A model of Westmount Square is on display in one of the galleries near the entrance to a tunnel that leads to the Atwater metro. Like a modernist dollhouse, the model encased in glass offers a bird's eye view of sleek architectural innovation.
The four towers—two commercial and two residential—frame Mount-Royal, and on a clear day near twilight, a sunset casts pastel hues between the tall glass structures.
But to experience to see it as its architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe first envisioned it is to imagine the glistening potential of the future.
Mies van der Rohe's time in Montreal corresponds to the end of his career and subsequent death in 1969, and Montreal's entry into modernity with Expo 67. As one of North America's oldest cities, stifled in the first half of the twentieth century by a repressive Catholic leadership, it's coming-of-age as a modern city came late.
The arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s represented a period in Montreal's history when it could look forward and imagine a new and liberated future severed from its past. The three buildings he worked on here reflect new ways of thinking about space, where the urban experience was reimagined as shaped by easy mobility, accessibility and imagination.
The arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s represented a period in Montreal's history when it could look forward and imagine a new and liberated future severed from its past.
Mies in Montreal
Mies van der Rohe is considered one of the greatest and most influential architects of the 20th century. Born in Germany, he was the last director of the famous Bauhaus school before escaping Nazi Germany and emigrating to the US during the 1930s. His style of architecture reflected many of the modernist values of Bauhaus, including but not limited to minimalism, the use of "true materials," the use of technology and "form follows function."
After leaving Europe, he settled in Chicago, where he was appointed head of the architecture school at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology (today’s Illinois Institute of Technology). He designed dozens of buildings, many as part of the campus still standing in Chicago, redefining the city's skyline. His popularity also meant he designed buildings in Houston, Berlin, Toronto, and Montreal over the next few decades.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed three buildings in Montreal, including Westmount Square, between 1964 and 1969. On Nun's Island he was also the architect for Tourelle-Sur-Rive (Hi-Rise 1-3) on Nun's Island and "the most beautiful gas station in the world," which in recent years was renovated from a service station to a community centre.
Phyllis Lambert, who helped bring Mies to Montreal after first convincing her father to hire him on the NYC Seagram Building, told the Gazette that Joe Fujikawa, who worked for Mies, was the project architect and had final say on the design.
Generally, in part due to his declining health, Mies's work in Montreal was done from afar, and some have gone on to say he acted more as a consultant than an active project manager.
His minimalist style aimed to reduce and distil building designs to their simplest forms, focusing on function above all else.
Dreams of Cities Within Cities
In Mies van der Rohe: The Built World by Carsten Krohn, they contextualize the building of the Westmount Square complex with Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie and other modernist architects working in Montreal.
Architects like Safdie believed in greater architectural mobility via megastructures and "hybrid building typology" which blurs the line between architecture and city. Mies preferred an open floor plan and simple columns as fixed points, creating an urbanized pedestrian plaza and courtyard. Westmount Square featured a mid-rise building at the surface as a mediation between the more residential area and the more sophisticated concept of Westmount Square's "city within a city." The undefined space of the courtyard lends itself to being shaped by the needs and wants of the public that uses it. The idea that work, shopping and living would all be accessible by foot similarly reduces waste and stress.
Mies has long been associated with the “less is more” adage (some even credit him for coining the phrase). His minimalist style aimed to reduce and distil building designs to their simplest forms, focusing on function above all else. His best designs were reduced until you couldn’t remove a single element without the entire structure collapsing. No wall and no flourish was superfluous or unnecessary.
Walking around his buildings doesn't feel like stepping into the past, so one wonders if walking through them in the late 1960s might have been like walking through the future.
Westmount Square and the three high rises on Nun's Island represent a way of reimagining urban life, emphasizing proximity and access, much in the same way that Habitat 67 intended to use new technology and materials to revolutionize urban living in a way that countered the more prevalent suburban sprawl that was overtaking North American suburban living.
The spaces themselves were designed with the idea that they could change and transform the city to meet the needs of the people, which came to fruition with the service station that was reopened recently as a community centre, taking inspiration from Mies's original design and ideas to revive a space that was becoming destitute, no longer able to fulfil its original function.
A Vision of the Future from the Past
Unlike some of the other architecture of the late 1960s period that transformed Montreal's look, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's feel is present. Walking around his buildings doesn't feel like stepping into the past, so one wonders if walking through them in the late 1960s might have been like walking through the future.
Looking at the model now, one imagines how revolutionary they once were and how, perhaps, we've lost the touch of imagining urban spaces as beautiful and functional. Do we already have some of the solutions to our housing crisis mapped out by thinkers of the past, people like Mies or Safdie, who saw urban spaces as fluid, open spaces able to bring us closer together?