A Pandemic in the Design City: Montreal During a Quiet Time

Place des festivals sits empty. Photo by the author.
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted Montreal’s efforts to become a “design city.” Guillaume Sirois scrutinizes the city’s urban design policies and examines the impact of lockdown on its design boutiques and flagship public spaces.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a dossier on “Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

For months now, Montreal’s streets, public spaces, and shops have been rather quiet. Like many other cities around the world, Quebec’s metropolis went through several waves of restrictive measures, lockdown, and curfew. This is quite a contrast for a city that had been promoting itself as the city of festivals and celebrations, building upon its long-lasting reputation as an “open city” in North America. Since the early 2000s, under the rallying slogan “Montreal, Cultural Metropolis,” the city has been transforming, seeking to produce an improved version of itself. Within this manifold transformation project, the practice of design has found an enviable position since it is perceived as having the potential to physically change the city and to showcase its creative identity to visitors and residents. Thus, the design policy put in place by municipal authorities has targeted two main areas where design should manifest itself in the city: businesses and public spaces.

These targets are indicative of an alliance between the municipal administration and the public sector that aims at producing a new urban landscape in which aesthetics is put to work. Indeed, the remodeling of these venues is intended to create a new image of certain neighborhoods to attract people to visit them and maybe settle there. I don’t want to suggest here that design alone has induced the gentrification processes witnessed in Montreal, but certainly this practice has been a crucial element that has served to craft the city as we experience it today, as I discuss in my chapter in Aesthetics of Gentrification. So, when the pandemic took the city by surprise and hit hard — especially during the first wave — these showcases of Montreal design were suddenly deserted. Such an unexpected event provides the opportunity to reflect on the politico-commercial dynamics behind this form of (cultural) development.

My research on local design led me first to the Mile End district in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, where one can find the greatest concentration of design boutiques. This location will come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the city, as it is now a trendy neighborhood that went through major transformations over the past decades, led in part by the influx of “creative workers,” notably from the videogame industry. Yet this is also a neighborhood where a community of local artisans may find the roots of traditional fabrication processes and old craftmanship as the area was once a center of the Canadian garment industry. However, today’s local designers and small shop owners have a different view on the future of commerce and urban development.

Indeed, my research in this community tends to show that they are interested in producing an alternative version of the capitalist world. If they generally embrace the identity of the entrepreneur, they nevertheless reject the standardization of objects and low-quality material that is so strongly associated with the globalized capitalist economy. Rather, they want their business to be based on other values. My analysis of a series of designer boutiques shows a correspondence between these values and the visual environment they create for their commercial space – namely an effort to convey authenticity, which is reflective of their own creative process and originality; an attachment to the materiality of objects that manifests itself through an emphasis on craft culture; and an attempt to show hospitality, with the hope of creating tighter bonds with the clientele.

From this perspective, local designers and small-boutique owners are the epitome of the “new cultural workers” that the city wants to see proliferate, as they are, at once, creative, opinionated, and holding strong cohesive values – but also autonomous. In fact, one of the reasons why design may have been successful in a city like Montreal is because public authorities have found in it a creative activity that encapsulates all the recent excitement about creativity without having to support it with major recurring grants in the long run. As we are at a moment in the history of the development of cultural infrastructure where most large Western cities have a fully developed network of cultural institutions (museums, theaters, libraries, etc.) that usually rely heavily on public funding to operate, many governments around the world are looking for alternative ways to get involved in the cultural sector. In Montreal, considerable public discussion has taken place about new funding models and ways to increase private sector involvement in the cultural sector. Design thus appears as an ideal discipline because it is developed almost exclusively by private firms. As a result, the role of the city in this creative activity only has to be that of a promoter and a client itself. This way of supporting design, however, condemns firms and boutiques to follow market fluctuations. It is no surprise in this context that they settle in neighborhoods where they have clients and that they partner with private promoters and the city to extend this market to other corners of the city.

In Montreal, businesses deemed nonessential were closed for several weeks during the pandemic, thus striking hard the small shops that are so often presented as a key element of the quality of life in the city. This situation exposed the vulnerability of a cultural infrastructure that relies on habits and preferences of its customers, which may shift rather rapidly. It is still too early to know how many design boutiques will be fatally affected by the pandemic. But it is fair to guess that, one way or another, a good number of these boutiques will definitely close their doors in the coming years. In fact, two of the boutiques that were in my original study are already closed, while another one has moved toward the north, into the adjacent district that has felt more fashionable recently. That is to say, when the state invests its efforts in developing such an unstable network of cultural points in the city, it may not have to commit to them for a long time, and its support may evaporate as soon as the wind direction changes.

One of the first warmer nights of the season on Place Shamrock. Photo by the author.

Thus, the second area where the city’s efforts in the realm of design have been directed – public spaces – may appear to be a more sustainable endeavor. Indeed, the heavy infrastructure works taking place in public spaces change the face of the city for a long time and are intended to enhance everyday life across its territory. Yet these projects have often been developed following the same lines of thinking based on the alliance of interest between various players in the city. Following its commitment to design, the city has launched a large number of projects to redesign squares, parks, and commercial streets. In my own research, I have tracked down more than a hundred different projects developed in the past decade in only three of the city’s nineteen boroughs. Not surprisingly, the most intense activity has been in Ville-Marie borough (Downtown). Just as in the design boutiques, the creators at the origin of these projects are keen to produce an alternative version of the city, based on a set of values – most commonly, locality, authenticity, and conviviality – which guide the development of a more livable urban environment. Nevertheless, these newly designed spaces seem to be real magnets for residents and tourists.

One of the most striking examples is obviously “Place des festivals,” a large area in downtown Montreal designed to accommodate temporary stages set up during almost the whole summer for the successive festivals. Twelve years after building began, the area is now surrounded by condo towers. However, for the second summer in a row, the area is now emptied out of its tourist crowds as all festivals have been canceled or postponed to the Fall. Instead, picnic tables and benches have been set up so that residents can spend time there, since walks and conversations with their family bubble are the only cultural activities that remain for them to pursue. A similar trend is incidentally observable in other neighborhoods reshaped by designers, where privileged residents get out during the first warmer nights of the season to enjoy a tasty takeout meal from the local restaurants. After all, the government has not stopped telling us during this pandemic that good citizens encourage local businesses.

There are no international stars in Montreal these days, making local street artists all the more visible. Photo by the author.

The pandemic has interrupted Montreal’s project to transform itself into a design city. As the project mainly relies on market forces driven by its most privileged residents and tourists, the suspension of casual shopping and the closure of the international border have meant a serious slowdown in this sector. Nonetheless, the pandemic has not killed the spirit of design in this city. Quite the opposite. As several actors in the municipal world were looking for ideas to light up the city during this dark time, design was brought in as a solution. And now that they have started floating plans to “relaunch” Montreal Downtown, design may once again have a role to play. Indeed, though some members of the design community may have fallen during the pandemic, new creative people with fresh ideas are waiting in the wings to contribute.

Guillaume Sirois, "A Pandemic in the Design City: Montreal During a Quiet Time," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 3 (June 2021)
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