Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The firm behind some of the province’s biggest public projects of the ‘60s and ‘70s is the subject of a new show in Montreal.
If there’s one group of architects that best represents the Quiet Revolution that swept through 1960s Quebec, it’s PGL.
The Montreal trio of Joseph Papineau, Michel Robert Le Blanc, and Guy Gérin-Lajoie established a Quebec brand of modernism through some of the province’s most visible public projects of the decade. During the ‘60s, the province created ministries of health and education, secularizing what had previously been controlled by the Catholic Church. With those reforms came “an architectural part to which [PGL] gave form,” says Louis Martin, an art history professor at Université du Québec à Montréal.
Martin is the curator behind a new exhibit at UQAM devoted to the trio’s work between 1958 (when they first formed) and 1974. During these years, PGL reaped the benefit of an economic boom supported by national and provincial spending. In Montreal, that meant not only new university and medical buildings, but a new subway and a World’s Fair, too.
PGL designed Peel station, a concrete masterpiece that debuted in time for the system’s inauguration in 1966. They also designed the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. The slanted glass box drew praise from New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who called it the “sleeper of the show” and compared its significance to Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion.
Built during a rising sovereignty movement, it meant even more inside the province. “The exhibition inside is what was so interesting,” says Martin. “It talked about the emancipation of a nation through technology and the high promises that modernity could bring to Quebec. It was an amazing building, like a box opening from the bottom [with] a kind of power inside that wants to go out. On a sunny day, it was all blue and at night it was like a window into a shop. Reflection and transparency at the same time.”
Notice that Martin says it was an amazing building. The pavilion still stands, but it now functions as an annex to the Montreal Casino. Modifications have altered the message. ”It was gray-blue. It represented the aspiration of Quebec in the ‘60s,” says Martin. “Now, it’s been enlarged and covered with opaque gold glass. It’s become the symbol of what Quebec is today—controlled by money. It’s very ironic.”
But no PGL building faced a demise quite like their terminal for Mirabel airport. Opened in 1975 and demolished last year, the firm’s massive glass-wrapped structure anchored an airport that officials thought was needed to absorb growing demand for air travel in and out of Montreal.
Original projections assumed Dorval (now Trudeau) airport would be at capacity by the mid-’80s, but passenger trips in and out of Montreal were still less than half of the anticipated figure by 1991 (8 million instead of the projected 20 million). Mirabel never carried more than 3 million passengers in a single year. With Dorval so much closer to the city and a planned train to Mirabel never built, the airport only serves cargo flights today. The haunting final days of PGL’s terminal are documented in a 2014 short film, Mirabel Vous Aime:
Afterwards, with the exception of another Metro station (Radisson, which opened in 1976), the firm mostly focused on international projects until dissolving in 1990. Some of the firm’s buildings in their home city are still holding up quite well. Martin says their University of Montreal dorm for women looks “pristine 40 years later,” and thinks of Peel as an “amazing station” with concrete columns that can be interpreted as a “modern order.”
Today, buildings like PGL’s often symbolize overreaching urban renewal initiatives of the past and, locally, what Martin refers to as “an artificial economic miracle” of the ‘60s. But, he adds, PGL will always matter “because they were the most important French-Canadian office in Montreal and trained a lot of architects. They’re the first masters of modern architecture in Quebec.”
“Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Le Blanc: Une architecture du Québec moderne, 1958-1974” at UQAM Centre de Design runs through January 17, 2016 (exhibit is closed between December 14 and January 5)