written by:
photos by:
February 26, 2009
Originally published in Suburbs With Attitude

Dispassionate about his city's de rigueur "City of Design" designation, architect Gilles Saucier shows us there's more to Montreal than Expo 67.

Biosphere in Montreal, Canada
Montreal, Quebec

Dispassionate about his city's de rigueur "City of Design" designation, architect Gilles Saucier shows us there's more to Montreal than Expo 67. Photo by: Matthew Monteith

Photo by 
1 / 11
2 / 11
3 / 11
4 / 11
5 / 11
DW0108_DETR_06
DW0108_DETR_06
Photo by 
6 / 11
7 / 11
8 / 11
DW0108_DETR_09
Photo by 
9 / 11
DW0108_DETR_10
Photo by 
10 / 11
11 / 11
Biosphere in Montreal, Canada
Montreal, Quebec

Dispassionate about his city's de rigueur "City of Design" designation, architect Gilles Saucier shows us there's more to Montreal than Expo 67. Photo by: Matthew Monteith

Forty years ago last summer, the world turned its attention to Montreal for Expo 67, which proved to be the most successful World’s Fair in history. Setting all manner of attendance records—569,000 visited on the third day—and including 62 nations, Expo 67 marked the centenary of Canada’s confederation and established Montreal as a design spot to watch. A geodesic dome by R. Buckminster Fuller was the highlight of the American pavilion, but the fair’s coup de grâce—and one of Montreal’s enduring architectural symbols—was Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, a geometric apartment complex that looks like Mies van der Rohe’s take on an Anasazi cliff dwelling.

Though Montreal isn’t booming quite like Toronto or Calgary, the très European stone streets of the Old City are still a favorite of tourists—and of the American under-21 set looking for a beer. Downtown development and its bustling arts scene prompted UNESCO to honor Quebec’s cultural center by dubbing it a “City of Design” in 2006. But at least one architect in Montreal is skeptical about the honor bestowed by UNESCO. Gilles Saucier, of Saucier + Perrotte Architectes, has designed university buildings and museums all over Canada, and his work in his hometown of Montreal includes the Faculty of Music Building at McGill University and several boutiques. He worries, though, that the “City of Design” appellation suggests that his city is something that it’s not. Or at least not yet.

You take some exception to this City of Design idea being applied to Montreal.


I’ve got nothing against Montreal being a City of Design, and there is a lot of wonderful design here, but to just establish it as a fact is kind of strange to me. We need to do more than just say that we’re a City of Design. It must be a goal of ours so we can orient the city toward that objective. I’m sure the chambre de commerce is really happy that Montreal is this City of Design, but they’ve been promoting the same things for a long time. We’re still living on that old image of Habitat 67 and the Olympic Stadium [built for the 1976 games]. In 1967 we were at the center of the world’s attention. And for the past 40 years we’ve been losing that centrality. We need something to put us back on the map—not the Bilbao effect, but something organic and lasting.


How should we get to know the city then, if not by its most recognizable landmarks?


The truth is, Montreal is a place to discover. You don’t easily find what is so divine about it, but the people here are very welcoming and if you talk to them they will help you see. There isn’t some organized system to discovering the city as the chambre de commerce presents. I prefer going to smaller, lesser-known places, and that’s where you find wonderful food or nightlife. It’s all very organic here, but there’s no system to discovering it, or one place or neighborhood to go. One of the best, most established places here is Café L’Express and they don’t even have a sign.


What is the most exciting thing architecture-wise going on in Montreal today?


The most exciting design in the city for me right now is the Cité Internationale. It’s creating a new center for the city. There you have the Palais des Congrès, lots of new buildings, and the incredible fountain [La Joute] by Jean-Paul Riopelle that shoots flames and smoke and all. It’s absolutely fantastic. I don’t love the Cité Internationale so much for the architecture, but for the impressive gesture. It occupies the top of the highway [the Ville-Marie Expressway has been moved underground] and connects the north and south, the Old City and the New. They used to be divided by that highway, and now we’re starting to heal that scar. We need more buildings that allow us to connect.


That’s a business and civic district that tends to die down at night, though. What’s happening in the Old City?


There is an initiative now to make a new center in Old Montreal. It’s lovely down there and the stone buildings are amazing, but it’s very touristy by the St. Lawrence. The western part of Old Montreal is developing in a really natural way, though. McGill Street is coming up. Men’s clothier Michel Brisson will have a new shop there, and my friend Hubert, who runs the excellent restaurant Le Club Chasse et Pêche, is opening an arts space. That’s the future of the Old City. The west part of Old Montreal also reconnects to downtown and will be a place of passage unlike the touristy center of Old Montreal. They were initially thinking of a new Cirque du Soleil and a casino there, but that would act as a barrier and limit the expansion. The way the west part of Old Montreal is going, it will help re-create the natural fabric of the city. I’d love to build something really provocative down there.


You love downtown, yet your office and home are in northern Montreal. Why stay out of the action, or is there action uptown, too?


Little Italy, where I live and work, is slowly changing. Now there’s a garage nearby and a fish market. But, like any city, it’s where the artists come to buy cheap houses and studios. It’s not booming, but it’s slowly becoming a very interesting place to be. There are lots of artists here, and really it’s more like a village. This is Montreal to me, anchored in the way people live and want their city to be. 


Another lasting effect of Expo 67 was Charles de Gaulle’s incendiary comment: “Vive le Québec. Vive le Québec libre.” The last referendum for an independent Quebec failed in 1995. What’s the tenor of the times these days?


In the past, the east side of Montreal was Francophone and the west was Anglophone. It’s still that way to some extent, but we’re enjoying a moment of harmony right now. The new leadership has said that the referendum is on ice for some years in order to establish a healthier, more connected city. This is a wonderful city and it’s the only place I know where everyone really does speak two languages.


One of the most beautiful views of the city is from the St. Lawrence River looking north. But when I was there, I saw a lot of people with surfboards. What were they doing?


People surf in the St. Lawrence here. There’s a standing wave right in front of Habitat. You see, Montreal is all about surprise. You come here expecting one thing and then you see a guy surfing in the river. It’s on YouTube.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016