How Montreal Became A Quiet Capital Of Modernism

The city underwent a major transformation in the 1960s and ’70s. The architects Papineau, Le Blanc, and Gérin-Lajoie gave it a face.

Some of Montreal’s most unusual and eye-catching architecture can be traced back to the 1967 World Expo— the event that announced to the world that the city was truly cosmopolitan. Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s groundbreaking modular high-rise apartment complex, is a remnant of the Expo, as is the otherworldly geodesic dome that now houses the Biosphere museum. Hovering over the water of the Saint Lawrence River, the glass and steel ’67 Quebec Pavilion still remains as well.

[Photo: © Michel Brunelle]

The latter—praised by New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable as “the sleeper of the show”—was the work of Montreal architects Louis-Joseph Papineau, Michel Robert Le Blanc, and Guy Gérin-Lajoie, whose firm, PLG, left an indelible mark on the Quebec city during the 1960s and ’70s. A new exhibition at the Centre d’exposition of the University of Montreal explores the period between 1958 to 1974 that produced PLG’s best-known projects, as well as the architects’ outsized impact on Canadian modernist design.

Today, the architecture firm’s pioneering public works define the radical period of Canadian history that gave to its rise: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. It was a time of intense socio-cultural upheaval for the province, when Quebec shifted from a traditional, Catholic church-centered society to an industrial and cultural center. With the popularization of TV, Quebec became less isolated and more urbanized. The government instated new ministries of education and health, making the province more secularized. And architects took on new school and hospital projects, bolstered by new government spending.

Transparence du pavillon du Québec à l’Expo 67. [Photo: BAnQ]

In Montreal, the government also began pouring money into cultural endeavors that would put the city on the map as one of the world’s major urban centers. Under visionary mayor Jean Drapeau, the city’s skyline changed significantly—thanks in part to the spectacular buildings constructed for the 1967 Expo. PLG’s Quebec Pavilion was a glowing glass box, sleek and sophisticated, that appeared to be opening up over the water below. (Though it’s still around today, it has lost much of its modernist charm; attached to the Montreal Casino, the building’s glass is now an ostentatious gold.)

Under Drapeau, the city also started to build its first major subway lines, and the mayor held a competition challenging architects to submit their best designs for the stations. The result is a subway system that remains a monument to experimental Modernist design—and PLG’s concrete Peel Station is no exception. The brutalist structure is punctuated by circular ceramic murals that Quebec artist Jean-Paul Mousseau integrated into the architecture itself. According to Canadian Architect, Mousseau, along with a “resident philosopher,” were considered full-time members of the architecture team—a testament to the firm’s multi-disciplinary nature.

Another major PLG project was the Mirabel airport, an enormous structure wrapped in glass, designed to be one of the most cutting-edge airports in the world. Though spectacular in design, the airport was overshadowed by controversy over expropriating the farmland on which it was built. Even after completion, the number of travelers to come through the building fell massively short of the projections, and the airport ultimately closed in 2004. Other notable projects include Papineau’s own home, inspired by Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and a never-built plan for modular, plastic houses that echo other experimental utopian designs of the 1960s.

The optimism of PLG’s architecture mirrors the optimism of the era, when Montreal was shedding its provincial past to become the center of art, music, and culture we know it as today. As many of the modernist structures still dotting the city show, PLG had a major hand in that.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.