers animate their winter nights.  (Another one for my bucket list).

Old Montreal’s “Cite Memories” features 20 movies projected on the sides of historical buildings that tell Montreal’s history.  Download a free app and you can to listen as you watch or walk around.  Wouldn’t that be great for Stephen Ave, Inglewood and Kensington?

Calgary has tried to do a Winter Festival many times and failed. Perhaps it is a case of “go big or go home!” Rather than sending Calgary Transit officials on a junket to explore electronic fares systems (which they could do in Montreal), why not send our best festival producers to Montreal to investigate how to create a successful Winter Festival. (Montreal actually has two major winter festivals - Igloofest is a dance electronic music fest from Jan 12 to Feb 19, 2017).

Just one of dozens of projections on blank walls in Montreal's City Centre.  This piece was like a silent movie.  

Just one of dozens of projections on blank walls in Montreal's City Centre.  This piece was like a silent movie. 

Millennial Madness

With Montreal’s City Center being home to 170,000 post-secondary students it has the distinction of having North America’s largest student population (including 18,000 International students).  They may be there for an education, but they also generate a “party-on” atmosphere. Case in point – I was in a 30-minute line up during a snowstorm to get into a “pop-up” cocktail lounge serving up $12 Christmas-themed cocktails to a room full of millennials. 

Might a good use of Calgary’s empty downtown office space be an international university campus? Perhaps Mayor Nenshi can persuade his alma mater Harvard Business School to open in Calgary. 

Loop   is a cross between a music box, a zoetrope and a railway handcar – the familiar pump-powered vehicles from Bugs Bunny cartoons. The retro-futuristic machine plays animated fairy-tale loops set in motion when visitors work the lever together. When the cylinder starts spinning, it lights up, making the series of still images appear to move. 

Loop is a cross between a music box, a zoetrope and a railway handcar – the familiar pump-powered vehicles from Bugs Bunny cartoons. The retro-futuristic machine plays animated fairy-tale loops set in motion when visitors work the lever together. When the cylinder starts spinning, it lights up, making the series of still images appear to move. 

People of all ages this unique urban playground.

People of all ages this unique urban playground.

One of several Winter Markets that we encountered as we flaneured Montreal's City Centre. 

One of several Winter Markets that we encountered as we flaneured Montreal's City Centre. 

Unique Streets

While every city has its signature shopping streets, Montreal has dozens – St. Catherine, St. Laurent, St. Denis, Mont-Royal, Laurier, St. Viateur and St. Hubert to name a few.  While St. Catherine, like Vancouver’s Robson or Toronto’s Queen Streets, is full of national and international franchises, Montreal’s other streets house primarily local shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs, clubs and galleries (no Starbucks on every corner).  

The number of fashion boutiques with locally designed clothing is impressive, as are the number of commercial art and artisan galleries. And Montreal has the most restaurants on a per capita basis of any major city in North America. In Plateau, Mile End, Little Italy, Little Burgundy and Griffintown, the shopping streets are chock-a-block full of interesting local shops.  Montreal is an amazing incubator of fashion designers, artists, artisans, event producers, chefs, bakers, baristas etc. 

While Calgary is spending millions of dollars creating pretty streetscapes to attract more people to Kensington, Inglewood and 17th Avenue, Montreal’s sidewalks are at best “adequate” - no designer benches, expensive lamp posts with banners, or “special” crosswalks to be found.  People don’t come to areas to look at banners or sit on pretty benches, they come to shop, dine, drink and meet friends.  A little grittiness doesn’t hurt anyone – in fact a street’s unique patina is part of its charm. 

What also makes Montreal’s vibrant streets unique is the lack of gentrification, i.e. replacing older buildings with newer buildings that in turn displaces lower income people and attracts more affluent residents. There are not a lot of new cookie-cutter condos with retail at street level except in downtown and Griffintown. Montreal makes do with the existing inventory of low-rise buildings from the mid 20th century, thereby keeping rents more affordable for “mom and pop” businesses.  

With so much to sip and savour, Montreal’s streets epitomize what Jane Jacobs, the influential 1960s urban activist meant when she said street vitality is directly linked to the number of doors that open onto the street - more doors the better. 

Rue St-Hubert is a five-block long street with over 400 mom and pop businesses - from thrift stores to wedding shops.  A canopy over the sidewalk, protect pedestrians from the elements and creates a unique sense of place.

Rue St-Hubert is a five-block long street with over 400 mom and pop businesses - from thrift stores to wedding shops.  A canopy over the sidewalk, protect pedestrians from the elements and creates a unique sense of place.

Seems like everywhere you go in Montreal there are shops along the streets. These shops create an attractive pedestrian environment. 

Seems like everywhere you go in Montreal there are shops along the streets. These shops create an attractive pedestrian environment. 

St. Catherine's Street in the downtown core is still lined with stores that attract shoppers at all times of the day, seven days a week, not the lobby of office buildings or high-end restaurants.

St. Catherine's Street in the downtown core is still lined with stores that attract shoppers at all times of the day, seven days a week, not the lobby of office buildings or high-end restaurants.

 Family Fun

Gobsmacked best describes my reaction to Montreal’s Desjardins Complex built in 1976. It consists of three office towers and a Hyatt Regency Hotel atop an indoor shopping centre.  From the outside it isn’t anything special, but inside the six-storey high, multi-purpose event space comes complete with a permanent dancing fountain (with lights and music) is very impressive.  

At Christmas, it is transformed into a Christmas wonderland with stage for festive performances, old fashioned carousel, mini-train for kids’ rides, face painting and yes, even a Santa Castle where kids get to meet Santa.  The place is packed with families each December.

Calgary missed a huge opportunity to create a dynamic indoor programming space as part of Bankers Hall, The Bow, Eighth Avenue Place or the redeveloped Core and Devonian Gardens.

This is the entrance to the elevators that get you to Montreal's observation deck on the 45th floor of the Place de Ville Marie. Once you are there you can experience    #MTLGO  , an interactive multimedia exhibition, designed by Montréal-based company gsmprject°. It explores many popular city themes—from hockey to gastronomy to performing arts to neighbourhoods—through 55 videos of citizens and Montréal personalities as well as 500 photos culled from the city’s social media and archives.  You could easily spend a hour or more with this entertaining and educational exhibition. 

This is the entrance to the elevators that get you to Montreal's observation deck on the 45th floor of the Place de Ville Marie. Once you are there you can experience  #MTLGO, an interactive multimedia exhibition, designed by Montréal-based company gsmprject°. It explores many popular city themes—from hockey to gastronomy to performing arts to neighbourhoods—through 55 videos of citizens and Montréal personalities as well as 500 photos culled from the city’s social media and archives.  You could easily spend a hour or more with this entertaining and educational exhibition. 

We nicknames Montreal's Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Fun Art given not only the fun artwork on display, but also the fun way it was exhibited. 

We nicknames Montreal's Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Fun Art given not only the fun artwork on display, but also the fun way it was exhibited. 

Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which is fun for everyone. 

Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which is fun for everyone. 

 Last Word

While not a fan of imitating what other cities do, Calgary developers, urban designers, planners, festival/event managers and politicians could well be inspired by Montreal’s unique and creative city building strategies. 

For the rest of us, Montreal is full of fun urban surprises.  Our best surprise was Crew Collective & Café – you have to see it to believe it! 

If you like this blog, you will like:

FFQing in Montreal? 

Montreal: A Cast of Characters

MBAM: Hands-on Tour

Calgary's Downtown GLOWS with fun!

You gotta go!

I am giving GLOW Calgary's new family-friendly interactive light festival an 8 out of 10. I hope these photos and videos will tell you why.

It is just too much fun for everyone. 

GLOW light shows happen 6:30 to 11:00 pm Saturday Feb 18, Sunday 19th and Monday 20th.  

GLOW maps and more information at DowntownCalgary

"Nibbles" by Australia's Amanda Peer, is an installation of cuddly illuminated bunnies that appeals to the toddlers and anyone who is young at heart. Hotchkiss Gardens

Canada 150 glowing tricycle was going up and down Stephen Avenue. 

Canada 150 glowing tricycle was going up and down Stephen Avenue. 

"Chopsticks + Chandelier" by Toronto's Jeremy Tsang is located at James Short Park near Chinatown.   

"Chopsticks + Chandelier" by Toronto's Jeremy Tsang is located at James Short Park near Chinatown.  

Even the people were glowing at Olympic Plaza. 

Even the people were glowing at Olympic Plaza. 

Rabbit Down? 

Rabbit Down? 

Top Three Picks:

  • Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is centre ice (Festival Hub) for GLOW with a fun family of glowing bunny rabbits, TROPICALGARY (a dancing light show with music), "Light Shower" booth and warming igloo (for kids only).
  • The Door at Eight Avenue Place's (9th Ave plaza) was a fun surprise for kids of all ages.
  • Olympic Plaza’s PRISMATICA should become a permanent winter installation on the plaza or somewhere in the downtown. 

Other Downtown Delights!

Downtown Calgary's other public art came alive with young children exploring them. 

Downtown Calgary's other public art came alive with young children exploring them. 

Downtown's glimmering and shimmering glass towers become jewel-like at night. 

Downtown's glimmering and shimmering glass towers become jewel-like at night. 

A stain glass window that is almost invisible by day glows at night. 

A stain glass window that is almost invisible by day glows at night. 

Wonderland, aka The BIG Head, on the plaza of the Bow office tower is transformed into a ghostly image at night. 

Last Word

I have to admit I was jealous, of Montreal’s amazing winter light shows, outdoor movies, interactive playgrounds scattered throughout their city center when we visited this past December. Montreal's En Lumiere festival takes place Feb 23rd to March 11th, 2017. 

Link: Montreal En Lumiere

However, I was very pleased to learn in January that the Calgary Downtown Association and Canada 150 had teamed up to produce GLOW a free family-friendly winter light festival for our Family Day Weekend. It didn’t disappoint. 

Now if only we can make GLOW an annual winter event and grow it into a major North American winter event. 

I’d love to see more use made of the making our spectacular office buildings GLOW in the night.

This image a photo of PRISMATICA was combined with the reflection of Eight Avenue Place on the facade of 707 Fifth office tower using the app "UNION."      I am thinking there is technology that could transform our downtown office buildings into unique colourful glowing artworks all winter long. 

This image a photo of PRISMATICA was combined with the reflection of Eight Avenue Place on the facade of 707 Fifth office tower using the app "UNION."  

I am thinking there is technology that could transform our downtown office buildings into unique colourful glowing artworks all winter long. 

Montreal vs Calgary: Underground City vs Above Ground City!

With the arrival of -20C temperatures, Calgary’s +15 walkway becomes the best thing since sliced bread for downtown workers and patrons.

However, that’s not how many urban planners in Calgary, Minneapolis, Edmonton and Winnipeg see it. Many think skyways are a bad idea because they suck the life out of the streets BELOW.  

Montreal's Desjardin Complex lobby is an indoor town square, complete with a dancing fountain and year-round programming. 

Montreal's Desjardin Complex lobby is an indoor town square, complete with a dancing fountain and year-round programming. 

Calgary's Bankers Hall lobby is magical at Christmas, but lacks the public programming space to make it vibrant evenings and weekends.

Calgary's Bankers Hall lobby is magical at Christmas, but lacks the public programming space to make it vibrant evenings and weekends.

+15 should be celebrated

I have always been a big defender of Calgary’s +15, believing that in good weather people love go outside, but in bad weather they love a coat-free way to get meetings, lunch or a coffee, or shop.  The +15 system in Calgary is also the best place to bump into that friend or business associate you have been meaning to call. (These observations are based on 10+ years as the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association).

I have also been touting Montreal’s world famous Underground City (a 32-km network of tunnels connecting offices, hotels, shopping, entertainment complexes and subway stations) used by 500,000 people a day as an example of how indoor and outdoor urban vitality can co-exist. I don’t recall ever hearing a planner say Montreal should abandon its network of tunnels because they suck the life out of the streets ABOVE.

Not having been to Montreal for several years, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself on how Montreal’s “Underground City” compares to Calgary’s “Above Ground City” and its impact on street vitality.

Link: Fun Facts Montreal's Underground City

The Tour

Thanks to Tourism Montreal, I got hooked up with Thom Seivewright, a Montreal Expert (it says so on his business card) who regularly conducts tours of Montreal’s Underground City. We met at the information counter at street level at their Eaton Centre, just off St. Catherine Street (Montreal’s historic downtown shopping street) for an a-mazing (pun intended) whirlwind two-hour tour of the Underground City.

Tom standing beside one of the few Underground Maps showing all of the buildings that are linked by tunnels as well as to the METRO subway. 

Tom standing beside one of the few Underground Maps showing all of the buildings that are linked by tunnels as well as to the METRO subway. 

Am I that out of touch?

To be accurate, since rebranding in 2004, it’s called RESO (the word “reseau” means “network” in French and the “O” refers to METRO, the name of the subway). This was the first I have heard of the new name.

I am going to continue to call it the Underground City – expert Thom thinks that is a better name and I agree.

We quickly headed down the stairs (little did I know this would be the first of thousands of stairs and dozens of escalator rides), as the Underground City is a complex network of underground tunnels and street level lobbies. 

At first, it looked much like Calgary’s +15 with familiar franchise shops, food courts and a moderate number of people – it was 10 am.  As we walked briskly through the system of tunnels, Thom informed and entertained with stories about how the Underground City evolved tunnel-by-tunnel and new building-by-new building, not unlike Calgary’s +15. 

One of the hundreds of stairs and elevators that you must negotiate when exploring Montreal's Underground City.

One of the hundreds of stairs and elevators that you must negotiate when exploring Montreal's Underground City.

Calgary's The Core shopping centre is three blocks long with a huge glass skylight, creating an contiguous shopping experience, with sky bridges at both the second and third floors. Yes, there are some stairs and ramps to negotiate. 

Calgary's The Core shopping centre is three blocks long with a huge glass skylight, creating an contiguous shopping experience, with sky bridges at both the second and third floors. Yes, there are some stairs and ramps to negotiate. 

Busking in one of Montreal's tunnels.

Busking in one of Montreal's tunnels.

A busker belting out a song in Calgary's +15 bridge. 

A busker belting out a song in Calgary's +15 bridge. 

Tom beside a piece of the Berlin Wall located in a tunnel in Montreal's Quarter International.  

Tom beside a piece of the Berlin Wall located in a tunnel in Montreal's Quarter International. 

A Jack Shadbolt painting is just one of several original artworks by major Canadian artists (including Montreal's Riopelle) located in the lobby of Calgary's Eight Avenue Place. 

A Jack Shadbolt painting is just one of several original artworks by major Canadian artists (including Montreal's Riopelle) located in the lobby of Calgary's Eight Avenue Place. 

Similarities

Montreal’s Underground City started in 1962 when the owners of the iconic Place Ville-Marie office tower with a shopping center at street level wanted to connect to the upscale Queen Elizabeth Hotel (the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In in 1969) across the street via a tunnel.  

Calgary’s +15 system was first discussed in 1963, (though it wasn’t realized until 1970) with the first bridge also connecting an office tower (Calgary Place) and a hotel (Calgary Inn, now the Westin).

Today, Montreal’s Underground includes all the major downtown office complexes -Eaton Centre, Cours Mont-Royal, Complexe Les Ailes, Place Montreal Trust, Place Ville-Marie, World Trade Centre Montreal and Complex Desjardins. 

The same goes for Calgary, where the +15 connects Bankers Hall, Bow Valley Square, The Bow, Eighth Avenue Place, Scotia Centre, Sun Life Towers, TD Square Towers, Canada Trust Tower and Suncor Energy Centre. 

And just like Calgary’s +15, Montreal’s Underground also has some gaps and its east side arts district (which includes the City’s convention centre) is not well connected to downtown’s main shopping and office complexes.

Both cities’ networks also include thousands of shops, cafes and food courts, on multi-levels, public art and interesting urban design elements, as well as “sketchy” areas at their peripheries.

Montreals Eaton's Centre lobby 

Lobby art in Calgary's Jamieson Place office tower. 

Lobby art in Calgary's Jamieson Place office tower. 

Fine dining in Montreal's World Trade Centre office building.

Fine dining in Montreal's World Trade Centre office building.

"Grab & go" lunch in Calgary's Bankers Hall.

"Grab & go" lunch in Calgary's Bankers Hall.

Montreal's World Trade Center tower is an indoor oasis of old world charm.  

Montreal's World Trade Center tower is an indoor oasis of old world charm.  

Calgary's equivalent would be Jamieson Place's winter garden with its infinity ponds, Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and living wall. 

Calgary's equivalent would be Jamieson Place's winter garden with its infinity ponds, Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and living wall. 

Public art is featured in many of Montreal's new tunnels. 

Public art is featured in many of Montreal's new tunnels. 

The +15 corridor at Calgary's Centennial Parkade is home to the Udderly Art Pasteur which is a legacy to the 2000 public art project that saw 100+ colourful cows adorn the streets, parks and plazas of downtown. 

The +15 corridor at Calgary's Centennial Parkade is home to the Udderly Art Pasteur which is a legacy to the 2000 public art project that saw 100+ colourful cows adorn the streets, parks and plazas of downtown. 

This was my favourite tunnel, it was like what I would imagine it would be to walk onto/into an ice berg. I am thinking it by be blog worthy on its own. 

This was my favourite tunnel, it was like what I would imagine it would be to walk onto/into an ice berg. I am thinking it by be blog worthy on its own. 

Calgary's playful +15 bridge connecting the Municipal Building and Arts Commons (Performing Arts Center) is a hit with the kids.  It offers a great view of the traffic along Macleod Trail entering the downtown.  

Calgary's playful +15 bridge connecting the Municipal Building and Arts Commons (Performing Arts Center) is a hit with the kids.  It offers a great view of the traffic along Macleod Trail entering the downtown.  

Differences

Montreal’s Underground City includes numerous residential buildings, dozens of hotels, post-secondary school and the Bell Centre arena.  Calgary’s +15 has only 9 hotels, no schools, no arena and I don’t believe there is single residential building attached to the system.

While Montreal’s system has more shopping than Calgary’s, it doesn’t come close to matching Calgary’s Core with its four levels of shopping under a three-block long skylight.  Montreal’s food courts and cafes, because they are underground, have a cozy vibe, but don’t have the spectacular sun and views Calgary’s +15 provides.  

Calgary’s +15 signage and map program is much more extensive and consistent than Montreal’s.  It is also easier to navigate the +15, because, you can see where you are going as you cross a bridge, allowing for better orientating yourself impossible to do in a tunnel. 

Map of Montreal's maze of underground tunnels in pink.

Map of Calgary's Above Ground Skywalk (yellow and white) with its 60+ bridges. 

Map of Calgary's Above Ground Skywalk (yellow and white) with its 60+ bridges. 

Montreal’s network, with its thousands of stairs, hundreds of escalators and few ramps is a nightmare for anyone with accessibility issues. While not perfect Calgary’s +15 system is definitely more accessible.

Thom noted that while a half a million people use the Underground every day, most downtown Montreal workers don’t use the system extensively as it is rarely convenient to go more than a couple of blocks. In fact, he apologized a couple of times as he asked if it would be OK if we went outside to save time.

Montreal Underground’s big advantage over Calgary’s +15 is its link to their METRO (subway) system; Calgarians have to go outside to catch a train.  The METRO system was very slick; our wait time was 5 minutes or less even at non-peak times, loading and unloading was fast as were the speed of the trains (up to 74 km/hr). It made our LRT system seem bush-league especially as it travels through our downtown.  On the plus side, Calgarians have a free fare zone in our downtown; Montrealers aren’t so fortunate.

Calgary’s +15 has nothing to match Montreal Complex Desjardins with its indoor town square space designed for public programming. Their Christmas programming was amazing - a Santa Village that included a Meet Santa Castle, carousel, mini-train and stage for various performances. It also had a special Disney-like fountain; light and music show for Christmas. The place was packed with families on the weekends.  Calgary’s renovated Devonian Gardens pales in comparison.    

Exiting Montreal's METRO directly into the Underground City. 

Exiting Montreal's METRO directly into the Underground City. 

Looking from Holt Renfrew +15 corridor to an outdoor C-Train Station in Calgary. 

Looking from Holt Renfrew +15 corridor to an outdoor C-Train Station in Calgary. 

Look out at Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor from the +15 bridge linking The Core to First Canadian Centre. 

Look out at Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor from the +15 bridge linking The Core to First Canadian Centre. 

Complexe Desjardins food court on the weekend in December is packed. 

Complexe Desjardins food court on the weekend in December is packed. 

Devonian Gardens (currently closed for repairs) includes a popular indoor children's playground. It is a popular winter picnic spot. 

Devonian Gardens (currently closed for repairs) includes a popular indoor children's playground. It is a popular winter picnic spot. 

IMHO (In my humble opinion)

While there are differences, for the most part Montreal’s Underground City and Calgary’s Above Ground City function in a very similar manner.

The big difference is that on the weekends and evenings, Montreal’s Underground City shopping areas, as well as St. Catherine Street sidewalks are just as busy, as weekdays, while Calgary’s +15 and Stephen Avenue have limited pedestrian traffic.

The reason for this isn’t because Calgary’s +15 system sucks the life out of the street but rather because Montreal’s downtown has more diversity of building types (uses) than Calgary’s, which will be the subject of a future blog.

In the winter Calgary's Stephen Avenue is often a hostile pedestrian environment, while the +15 walkway is animated with people shopping, dining and going to meetings.  

In the winter Calgary's Stephen Avenue is often a hostile pedestrian environment, while the +15 walkway is animated with people shopping, dining and going to meetings.  

When the weather is nice, Stephen Avenue is a fun place to stroll and people watch. 

When the weather is nice, Stephen Avenue is a fun place to stroll and people watch. 

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Canada: The Foundations Of Its Future

Given 2017 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, I think every Canadian should read a book about Canada – past, present or future. This idea occurred to me when I recently found the book “Canada: The Foundations Of Its Future” in a Montreal thrift store. 

Inside back cover artwork

True confession

I admit I was originally attracted to the book by its lovely coloured reproduction of historical paintings of Canada.  Then I became more intrigued when I noticed the author was none other than Stephen Leacock.  I had always thought of him as humourist, never as a historian.

Upon closer look, it turns out the book is “a private and limited edition” copy published by The House of Seagram in MCMXLI (yes, they used Roman numerals in the old days). 

Ironically, the 1941 publishing date is almost exactly in the middle of Canada’s history, i.e. 76 years from today and 74 years from Confederation.  

Painting by Adam Sherriff Scott, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

painting by Frederick H. Varley, A.R.C.A., Vancouver, B.C. 1941

painting by Hal Ross Perrigard, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

Better Perspective

Written in a reader-friendly manner (not even once did I fall asleep), the book is a wealth of information. For this baby boomer, it brings back memories of what I learned (forgot) about Canadian history decades ago in history classes at school.  It was so much different reading Leacock’s stories now having since visited every province in Canada and one territory, as well as internationally. Consequently, a much broader perspective of Canada and the world, enables me to understand and appreciate the history of our country.

The older I get, the more interested I am in history. Funny how that is.

Charles W. Jefferys, R.C.A., Toronto, Ont., 1941

Lessons Learned

painting by Charles W Jefferys, R.C.A., Toronto., 1941

What is amazing is how relevant the book is to the plethora of issues facing Canada today – First Nations poverty, Arctic Sovereignty, Immigration Policy, Natural Resources, Climate Change, Religious Persecution, Economic Change, Booms & Busts and Technological Change.

It was interesting to re-read the history of arctic exploration, specifically the search for the Northwest Passage in the context of today’s climate change.  A hundred years ago, the shrinking of the polar ice caps would have been good news.  It also made me wonder about Canada’s claim to arctic sovereignty given we have so little settlement there.

I now have a much greater appreciation for the longstanding and entrenched French vs. English duality of Canada, which is still influences Canada politically, culturally and economically even today.

painting by Adam Sherriff Scott, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Leacock’s stories about the violence and injustices between the early settlers and First Nations.  Having lived next to and worked on the Siksika Reserve near Gleichen Alberta in the early ‘80s, I now have a hands-on appreciation of both sides. Indeed, one of Canada biggest issues today has to be the well-being of our First Nations people.  I wish I had answers!  

I was also reminded of the everyday hardships faced by early Canadian settlers – a far cry from the comforts and conveniences of our everyday lives today.  How easily we forget!  We really should focus more on being grateful than griping.

Then there is a reminder of the important role immigrants (mostly poor) played in shaping the identity and development of Canada since Day One.  Immigration issues are still top of mind today.   In 1913, a whopping 400,870 new immigrants came to Canada, which then had population of 7.5 million. Leacock states, “There were more foreign-language newspapers in the Canadian West than anywhere else in the world.  Immigrants were exchanging European poverty for a new chance…we have to remember that their energy and industry and their new patriotism towards their new home played a large part in the making of our Western Dominion.”

Perhaps the biggest enlightenment was how our attitude towards nature and the exploitation of natural resources has changed over the past 150 years.  Leacock constantly references the importance of exploiting our natural resources as the key to Canada’s future.  It is amazing how that attitude has changed. 

It was interesting to also be reminded how Canada’s economy has evolved from one of fur trading, to fishing, to forestry and then mining. There was no mention of oil and gas.

Oh, how much the world has changed and yet how it is still the same.

painting by Hal Ross Perrigard, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

Samuel Bronfman’s Preface

“It is no magic fiat which achieves this: it is the people of Canada who have made and are making Canada. The coureur de bois; the merchant-adventurer; the explorer; the colonist; the homesteader; all who came early, wrestled with Nature; and won – these are the precursors who made our country.”

artwork by Ernest Neumann, Montreal, P.Q., 1941 

“Certainly the future decades of this century, which in the words of the late Sir Wilfred Laurier “belong to Canada,” will see Canadians zealously dedicating themselves to the further development of the boundless resources of our country, and will see, too, those resources flowing to the farthest corner of the world – a Canadian contribution to the welfare of humanity.”

Nor can we leave unmentioned the part which Canada is playing and will continue to play as intermediary between the two greatest forces for good that exist in the world to-day.  Because of our geographic location upon this continent, and our spiritual location with the Empire, we are destined – as we indeed, have already seized that destiny – to bring closer together the best of the Old World and New.

Leacock’s Libations

Canadians instinctively think more of what is still to come in their country than of what has happened in the past. People of older lands typically and commonly look back. They think of their thousands of years of history…majesty of the past.”

“The emigrant ship….was the world’s symbol of peace and progress…”

“Then came the discovery of gold and quickened the pace of life.”

“Life received a new wakefulness from the arc lamp and the electric light bulb…”

“Many came in caravans of prairie schooners – children, chattel and all.”

“Calgary was non-existent at Confederation. When the Canadian Pacific was built it was just a poor place, a few shacks. They moved it a mile or so, on ropes, rather than move the railway line.”

painting by T.M. Schintz,  High River, Alta., 1941

painting by W.J.Phillips, R.C.A., Winnipeg, Man., 1941

Last Word

I leave this to Bronfman wrote in the preface, “To encompass them the vision of the early pioneers must still be with us still, for where there is no vision, the people perish. It is the vision of a free Canada, a united Canada, a mighty Dominion…are manifested the various groups of different origins and separate creeds, working together in harmonious unison, each making its own contribution to the complete achievement which is the Canadian mosaic.” 

Does Canada have a vision today?  

It would be an interesting 2017 project for the Globe & Mail, Postmedia or Maclean’s Magazine to ask our Prime Minister, Premiers and big city mayors to independently submit their vision for Canada’s future.  It would be interesting to see how much they have in common? 

Maybe we should also ask corporate CEOs too (perhaps one from each province and territory). Why stop there - lets ask social agency, cultural and postsecondary CEOs also.

I wonder, "Is it realistic in today’s world for any democracy to work in harmonious unison?” 

MBAM: The Human Hand

When I visit an art gallery/museum, I can’t help but look at the exhibition(s) from a curator’s perspective and wonder what would I do differently.  It’s a bit of a case of “once a curator, always a curator,” having organized 100+ exhibitions over 10 years at Calgary’s Muttart Public Art Gallery from 1985 to 1995 (a precursor to what is now Contemporary Calgary). 

Questions?

Upon entering a gallery, my mind immediately starts questioning.  Is there an exhibition theme? What is the curator trying to say to the public? Why did the curator choose these particular works? Why are they hung like they are? Is there a more logical way to group the art?  Why is this work beside that one?

I never read the curator’s statement first (though it is usually on the wall at the entrance to the gallery), as I don’t want to be influenced by his/her thinking.  But often I will read it after I have reviewed the exhibition and then sometimes revisit the artworks to determine how well the art and statement connect.  Does it help me gain new insights about the art and the exhibition? Is the statement public friendly or art gibberish? As I said, “Once a curator, always a curator!”

Especially when visiting large galleries with many exhibitions, I like to make it fun by looking at all the art with one theme in mind. Maybe a colour, brushwork, shadows, faces or architecture – whatever catches my eye first.

Why Hands?

Recently, when at the Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal (MBAM), Canada’s second largest art gallery, (the largest being the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto), I decided to study how hands were portrayed in various artworks from contemporary to traditional, from photography to sculptures.

Backstory: The idea came from a photo I took of the lovely second floor columns of the historic Bourgie Concert Hall, across the street from the MBAM. When I checked the photo, I surprisingly, noticed, a cluster of fingers in the foreground where the head should be of life-size “winged figure” sculpture. 

It was only when working on this blog, that I learned the sculpture by David Altmejd’s titled is titled “The Eye.”  

 

My curatorial statement can be found at the end of the blog for those interested. I should also add that if you are in Montreal, be sure to designate a few hours to visit MBAM. 

Without further adieu, here is my curated exhibition of close-up photos of hands from various artworks on exhibit at MBAM in December 2016. 

Curatorial Statement

The images were chosen to reflect the tremendous range of emotions that can be – and are - portrayed by the human hand - from a sense of innocence to strength and power; from tenderness to love and passion.  The images hopefully also evoke a sense of individuality, human interaction and/or intimacy that strike a cord with everyone's personal experiences. 

The images were also selected to illustrate how different media - from photography to painting and artists have employed different genres from realism to primitivism - for centuries to convey a sense of the human experience. 

And thirdly, images with a strong narrative were chosen in the hope they would spark some thoughtful personal reflection and memories about the viewer's life.    

No artists’ names or artwork titles are included, thereby allowing the viewer to focus on the image and not be distracted or swayed by peripheral information. Ponder the hands based on your own experiences and ideas to create your own meaning and significance for each image and for the exhibition as a whole.

Ideally, in doing so you will have gained a new appreciation for the “human hand” both in art and in everyday life. 

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