MONTREAL -- A visitor standing on the esplanade of the new garden of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, looking south, is treated to a sprawling panorama of old, industrial Montreal, with its grain elevators, smokestacks, church spires and rows of workers' flats spreading inland from the St. Lawrence River.
By turning 180 degrees in place, this same visitor gets a foreground view of the superb CCA building itself, completed in May 1989, and beyond it the rise of Mount Royal. These splendid views are sufficient reasons to visit the new park, which has been under construction for two years and which will be dedicated tomorrow.
But there is more. Though quite simple in basic form, this place, designed by Montreal artist-architect Melvin Charney, is a complex piece of site-specific art, evocative of the city's history and richly layered with contrasts. Its completion brings to a triumphant if resolutely edgy conclusion an exemplary building program inaugurated nearly a decade ago by Phyllis Lambert, founder and director of the Canadian Centre.
What impresses one most about this unusual two-acre park in sum is the intensity of the effort to give it resonant meaning. It is a pleasant place, all right, as city parks ought to be, with conventional spots to sit, picnic, stroll -- whatever. In the late summer and fall a visitor can pick apples from the compact Cortland, Close, Lobo and Northern Spy trees that make up its improbable orchard.
And yet this also is an allegorical garden, each part of which, though seemingly self-sufficient, refers to something else. Even the orchard on its little eastern slope was not idly planted. Not only does it help to screen one of the two expressway ramps that frame the park on its east and west sides, it also signifies the voluminous orchards that flourished in this once-bucolic neighborhood during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most dramatic of the symbolic signposts are 10 big sculptures conceived by Charney in the spirit of Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti, who believed that gardens "should not be wanting of columns and obelisks." Laid out in lines parallel to the walled edge of the esplanade, these totems, constructed of concrete, sheet steel and copper parts, and ranging from about eight to 18 feet high, form impressive silhouettes against the broad horizon. Many of the pieces have direct counterparts in the architecture of the lower city visible from the escarpment. But each reinterprets and transforms its real-world model.
There is, for instance, a tall chimneylike piece with a protruding metal fretwork at its top, situated on direct line with the smokestack of an electric company to the southeast. Solid on three sides, the piece opens on its fourth to reveal a sheltered obelisk in intentional, ironic recall of Le Corbusier's observation that such industrial artifacts are the true monuments of 20th-century architecture.
Grain elevators become Greek temples here, and shot towers become unadorned columns. On one piece a copper-sheathed pediment is raised high upon steel struts and placed precisely on axis with the distant, pedimented portico of the College de Montreal on the hillside to the north -- an age-old device of classically inspired French urbanism, here adroitly deployed to link past with present, encompassing both space and time.
The most poetic of the sculptural transformations involve a standard pitched-roof house, the maison que'be'coise, which evolved from 17th-century French prototypes to become the typical worker's dwelling in this city. It appears here in various guises -- in one version it is reproduced quite faithfully atop a column to include the ubiquitous, steep outdoor entrance stairwell that is one of the more curious features of Montreal's vernacular architecture (otherwise well adapted to the cold climate); in another it is presented as a tiny emblem, the destination point for an ascension to paradise.
It is in these pieces that one most immediately senses Charney's humanistic values, the intention to suffuse the space not only with memories of human habitation but also with an awareness of the changes that take place, over time, as a city is made, and to ascribe a spiritual dimension to this process. The potentially tiresome didacticism of the approach is kept at bay in large measure by the quality of his intellect, by the insistent physical presence of the artworks and by the overall ordering of spaces within the park.
Where he perhaps fails is with the park's centerpiece, a garden folly comprising a fairly exact reproduction in concrete and stone of the lower levels of the Shaughnessy Mansion across the wide street separating the park from the museum building. This mansarded, graystone 19th-century house was itself restored to become the plain-jane centerpiece of the south facade of architect Peter Rose's poetic and perfectly circumspect new building. Framed by superior new wings, it is indeed somewhat overtheatrical. (Just how good is Rose's architecture? One admittedly offhand measure of its excellence is the remark of a visiting preservationist from Washington, who confided that it was the first new building she'd seen that made her wish that an old structure on the site had been destroyed.)
Charney's veristic reproduction of the Shaughnessy house is a striking apparition when first seen by car, but it's almost too true to be good. That is, it suffers somewhat by the automatic associations one now makes with Disneyland and other commercial replicas of olde-time ambiance. But it may weather well, in the manner of a man-made ruin, and in any event it indubitably serves the purpose in visually joining the garden to the museum across a street such as the Boulevard Rene Levesque, which in fact is more autoroute than boulevard. This roofless, elevated half-structure is best experienced from the "inside," where it serves as a sort of arcade-belvedere from which to contemplate the ensemble of park, street and museum building.
In this garden the space itself is structured to reveal layers of significance. The orchard is one especially pleasant example. Another is the low, north-south stone walls that emerge from the grass at regular intervals -- these follow exactly the surveyors' lines by which the city originally was laid out, and they divide the garden into longitudinal segments very like those of Montreal's early blocks and Quebec's farms. Poetically, these lines are extended, as rose beds, down the steep, nondescript hill on the south side of the esplanade wall. What might at first seem a quirky if unobjectionable way to organize a formal urban garden is thus imbued with regional meaning, with poignant sense of place.
The very act of building the garden, like that of building the museum, was conceived in part as a specific, critical commentary upon postwar urban development. Even more so than the museum site, that of the garden was a no man's land, a vacuum created by the slashing presence of a heavy-duty expressway and its destructive side effects in the surrounding neighborhood. Constructed almost entirely on landfill above freeway tunnels, this new place is an extraordinary example of architecture as healing enterprise. If a certain sadness -- not nostalgia but genuine sadness -- informs much that is in the park, its underpinning is a thoughtful or even a joyful idealism. This too has its representation: two dancing columnar figures, one supporting a Le Corbusier-like house, the other composed of brusque constructivist solids and planes.
Charney was selected by competition to design the park, a mildly controversial choice locally in view of the fact that, in the Olympic year of 1976, the mayor of Montreal was sufficiently offended by a temporary Charney installation on a downtown Montreal street to have it torn down in the middle of the night. One way to look at that contretemps is to conclude that it must have been a pretty good piece. It is clear in any case that the choice for the CCA project was inspired. His garden, with its various narrative devices, seems almost extravagantly contentious when compared with the steely understatement of Rose's building, but just as inventively does it respond to the relevant, wise "design imperatives" Lambert initially established.
Recognizing the difficulty of the task, she asked that the setting create an "identity of place essential for an institution whose mission is to engage the public in discourse," that the place in all its variety be "perceived as a whole," that it respond in exemplary fashion to the "decomposition of the traditional city," that it respect the bits and pieces of history still left standing on and around the site, and that it encompass "the timeless values of architecture, the poetics of order." Rose's building and Charney's garden make a contrasting but not an odd pair. Indeed, they form one of the more philosophically and aesthetically rewarding ensembles in contemporary world architecture.