Media @ McGill

Morgan Julia Charles | Isotropic media: Towards a Cultural History of Concrete in Montreal

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Despite the utopic connotations attributed to concrete by its early modernist boosters, such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, the material looms large in the contemporary imagination as the cold and lifeless matter of industrial buildings and suburban sprawl, the crumbling skin of the city that signals a deeper urban decay. In Quebec, the liminal position of concrete is particularly acute: once the material embodiment of pre-Expo urbanization and renewal in the construction of new transportation infrastructure, as well as the medium of modern claims to cultural and economic sovereignty through its use in massive hydroelectric projects, it is now synonymous in the province with overpass collapses, abandoned buildings, and collusion between the provincial government and the construction industry. This project looks at the mediating role of concrete in Montreal, treating the material as a vector through which particular cultural forms, aspirational politics, and collective memory have been consistently negotiated and reified in the city for the last century.

The dissertation itself is comprised of six chapters: an introduction, a history and literature review chapter, three case study chapters, and a conclusion. The Introduction lays out the context of concrete’s associations in contemporary Quebec, from its connotations of widespread corruption in the construction industry and political collusion, to fears in Montreal specifically about crumbling infrastructure and wider fears about public disinvestment. These are then put in a wider historical context of concrete’s use in Quebec and Montreal specifically over the last century, enumerating the local distinctions in relation to the development of concrete construction in the rest of Canada, the United States, and Europe.

The second chapter entails an in-depth background and history of concrete’s modern development and marketing over the last century. In this chapter I trace the early associations of concrete with bad taste and how these were elided through its early imbrication with modernist architecture with its emphasis on functionalism, permanence, and (tenuous) links to antiquity. These connections were largely established through trade journals and other printed matter funded by concrete entrepreneurs in France and the United States. I outline concrete’s early connotations with monolithism and anti-ornamentation to the latter half of the 20th century, when modernism, in particular the Brutalist style with which concrete came to be synonymous, began to face a wide backlash at the same time that early concrete modernist buildings were also beginning to show signs of age, arguing that these two factors served to further exacerbate a growing hostility towards concrete.

Chapter three is the first of three case studies, and looks at the abandoned Silo no. 5 in Montreal’s industrial port. This chapter serves to contextualize the beginning of Canada’s cement industry, its important early relationship with the growth of agriculture, and Montreal’s subsequent status as the country’s metropolis due to its importance in international grain exporting networks (a situation made possible by new building technologies such as slipform concrete construction). From here I go on to discuss the various representations of Montreal’s silos in both local and international media, from paintings to postcards, and how these helped to negotiate the city’s uneasy relationship with these massive new buildings and the industrialism they represented. After the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the silos grew obsolete, and so the second half of the chapter traces their gradual disinvestment in the city, from attempts to camouflage them to the eventual demolition of silos nos. 1 and 2. By the 1990s, Silo no. 5 began to be recuperated as “industrial heritage” and here I outline the various interests that came in to play around its preservation and subsequent purchase by the Canada Lands Company in 2010, from artistic interventions to academic symposiums, and how these have worked to “contain” the silo’s previously abject characteristics, consecrating its concrete as cultural and worthy of preservation.

Chapter four takes as its case study the Turcot Interchange, a stacked freeway hub south-west of downtown Montreal. Like so many major transportation networks in the city, the Turcot was built in the run-up to Expo 1967, and has aged badly, with plans announced in 2007 to rebuild the vaunting structure at ground level. This chapter begins with a consideration of the Turcot today through its representation in recent apocalyptic films, contrasting this with the optimism and utopic qualities these new elevated expressways conveyed in the early 20th century. This is further contextualized with a discussion of Montreal’s enthusiastic embrace of new, large-scale concrete infrastructure and buildings beginning in the early 1960s in preparation for Expo 67, and how these new developments initially signaled the province’s sudden modernity during the Quiet Revolution. From here, I go on to outline how these new constructions gradually came to take on less salubrious connotations as it became clear that new development often meant the demolition of older neighbourhoods, and showing how, by the 1970s, concrete megastructures were already becoming associated with the collusion between the government and organized crime. In conclusion, I consider the Turcot as ruin, and discuss how it cannot be easily recuperated into a heritage or nostalgic narrative as it still stands as a threat to present systems.

Chapter five looks at the Olympic Park, built for the 1976 games. The site, designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, includes the controversial Stadium and Tower (“The Big Owe” because of the debt it took three decades to pay off), the Swimming Pool, and the Velodrome. This chapter begins with a consideration of the site as it stands today, largely unused and unloved by Montrealers, an unwanted “lieu de mémoire”. Following this, I look at way in which the stadium’s understanding by the local press and users has been largely determined through discussion of its concrete, from early criticism that Taillibert’s choice of material was overly costly compared to steel, to discussions by the architect of his work as a sculpture or monument, to the contemporary worries about the state of concrete after several pieces have collapsed in the stadium and parking garages. This chapter looks at how concrete was transformed from the strictly functional material it was posited as in the early twentieth century, to an artistic medium suitable for the construction of monuments, what Taillibert described as “recycled stone.” The period of Olympic construction in Montreal coincided with a wider disillusionment with publicly-funded megaprojects such as Mirabel Airport, and here I look at how concrete came to be synonymous in the province with government overspending and white elephants.