Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Architectural Travel: Montréal à la mode


“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places — and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” — Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness

When I first read that paragraph I had one of those Zen aha! moments. I love it when someone articulates so succinctly and coherently the vague thoughts and feelings that have been wandering dumbly around my brain.

The book is quintessential de Botton; literate, insightful, and provocative. I think what I like most about this kind of writing is the pure playfulness of it, the frolicking in and around universal concepts. De Botton loves to use language well in order to sensitize his readers to other layers of experience in what may seem straightforward. His use of personification, metaphor, and imagery is the stuff of storytelling at its best, in even the simplest of settings.

A terraced house on a tree-lined street. Earlier today, the house rang with the sound of children’s cries and adult voices, but since the last occupant took off (with her satchel) a few hours ago, it has been left to sample the morning by itself. The sun has risen over gables of the buildings opposite and now washes through the ground-floor windows, painting the interior walls a butter yellow and warming the grainy-red brick façade. Within shafts of sunlight, platelets of dust move as if in obedience to the rhythms of a silent waltz. From the hallway, the low murmur of accelerating traffic can be detected a few blocks away. Occasionally, the letter-box opens with a rasp to admit a plaintive leaflet.

And in The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton creates an intensified sensory and conceptual awareness of the buildings that surround us. He internalizes the experience; the result is an easy enlightenment, accessible but not simplistic.

As he did in The Art of Travel, de Botton has created a “travel guide” that will give you a whole new set of tourism tools, especially for use in those favourite urban destinations to which we all long to return again and again.

And so, re-inspired, I set off once again for one of my favourite urban destinations, Montréal. But this time, I would experience the city I thought I knew inside out with a fresh pair of eyes.

But first I must declare my bias and lack of any real knowledge about architecture; I am neither an architect nor a student of the art. Moreover, I am an unabashed dévoté of all things Montréal. So feel free to put this commentary into whatever perspective you find appropriate.

“Architecture can arrest transient and timid inclinations, amplify and solidify them, and thereby grant us more permanent access to a range of emotional textures which we might otherwise have experienced only accidentally and occasionally.” — The Architecture of Happiness

Une Belle Énergie

In a word, the architecture of Montréal is about élan — flair, vigour, spirit, style, life! It is a city that encourages full engagement on an intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, and social level. As a city of interlinked communities, Montréal has, as a result, the kind of cosmopolitan openness and depth of feeling often ascribed to “the Latin temperament.” Strolling through the streets of Montréal is a tactile experience.

Montréal is also an endless, multi-layered experience; from an architectural point of view, history has been kind to this city.

Originally known as Hochelaga by the Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois who lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, Montréal as we know it today was always a crossroads in North America, a major fur trading centre, and an extended community spread across a series of islands in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence River and at the confluence with the Ottawa. This eclectic topography of islands, waterways, rapids, and a mountain (Mont Royal) thrust upward from the Canadian Shield, created a physical setting that established a motif — diversity. Montréal is the antithesis of wide-open and spread out, of the kind of city that would find itself defined by a grid. And for centuries to come, humans would build on this varied landscape and bring to it their diverse conceptual images of a city.

Given this capricious topography, Montréal was and is a challenge to architects and builders, but at the same time this city of islands was forced by geological circumstances to be flexible, adaptable, and consequently innovative. And as the commercial capital of French Canada, Montréal is the physical theatre in which a great deal of Canadian history has been played out. Its multiculturalism and status as one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the continent are reflected in its architecture.

Montréal embodies many elements of architecture that the traveller may not initially take into consideration. In this city you will understand architecture as an overall expression of culture. This includes its history and politics, inherent social values, a “national” character and a reflection of “foreign” influences. Montréal is a great city because, in part, it has always been a society in transformation (the best of times, the worst of times), a city of immigrants, of metaphor and symbolism, of romance, and of adventure.

It has known a problematic class structure, the struggle of urbanization that any great city faces, boom and bust times, and the contest of idealism versus pragmatism. But in my experience Montréal epitomizes the visceral integration that the respected Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa summed up when he said, “I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.”

“Of almost any building, we ask not only that it do a certain thing but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity, of harmony or of containment. We hope that it will connect us to the past or stand as a symbol of the future, and we would complain, no less that we would about a malfunctioning bathroom, if this second, aesthetic expressive function were left unattended.” — The Architecture of Happiness

An exuberance of style

Now I am not suggesting that you print out the checklist below and get yourself immediately to Montréal, but when you do make your plans, you might want to research each of these architectural styles before you go. (Can you tell that I used to be a teacher?)

The following is just a sample of what you will find in Montréal:

Art Deco

The Outremont Theatre

Built in 1929 this “deluxe cinema” is one of this city’s finest examples of the art deco style, and has witnessed many legendary moments in the history of Québécois pop music, one of the principal means of expressions of Québec nationalism over the years. For more art deco sites, see the Art Deco Society of Montréal.

Arts and Crafts

The houses in the Senneville Historic District

In his book Alain de Botton devotes a fair amount of time to art and social critic John Ruskin whose writings inspired this style, which by the way is derived from Gothic Revival. The Sennville Historic District was designated a National Historic site in 2001. From 1865 to 1930, the élite of Montréal (politicians, bankers, and prosperous merchants) worked with eminent architects to transform the west end of the Island of Montréal into a preferred vacation spot. Today the 82 homes on spacious wooded properties and its nearby parks are evidence of some of Canada’s most famous designers and architects.

Baroque Revival

The Marie-Reine-du-Monde Basilica-Cathedral

Monseigneur Bourget, the second bishop of Montréal, directed that the church be modelled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when it was designed and built between 1870 and 1894, thus assuring a direct connection between his diocese and Rome. When you visit this impressive building note the extravagant ornamentation with nature motifs. Even though the Church in Québec has declined significantly since the “Quiet Revolution,” the religious heritage of Queéec is far from forgotten. Visit the website for more information.


The Montréal Masonic Memorial Temple

I find some architectural styles rather humorous, especially their “monumental” aspirations. Nonetheless, this particular building is remarkbale for its symmetry, its columns, and its decorative elements. The temple was designed by a Scot, John Smith Archibald.


St. George’s Antiochan Orthodox Church

Montréal is a city of churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship, all of which reflect Canadian immigration patterns over two hundred years.


The Monument National

Montréal does not lack for idiosyncratic architecture and this four-storey building which was erected 1891-4 in Montreal (Boulevard St-Laurent south of rue Ste-Catherine) shows a great deal of imagination. It was built to serve as a French-Canadian cultural centre but also as the administrative centre for the Société St-Jean-Baptiste, a formidable influence in the history of Montréal.. Its 1620-seat theatre has an orchestra pit that was inaugurated in 1893 before it was actually completed.

Gothic Revival

Notre-Dame Basilica

This exquisite church is without a doubt the most important landmark in Vieux Montréal and very much at the heart of the old port area. Built between 1824 and 1829, the church’s interior decor is especially beautiful. In 1982 Pope John Paul II declared it a minor basilica. See Notre-Dame de Montréal Basilica.

Wilson Chambers

Old Montréal is especially renowned for its historic commercial buildings, many of which have been converted into boutique hotels, restaurants, and condos. This is one of my favourites because of the magnificent windows and the Second Empire roof. See Wilson Chambers.

Christ Church Cathedral

It may seem a bit bizarre to find medieval European architectural styles in La Nouvelle France (buttresses, steep roofs, crenellation, gables) but architecural styles were also immigrants to the New World. For a guided tour, visit the church’s website.


The Bonsecours Market

I have difficulty making up my mind, but this may be my favourite architectural gem in Montréal, in part because of its location in Vieux Montréal. And its impressive silver-coloured dome overlooking the St. Lawrence is one of the most photogenic structures in the city. It is also amusing fun to let your eye discover the Greek and Roman influences in this building. Like so many cities that have beautifully restored and preserved their ports, Montréal’s is no exception. The market is an elegant symbol of Montréal’s prosperity in the 19th century especially, and its neoclassical style is timeless in this setting. Visit the website.


The Old Custom House

It was Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect of the Renaissance, who was the principal influence in the development of this very symmetrical style. Part of the (wonderful) Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History) the Old Custom House was built in 1836 and evokes the sea-going commercial trade of old Montréal. See Pointe-à-Callière: the Old Custom House

Queen Anne Revival

The H. Vincent Meredith Residence

In keeping with the diverse topography of Montréal, a tour of the old homes of the city. This red turreted mansion was the home of H. Vincent Meredith, the First Baronet of Montreal who was a prominent Canadian banker and President of the Bank of Montreal and the Royal Trust Company. His widow gave the home to the Royal Victoria Hospital a residence for nurses. It was subsequently acquired by McGill University and today is the home of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law. See Vincent Meredith.

Renaissance Revival

The George Stephen House

This “jewel of Montréal heritage” is today the Mount Stephen Club. You can pay a virtual visit to the house by clicking on the preceding link.

Romanesque Revival

The Erskine and American United Church

In this style you can glimpse touches of Norman and Lombardy architecture. Next door to the Musée des Beaux Arts (Montréal Museum of Fine Arts), this imposing church is noted for its large collection of Tiffany stained glass windows. In 2006, it is announced that the building would taken over by the Museum to be used as a space to exhibit Canadian art. The church is also remarkable for its history. See Erskine Presbyterian Church.

Second Empire

The Hôtel de Ville de Montréal (Old Montréal City Hall)

Yes, this is the famous building from the balcony of which Charles de Gaulle pronounced his famous and very undiplomatic “Vive le Québec libre!” He was subsequently invited (more or less) to go home and not meddle in Canadian politics. Although there are many wonderful examples of the mansard roof in Old Montréal especially, this one is especially fine. See the Montréal City Hall.


Almost anywhere in Montréal but especially in Vieux Montréal.

Vernacular architecture refers to a method or methods of construction in which local resources (stone, wood etc. ) are used to serve local needs, i.e. get the job done. Well Montréal, along with Québec City, was a commercial capital in La Nouvelle France in a frontier period of Canadian history; so a lot of the buildings in Montréal obviously reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context of what today is the province Québec.

And in Montréal especially the architectural traditions were both imported and indigenous. My favourite is probably the often ornate wrought-iron staircases and balconies on the outside of many of Montréal’s duplexes and triplexes. These date to a time when mass migration from the countryside into the city began. To create more space in already tight quarters, access to upper floors was put on the outside of the building. These wrought-iron outer staircases are one of the city’s most distinctive architectural features, and very photogenic.

Under the French colonial régime building design and construction was a bit of a dilemma in that the architectural ideals of France didn’t quite cut it in the harsh climate of New France. Many of the original designs from France were therefore Canadianized.

Other architectural gems

The Maison Cartier, on rue Notre-Dame

Built circa 1837, this was the home of the famous Canadian statesman George-Étienne Cartier. It is now a National Historic Site.

Le Boulevard Saint-Laurent

This north-south artery is a stroll through Montréal’s immigration history. As you walk north from the river you will pass through numerous ethnic neighbourhoods, all of which have helped give Montréal its cosmopolitan reputation.

Château Ramezay

Across the street from L’Hôtel de Ville de Montréal, this building (built in 1704-05) with a typical mansard roof was the home of Claude de Ramezay, Governor of Montréal.

Maison Papineau

This historic house on Bonsecours Street in Vieux Montréal is very special for a number of reasons. When journalist Eric McLean bought the house in 1961, he spent several years restoring it it as it would have looked in 1785 when it was built. McLean is generally credited with being a pioneer and the one of the key people who gave an important impetus to the renewal of Old Montréal.

A city conducive to reflection and introspection

You cannot help but become engaged in Montréal; it is the perfect urban getaway for the thinking traveller. But I can assure you that in Montréal your thoughts will be spontaneous and restorative.

Whenever I wander through the streets of Montréal, I feel happy.

“Architecture may well possess moral messages; it simply has no power to enforce them. It offers suggestions instead of making laws. It invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse.” — The Architecture of Happiness

“The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile — which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colours, to such legendary positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of the good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn steps that hint at wisdom and by a georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.” — The Architecture of Happiness

“The failure of architects to create congenial environments mirrors our inability to find happiness in other areas of our lives. Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design…. The places we call beautiful are, by contrast, the work of those rare architects wit the humility to interrogate themselves adequately about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans — a combination that enables them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had.” The Architecture of Happiness

Images of the architecture of Montréal

More resources

The Official Montréal Visitors website

Montréal does it all for you.

The Old Montréal website and virtual tours

The Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology

This exceptional museum is, as you will learn, “the birthplace of Montréal.” It is also one of the best examples I have seen of how urban designers and architects can integrate and blend the old and the new. I recommend a visit to the website.

This wonderful website is the perfect introduction (or refresher course) for an architectural-historical-sociological visit to Vieux Montréal.

Héritage Montréal (The English website is currently being built.)

If you are a passionate explorer of urban history and architecture, this site is for you.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture

If you are doing an architectural tour of Montréal, this museum and research centre is a must see. As the promotional material for the Centre suggests, the CCA “invites you to think architecture!” During my visit a special exhibit titled “Sense of the City” had as its theme “urban phenomena and perceptions which have been traditionally been ignored, repressed, or maligned.” The exhibit challenged the predominance of the visual aspects in the urban environment and instead presented alternative ways of experiencing the city through the other senses. This free-thinking, liberal approach to almost everything is, in my experience, the essence of Montréal — a city unlike any other in Canada.

An impressive building itself architecturally, the Museum also is one of the principal attractions in Montréal.

Musée McCord Museum of Canadian History

This is one of those museums in which the visitor is able to get an excellent contextual and in-depth look at a destination, in this Montréal of course.

Alain de Botton

For more information on de Botton, visit his website.

Auberge Bonsecours

This small inn-boutique hotel opposite the Marché Bonsecours is a very pleasing design and architectural experience in itself, another example of the personal commitment of Montréalers in preserving their city’s architectural heritage. The personal project of the proprietor, Madame Beausoleil, the inn is a restored and renovated coach house that is reached through the original portico of the heritage hotel at the front, the latter now her home. Decorated in a meticulous provençal style, the Auberge Bonsecours is also a special treat for anyone who enjoys the art of renovating and decorating and an appreciation of the engineering skills required in preserving heritage buildings.

Auberge Bonsecours, 353 rue Saint-Paul Est, Montréal H2Y 1H3, Tel: 514-396-2662

Montréal: Francophone Festival City and Paris of North America

Hôtel-boutique, Québec Chic: How two small Québec hotels embody the culture of hospitality

See also…

Art Deco Montréal

The Art Deco Society of Montreal is a bilingual, nonprofit organization formed to foster awareness and appreciation of the Art Deco period (c.1920-1940) and to preserve the precious decorative, industrial, and architectural arts of that era.

The principal resource used in this article was Montréal: A City Steeped in History published by Parks Canada.

Photographs on this webpage by Bob Fisher



  1. […] Architectural Travel: Montréal à la mode […]

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