Avalon in Winter

"But now farewell. I am going a long way
  With these thou seest—if indeed I go
  (For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
  To the island-valley of Avilion;
  Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
  Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
  Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
  And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
  Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."


The Passing of Arthur, Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
 

Contrary to the Avalon of the Arthur legend and Tennyson's imagination, the actual Avalon, a peninsula jutting into the North Atlantic ocean at the far eastern edge of North America, is about as far removed from the imagined Avalon as one can get. As winter begins to envelope this Avalon the winds seem to never stop blowing, the temperature fluctuates between freezing and thawing, the weather cycles between rain, sun and snow. The ponds gradually freeze over and yes, apologies to Tennyson, the valleys do indeed fill with snow. Late December and early January is a transitional time, when winter settles in, the summer tourists have long gone and even the locals tend to stay inside for the most part, venturing out for errands or for hunting in the back country. Walking around towns and villages I only come across the occasional person willing to deal with the fierce, freezing winds. Walk around at night and the pedestrian population dwindles even further. Walking also reveals one of the hazards created by the rapidly fluctuating temperatures, a layer of slippery ice coats almost every chosen route.

Along the shoreline there are numerous fishing boats hauled on shore for the winter, propped up by rough logs cut from the nearby forest. These logs reveal the stunted nature of the native trees, incessantly battered by the ceaseless winds and short growing season.

The Avalon Peninsula has a well deserved reputation as one of the foggiest places on Earth. This, however, is really only true in May and June as the warm gulf stream mixes with the cold Labrador current. The same time of year when the waters along the North coast fill with ice bergs, and whales become a common site in the bays. Towards winter it's the wild winds and frequent snowfalls that dominate the Avalon environment. The wind creates an exaggerated sense of cold, the actual temperatures, moderated by the surrounding ocean, usually average only few degrees below freezing in winter.

Walking through the cold forest using only the glow of the full moon against the snow and ice for illumination, stopping and looking skyward reveals the prismatic effect of the moonlight passing though ice crystals in the high atmosphere. The constellation Orion shines through the thin veil of cloud, framed by the diffusing vapor trails of jets passing in the distance, their silent pulsing lights mirrored on the ground by the pulsing red light of a distant radio tower many kilometers away. There is total silence save for the occasional cracking of surface ice somewhere in the far distance.

The weather shifts daily, and often hourly. One day will bring the brightest sunshine and bluest skies, the next a dumping of heavy, wet snow that sticks to trees and rocks, bathing the landscape in pillowy white. Frequently, while standing on the shoreline I can spot a diffuse white mass in the far distance over the sea. Inevitably, a vigorous snow-squall will come ashore masking the bright light of the low afternoon sun in gray-white. Everything goes dark and sharp ice pellets or sloppy snow flakes are driven ashore. Low drifts of white snow float across the rocky beaches and black asphalt. Sometimes the combination of high winds and a full moon conspire to create strong storm surges against which low lying communities have had to construct various tidal barriers to prevent flooding. As quickly as the dense darkness of the storm arrives it can depart again, inland over the Avalon forest, replaced along the shore line by bursts of sunlight between fast passing clouds of gray, white, black and purple. The passing shadow and light reflected in the ocean surface itself.

Walking along a beach after a fresh snowfall reveals that the white is being eaten away by the rising tide in a pattern that repeats itself, white snow, red-brown algae, brown sand and small waves. Rinse and repeat far into the distance.

Walking further inland along narrow ocean inlets of salt water reveals the beginnings of the winter freeze up. A thin layer of snow covered ice forms over water. Along the shore line soft granular ice rises and falls with the tides, slowly becoming firmer and finer, covering the rounded rocks and extending coverage as the days pass and the land cools. Along the shoreline the previous summers vegetation, reddish and golden wild grasses, become slowly enveloped in accumulating snow. The land turns brilliant white.

Passing through the evergreen woodlands one is greeted by the ‘caw-caw’ of curious black crows high in the trees, the only animals visible. Though I follow the tracks of a fox through the snow for over a kilometer the trail disappears high up a hillside into thick woods and the creature remains elusive.

Heading over the undulating road southward the low forests transition to empty barrens at the extreme southern tip of the peninsula. Passing through tiny villages, never consisting of more than a couple of dozen houses it becomes obvious that most choose to populate the deep valleys which offer some shelter from the relentless winds as well as access to the ocean. Only where the land flattens do larger settlements take root. Along the way a quick glance towards the ocean reveals white capped waves, driven by the winds which rip a misty spray from their crests. Looking in the other direction reveals the pink and purple glow of the fading sun on the snow covered barrens.

 

 

 

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.