Montreal Environmental Graphics and Public Art

Montréal Inside Out

The publisher of Quebec’s urban design magazine shows us his Montreal, from historic signs and pothole art to the revitalized Quartier des Spectacles.

Montreal has long been a world-class design mecca. In 2006, it became the first North American city to join the UNESCO City of Design network. Here, design is not just for show, but a way to channel a unique, vibrant energy, a certain joie de vivre that bursts with creativity and a bilingual entrepreneurial spirit. There’s always an edgy buzz on the city’s streets, a tingle of excitement that can be felt year-round in its arresting visual art, graphic design, and urban signage.

We asked Philippe Lamarre, publisher of Urbania magazine (and principal of Montreal creative studio Toxa) to share his favorite examples of Montreal’s design ethos. In the eight years since he launched Urbania and its accompanying interactive television series (, Lamarre has helped Quebecers discover many little-known or underappreciated gems throughout the province. In many cases, his brash and innovative magazine has covered angles and perspectives about Montreal that no other media outlet has explored.

Quartier des Spectacles: luminous moments captured in time

Montreal’s newly defined and revitalized entertainment hub, located just east of the downtown core, is home to several dozen performance venues—theatres, bars, cafés, and nightclubs—that provide a wide range of entertainment night and day. This square-kilometer area hosts the city’s famed cultural events and summer festivals, which draw more than five million people each year.

Since 2002, the neighborhood has been the site of an economic, urban, and cultural redevelopment guided by an integrated vision. Renowned Swiss designer Ruedi Baur and Montreal designer Jean Beaudoin created a visual identity for the neighborhood and have directed a dynamic urban lighting plan that explores how light creates signage while expressing identity. Working with Montreal lighting designer Axel Morgenthaler, Baur and Beaudoin have seamlessly blended lighting and graphic design to capture the joyous vibe outside dozens of cultural venues.

The Quartier des Spectacles’ “Luminous Pathway”—a trail of red dots leading to many of the city’s top cultural venues—highlights the district’s cultural diversity while respecting the environment, explains Beaudoin. “Light rises from the theaters and pulses to the rhythm of cultural activities (in real time), lending an identity to a whole neighborhood and revealing its very essence. Light follows life.”

A double line of lighted red dots creates a whimsical, vibrant red carpet that extends the halls of the cultural venues onto the street. “The dots acknowledge Montreal’s old Red Light district that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century in the same area,” explains Beaudoin, adding that the dots’ dynamic, pulsating nature showcases the city’s ever-changing urban landscape.

“Dynamic lighting is an exceptional tool to unveil the diversity of the district’s visual identity and its events, because it enables us to design different moments, such as movies, plays, dance performances, exhibitions, and contemporary and digital art,” adds Beaudoin.

As part of the lighting plan, the Quartier des Spectacles is also exploring the possibilities of light for creating signage. A recent pilot project experiments with projecting directional information onto the pavement. This urban intervention was created in February 2010 as part of Montreal’s Nuit Blanche (the annual all-night “High Lights” festival featuring cultural, music, culinary, and sports activities).

The system shows pedestrians the way to major nearby venues, and highlights their presence in the district as they cross the intersection of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Denis streets. The preliminary installation, still an experimental prototype, consisted of projectors suspended from towers and synchronized with the intersection’s existing traffic lights. The projections illuminated only the crosswalks, clearly indicating safe pedestrian passages across the street.

“It’s a unique way to show visitors the ebullient cultural activity in the Quartier des Spectacles, right on the main drag of Sainte-Catherine Street,” says Kathia St. Jean, communications director for the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership.

Roadsworth: making his mark on Montreal streets

Ten years ago, Roadsworth, aka Peter Gibson, began painting bicycle symbols around the streets of Montreal to protest the city’s lack of cycling paths. What began as activism—Gibson was arrested for vandalizing city property—quickly turned into highly respected art as Roadsworth, now an internationally acclaimed “artist’s artist,” waged a three-year campaign of illegal art installations (with the unwavering support of Montreal’s arts community) to spark discussions about art and authority.

The subject of an award-winning documentary, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, Gibson’s work continues to highlight the debate between art and freedom of expression. His now-iconic images—the giant white footprint, the electric plug, the row of bullets—incorporate his own brand of street markings and other elements of the urban landscape.

“I use paint, stencils, and other materials to create site-specific, legal and illegal interventions that produce brief narratives and visual puns,” explains Gibson, who is currently working on an indoor sculptural installation using recycled materials. “Street art, for me, is a way to connect with a city and the people, landscape, architecture, and history that make up a city's soul. In that sense, the work that I do in Montreal is intimately connected and therefore quintessentially ‘Montreal.’”

Aires Libres: celebrating diversity, diversions, and design

Billed as an “eco-artistic happening” in Montreal’s Gay Village, Aires Libres (“Free Spaces”) debuted in the summer of 2008, temporarily turning several blocks of Sainte-Catherine Street, just east of the downtown core, into a car-free pedestrian zone jam-packed with cutting-edge art, theatre, music and activities that celebrate freedom within the creative forces of the city. The goal? To promote the gay village while revitalizing the area and providing merchants with greater visibility.

In 2009, design agency Paprika Communications chose a clothespin to anchor its concept, “A great time to hang out.” Workers strung up clotheslines throughout the site, while giant clothespins welcomed visitors and stenciled clothespins transformed the streets underfoot. In 2010, the area was transformed into a hanging rose garden. Free outdoor environmentally themed activities for all ages add to the site’s appeal each summer.

The Montreal Signs Project

Concordia University professor Matt Soar has a thing for Montreal’s vintage signs. He’s gathered a like-minded group—the Montreal Signs Project—to save treasured historic signs from the scrapheap “through vigilance, persistence, and sheer luck.”

“I actually began the project in 2004 as a critique of the over-abundance of advertising in Montreal, including very poorly designed signs. Some older signs are clearly worth saving; over time, they've become lightning rods for a multitude of personal memories of life in the city,” explains Soar, adding that his team only intervenes to save signs that are unique to Montreal. “After all, so many signs these days are generic; they can literally be seen all over the world.”

Soar’s latest project is saving Montreal’s iconic Farine Five Roses Flour sign, which has presided over the city’s skyline since 1948 and will likely be torn down now that the brand is owned by Smuckers. “The website includes a history of the sign, ways for people to contribute (e.g. anagrams, sketches), and my own whimsical ideas about how to recycle the 15-foot high letters when the sign comes down one day,” adds Soar.

Borduas mural: design, poetry, and “organized chaos”

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of renowned Canadian abstract painter Paul-Émile Borduas, Montreal public art nonprofit MU commissioned a mural to dress the wall of downtown Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque du Québec. Graphic designer Thomas Csano and calligrapher Luc Saucier combined visual elements of six different Borduas works.

“Balancing creation and communication, merging graphic design and visual arts, my job is not work, it’s a game of organizing chaos,” explains Csano. “The passageway is called ‘Paul-Émile Borduas,’ but it wasn’t marked. MU (a non-profit organization that promotes and supports public art by commissioning murals), wanted to use the walls to honor his legacy. His art and poetry inspired me to create the mural. Montreal is an open city, a creative laboratory where exploration is permitted. It inspires me and many others to action with a free spirit; the art we do is probably colored with this energy.

Turning potholes into art

Montreal’s world-class potholes are the butt of many jokes and the bane of every city driver’s existence. Two young artists, filmmaker Davide Luciano and writer/photographer Claudia Ficca, decided to have a little fun and turn them into art.

Gathering up willing friends and family, Luciano and Ficca staged elaborate vignettes that celebrate Montreal’s deepest potholes. They created to showcase their work, which soon grew to include images shot in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles.

“Montreal is a beautiful city that happens to be pothole-ridden,” says Luciano. “Because Montrealers love to hate potholes, we wanted to create a humorous photographic series that made the viewer look at the pothole under a new light.”

Luciano’s favorite image is the first one they took. “‘Laundry’ encapsulates the essence of an old-world sexy Italian woman,” he explains. “’The Diver’ is very powerful and realistic, subtle but to the point.”

Rose-Marie Goulet: haunting urban interventions

A fixture on the public art scene since the early 1980s, Rose-Marie Goulet’s work captured worldwide attention with her evocative 1999 granite, steel, and grass sculptural tribute to the 14 women gunned down during the massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989 (Nef pour 14 reines/Nave for 14 queens). Since then, more than 20 of her installations across the city have garnered multiple awards and accolades from the design world.

Goulet refers to her installations as “urban interventions/integrations.” For her 2009 piece, La (les) leçon(s) plurielles(s) (Multiple lessons), commissioned by the historic Théâtre Denise-Pelletier, Goulet chose to incorporate a canonic text about the history of contemporary theatre.

“The idea in this piece was to remember my own feelings being exposed to theatre as a child. The verbal flight of this quasi-classic text—at once absurd and silly—struck me not just as text, but also as a theatrical set. My plan consisted of integrating explicit stage directions throughout these words. Each of these directions serves to build objects or places that the author refers to in his work. The words literally form the object or the site.”

The Mount Royal Cross: Montreal landmark shines on

When this iconic illuminated metal structure—perched atop Montreal’s Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Mount Royal Park overlooking the east end of Montreal—was first installed in 1924, the 120 light bulbs on either side had to be changed by hand.

A beacon of Montreal’s urban landscape that can be seen from 130 miles away, the nearly 100-ft.-tall cross was built to commemorate the one erected in 1643 by the Governor of the Island, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, to thank God for saving Montreal from severe flooding. Now owned by the city, the cross was converted to fiberoptic light in 1992, and was treated to a swanky LED facelift in 2009. The LED conversion not only saves energy, but allows the cross to glow in a wide range of colors in addition to its traditional white.

--By Wendy Helfenbaum, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011


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