by Johnny Lucas

For a Hot Time, Join the Montréal Underground

Earlier this year there was a case of a Montréal man who spend 48 very busy days without going out. He didn't miss a day of work, he lived in his usual home and he went to the opera, to movies, to restaurants and cafes, he exercised, did all his shopping, had a full social life, he just didn't go out. He could also have got married in a cathedral, gone to university and golfed. He could even have boarded a train and gone across the country.

If you really wanted to you could get on the subway in Toronto, get to Union Station, hop on the train to Montréal for the weekend and come home without ever going outside. The network doesn't yet connect every building on the island, nor is it ever likely to do so. If the 48 day man had been willing to dash just one block now and then in the open air he could have done virtually everything you could think of doing in Montréal - except walk to the top of the mountain.

Forget the old cartoons of what visionaries of the 1950s thought the city of future would look like. Everything will not be covered by a plastic dome. The future has arrived, and it has touched down in Montréal first. Climate control has gone underground, Montréal is one of the world's pioneers.

Montréal had better motivation to begin its sheltered passageways than Toronto. Montréal winters are longer, colder and slushier. The city gets an average of 105" of snow every year and the $65 million budgeted for its removal is never enough.

The beginning of the network is generally accepted to have been the linkage of the 47 stories of office space of Place Ville Marie with the 1,200 rooms of The Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1962. The real innovation of that project was that the linkage was not a mere tunnel but a complex or diverse public spaces with a floor area equal to the area of Place Ville Marie's cruciform office towers.

The Métro which carried the crowds to Expo '67 gave both Montréal and the Underground City another boost. The opening of Place Bonaventure and its connection to Central Station took the concept of a totally climate controlled environment a major step further. Place Bonaventure integrates a two story commercial mall, a large exhibition hall, offices and on top of the complex, a 400 room hotel.

Since there was never a master plan for the connection of passageways and complexes, it's possible to get disoriented, but it's a very safe environment and there's always someone around to ask for directions.

The individual character of each section of the network is actually a bonus: the arches on the ceiling let you know that you're in Place de la Cathedral, a hexagon theme indicates Complexe Desjardins, and the browns and darker lighting could only indicate Place Bonaventure. Each subterranean station on the Metro line has been designed by a different architectural firm and has installations by different artists.

Architects and town planners will be impressed by statistics such as 18 miles of subterranean malls, 4 million square metres of underground space, access to 1,200 offices, 1,600 apartments, seven major hotels, two universities, 30 movie theatres, 40 banks and a skating rink.

All this didn't happen overnight, in fact it's still evolving. At any time there's a tunnel under construction and always a new tentacle being added somewhere. The new Montréal Forum is now being built beside Windsor Station, it will definitely have a link to the Underground City. On the other end of town, on the Metro and therefor part of the network, the passages at the Olympic installation are still being improved.

The newest major addition to the heart of the system is Place de la Cathédrale. This shopping arcade and office complex is on and under the city block occupied by Christ Church Cathedral, the Anglican church which the Queen attends when she is in Montréal. During the construction of this new complex, the vicarage was disassembled and later rebuilt stone by stone, and the cathedral itself was put on supports and raised on a little closer to heaven to make room for the excavations beneath it.

On a recent visit to Montréal, I spent some time checking out the extent of the sheltered network, but I was quickly distracted by the content. Inside Complexe Guy Favreau was a street scene from Chinatown. Families visited on the benches, babies slept, for the equivalent of a few underground blocks I heard only Cantonese.

Up on Sherbrooke Street, after a very brief foray into the open air I ducked into the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Colville exhibition. 25 paintings and 10 serigraphs are supported by a show of 346 preparatory working drawings. Colville produces only two or three finished images a year, the exhibit answers the question as to what he does with the rest of his time. Each composition is finely planned and these archives leave a trail for the non-artist to follow.

In the old part of the Museum on the other side of Sherbrooke Street (connected by a tunnel, of course) was a show of Dutch and Flemish drawings from the Royal Library at Windsor.

Out at the Olympic Park, in the building built for bicycle racing, is perhaps the city's ultimate defiance of its climate: the Biodôme. It's 10,000 m2 of tropical rainforest, Laurentian woodland, St. Lawrence waterway and Antarctica. Huge tree trunks spray out steam at their upper levels to keep the raucous birds and jungle flora happy. Bats fly in their cave and in the next area, fish and beavers get on with their live much as they might have done in the area might have been 400 years ago.

Of all the wonders on the Montreal "Underground City" it wasn't the raising of the Cathedral, or the quantity of shops or the miles of man-made walking trails that most impressed me, it was getting a close up look at a beaver happily chewing through a branch. Me and about twenty other Montréalers and visitors of all ages watched this symbol of Canada through the glass on the side of the pond as he blithely did what beavers do.

It was simple and a real marvel. As it says on the back of the ticket of admission to the Alex Colville show, presumably quoting the artist "The ordinary things in life are more important than we think."

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 19, 1997