A rendering of families walking in a wooded park with a geodesic dome
Just one Metro stop from the city, the 662-acre park spread out over two islands has long been a reprieve from city life, offering visitors a place to bike, swim, picnic, and to see important works of art and architecture, like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and the nationally treasured Trois Disques sculpture by Alexander Calder. Parc-Jean Drapeau

Parc-Jean Drapeau’s redesign attempts to balance priceless serenity and outdoor art with profitable festivals. Many Montrealers are skeptical.

Parc Jean-Drapeau is a Montreal gem, but after 50 years of service, it was starting to show its age.

Just one Metro stop from the city, this 662-acre park spread out over two islands is a reprieve from city life, offering visitors a place to bike, swim, picnic, and to see important works of art and architecture, like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and the nationally treasured Trois Disques sculpture by Alexander Calder. The park, built for Montreal’s Expo 67, is also home to major attractions like the amusement park La Ronde, the Montreal Casino, and the Formula 1 racetrack. Eight million people visited Jean-Drapeau in 2017. (Mont-Royal, the city’s second-biggest park, gets five million annual visitors.)

But a number of Expo 67 sites have fallen into disrepair, including the once-important Place des Nations concrete amphitheater. And after major events like three-day music festival Osheaga, parts of the compacted-soil park would be reduced to rubble. On dry days, clouds of dust choked fans. If it rained, the floor turned into a slippery mud pit. The roots of some of the park’s 16,000 trees groaned under the weight of thousands of shade-seeking fans. 

So the Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau—the non-profit, paramunicipal organization that takes care of the park—decided to renovate the main festival grounds and its surrounding area for CDN $73.4 million. Envisioned by the architecture firm Lemay with the engineering firm WSP, the renovation is scheduled to wrap up this spring and includes a new 65,000-person amphitheater. (Another $59 million went to creating new paddocks at the F1 track.)

In true Montreal fashion, it wasn’t without controversy. More than 1,000 trees got cut down—”a tree massacre,” according to the city’s official opposition at the time. “All the trees that were cut down were in terrible shape,” counters Catherine Saint-Pierre, an architect and the project manager for the park’s redesign.

Citizens worried that the commitment to major events would make the public feel unwelcome. Event promoters, meanwhile, remain concerned that the renovations may prevent them using areas outside the amphitheater.

The plan ultimately begged important questions: What’s the point of Parc Jean-Drapeau? Is it a private concert venue or a public park? Can it somehow be both at the same time?

A legacy of public art

Before it was Parc Jean-Drapeau, it was just an island located in the St. Lawrence River previously occupied by Iroquois and possibly other indigenous tribes. In 1610, French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited the island and named it Île Ste-Hélène, after his 12-year-old wife.

Fast-forward some 350 years, and the island was expanded and joined by another, Île Notre-Dame. The man-made Notre-Dame was created from rock excavated during the 1960s construction of the Montreal Metro. Together, the islands formed the site of Expo 67 AKA “Man and His World”, an iconic World’s Fair that conjures up nostalgia for many Montrealers. The park was renamed in 1999 after former mayor Jean Drapeau, the architect of Expo 67 among other major infrastructure projects.

Roger La Roche was 13 when he worked as a cook at Expo 67. The historian and retired professor has vivid memories of the World’s Fair; he made meat pies and sugar pies from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, with a three-hour afternoon break. During his free time, he’d set off to explore the islands, home to 90 exposition pavilions (including the famous Habitat 67) and nine works of public art.

“The main objective of Expo 67’s planners was to make the site completely human-sized,” La Roche says. Planners used a passive wayfinding design approach to reveal sculptures, gardens, and streams throughout the site, he adds. “Even if there were people everywhere, you could still feel isolated, in your own bubble. That’s what they wanted.”

Most of the trees around Alexander Calder’s Trois Disques have been removed in order to give an unobstructed view of the sculpture, with the cityscape as a backdrop. Architect Saint-Pierre says the the design is in line with more contemporary landscape design trends. (Parc-Jean Drapeau)

He feels the new renovations, which favor major entertainment events, are a disservice to the park’s natural setting and might dissuade people from visiting on their own. The Calder, for instance, used to be flanked by trees, allowing visitors to discover it as they wandered the grounds.

Now, the Calder sits next to the amphitheater, ready for its Instagram closeup—especially since the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ current Calder exhibit, which has already attracted more than 100,000 visitors. A long cement concourse (named Allée Calder) leads visitors from the Metro station to the main festival site. Most of the trees around Trois Disques have been removed in order to give an unobstructed view of the sculpture, with the cityscape as a backdrop. Architect Saint-Pierre says the the design is in line with more contemporary landscape design trends. “Now you want big, open views to know where you are,” she says.

The Calder is not the only sculpture there, and the park isn’t just the amphitheater. The other 16 outdoor sculptures, which include a new piece by Jonathan Villeneuve commissioned as part of the renovation, are still scattered throughout the site. (As per provincial policy, the park had to spend one percent of its construction budget on public art.)

Montreal’s Public Art Bureau did, however, take advantage of the park’s renovation to restore and move some of the works, says Michèle Picard, the bureau’s director of cultural development. To her, the sculptures are a huge part of what keeps the park interesting for the general public. “It’s important to have that in good shape, because there’s a lot of people seeing them,” she says.

Concerns over park access remain

Though some improvements were made around the Metro station, most of the $73.4-million budget went to the new amphitheater. Gone is the packed soil that concert-goers used to traipse around and dance on; now they’ve got stone and concrete (and a small patch of grass). The area is devoid of trees and shade, which could leave people to bake on the concrete during Montreal’s hot summers.

The amphitheater is arguably much larger than necessary. Osheaga has sold out its 45,000 tickets each of the past five years, says Nick Farkas, a vice-president at Evenko, the promoter that organizes the festival. Even if Osheaga manages to sell an additional 20,000 tickets per day, it’s the only festival that can make the most of the amphitheater’s size. All of Evenko’s other outdoor festivals at the park—Île Soniq, Heavy Montreal, and 77 Montreal—draw much smaller crowds.

The venue is modular, however, meaning the stage can be moved to shorten the floor—crucial to creating a sense of intimacy at outdoor shows, says Farkas. “From what we’ve seen so far, it’s just more flexible and it’s going to give us better opportunities than what was there.” The amphitheater also has underground wiring, more lighting, and better drainage.

The amphitheater design is modular, meaning the stage can be moved to shorten the floor—crucial to creating a sense of intimacy at outdoor shows, says Evenko VP Nick Farkas. (Parc-Jean Drapeau)

Still, concerns remain about Evenko’s ability to use the rest of the park. “What makes our festivals so special is having those satellite stages in the woods and [elsewhere on the site],” he says. The secondary sites let ticket holders see smaller or more niche bands, and gives them an opportunity to walk around and get out of the sun. They’re also important for events that draw smaller crowds.

In September, Evenko and the organizers of Piknic Électronique, a summertime weekly dance party at the park, circulated petitions asking to maintain their access to non-amphitheater areas. A media spokesperson for Jean-Drapeau says it is “looking at all the possibilities for various sizes of stages, and nothing has been confirmed for now.”

Farkas says the purpose of the petitions was to make sure Jean-Drapeau could continue as both a public park and gathering space, which he feels was the true intent of Expo 67.

“The site is spectacular. The city’s goal is to have one of the best state-of-the-art festival gathering places in the world,” says Farkas. “We want to stay there forever, if we can.”

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