Reframing Montréal 1976

Montreal’s Olympic Park evokes many reactions when one broaches the subject. “White elephant,” “Disaster,” tear it down” among them. Scanning the news media for opinions pulls up continuous references to the troubled centerpiece of the park, the Olympic Stadium. Endlessly and breathlessly referred to as the “Big-Owe” and a symbol of epic runaway costs, corruption and mismanagement. Not to mention the infamous structural incidents including an enormous concrete beam crashing to the ground, roof collapse’s and high maintenance costs.

 

In all the controversy, the physical structure and space itself seems to get lost in the conversation. What is the legacy of this space and its architecture forty years after the Olympic Games?

This fact seems rather bizarre given the shear scale and physical presence of the enormous stadium itself. Whether approaching the city from south of the St. Lawrence River or driving east down Sherbrooke Street, the curved cement tower of the stadium is a constant magnetic draw. It seems from another world, not the sea of rectangular brown brick buildings, boxy condos and gas stations that populate so much of the approach to the park. For shear physical presence no other structure so dominates Montreal as this stadium does. It has become an icon not just of architecture but of the city itself. What so fashionably today's marketing types would refer to as Montreal’s brand. Calls to tear it down might seem eminently logical on some Excel sheet but witnessing the stadiums scale, shape and sheer presence makes such thoughts seem absurd. It is perhaps the most audacious piece of architecture ever attempted in Canada.

 

Its scale and shape slowly come into view as one approaches on foot. Entering the Brutalist esplanade, slowing, gently descending wide, flat walkways into the open grey space one is confronted with what looks like a CGI prop from an alien invasion movie. The massive oval of cement, regularly interspersed with thirty-four cantilever supports forming sharp points at regular intervals. The whole mass is not unlike some modernist, Brutalist cathedral. Wonderfully symmetrical and imposing, it does however display a few details that tend to date the beast. The worst being the brownish smoked glass windows that encircle the stadium which evoke the 70’s but seem painfully dated today. Another is the issue of paint. Instead of being raw concrete like a purely Brutalist structure, and the surrounding platforms, stairs and walkways, the entire stadium surface has been coated in grey/white paint, which seems somehow unnecessary and impure.

Nevertheless, the stadium has wonderful mass and symmetry. When taken together with the sweeping curved tower and fixed high tension wires attached to the prickly, cactus-like roof it takes on the appearance of an alien musical stringed instrument.

 

It makes you wonder if on a very windy day what notes are provoked by wind whipping around the steel cables. An art project waiting to happen.

Standing in its presence one is struck by the very audaciousness of it all. So much of today’s new modernist architecture consists of colored patterns on a box, devoid of imagination, unchallenging and boring.

None of those words could be used to describe the Olympic Stadium. It remains as futuristic and alien as ever. Time hasn't lessened its visual and physical impact. It does seem to me that its impressiveness has been diminished in the collective imagination by all the negativity around its history. I think this only represents small thinking, which seems to be unfortunately all too common in this ‘austerity,’ ‘taxpayer,’ ‘market forces’  driven era which lessons humanities collective ambition.

Walking around the sweep of the big oval one gets the feeling of a giant creature inspecting you through inscrutable dark windows which betray little of whats lurks inside.

Descending one of the classic Brutalist staircases takes the visitor to street level. Navigating around some construction barriers, past the bike-sharing station and under a sweeping concrete beam one encounters the former Olympic Velodrome. A smaller building but very much in the same alien design vein as the main stadium. Its most impressive feature is its roof. A flowing layer of cement in a gentle wave not unlike a bicycle riders helmet or a manta ray. Two sections of framed windows sit inline directly opposite one another on either side of a support beam. The building itself having a sweeping shape perfectly complementing the curves of the stadium tower, resulting in a strong feeling of design cohesion within the park.

 

Unlike the larger stadium there has been little argument about the success of the velodrome’s post-Olympic life. Now the Biodome, a popular enclosed zoo, the velodrome has found a role well suited to its scale and location.

Circling around the velodrome from the street-side there is an area devoted to the memory of the 1976 games. Mostly consisting of plaques on a cement wall the most interesting feature is the flagpoles. On top of each one is a flag for each country that participated in the 1976 games. A quick scan reveals the flags of countries that no longer exist, East Germany for example, being the country that won the most medals that year. Times change, always have and always will.

 

The third key architectural feature from 1976 requires walking some distance, across Sherbrooke Street to the athletes village. Here we find the two ‘pyramids’. Designed by the same architect responsible for the stadium and velodrome they form a similarly impressive set. Each a Brutalist pyramid arranged in almost Lego-like fashion, with ever narrowing levels rising to meet a wedge-shaped elevator shaft in the central area. Once again, a strange, alien and audacious construction far exceeding most newer structures in its ambition. Boring it is not. Like the velodrome the athletes village has found a modern role as homes and offices so it has avoided the controversy surrounding the stadium.


That said it’s difficult to imagine removing any member of the set. Together the structures of the Olympic Park make one feel almost wistful for the days when politicians, governments, urban planners and architects had far more ambition.