The Next Design City: Montreal
Published: November 2009
By Karrie Jacobs
As cities worldwide increasingly count on art and architecture to draw sophisticated travelers,
some are defining themselves as "design destinations." Karrie Jacobs reports
Honestly, I don't mind that the bellman who shows me to my room at Hôtel Gault, on
the quietly hip southern fringe of Old Montreal, misidentifies the iconic Bird chair (1952)
by Italian-American designer Harry Bertoia as the equally iconic Egg chair (1958) by Danish
designer Arne Jacobsen. It's an easy mistake to make. And it's the first time that I've gotten
the full design-aficionado treatment while checking into a hotel. But then, that's the Hôtel
Gault for you—renovated by the cutting-edge Montreal architects of YH2—with its
polished concrete floors, geometrically patterned rugs, Eileen Gray side tables, and Tolomeo
lamps. Actually, the bellman might have been thinking of the bathroom faucet, which was, in
fact, designed by Jacobsen.
The austerely monumental lobby is where I bump into John Thackara, a British design impresario
who lately divides his time between Amsterdam and the south of France. He's jetted in to speak
at a symposium called New Design Cities, an examination of a growing trend in urban development:
the creation of the design destination. Indeed, Hôtel Gault caters to exactly the sort
of guest who might choose lodging based on the provenance of the furniture, and exemplifies
the ways in which Montreal has been, like other cities around the world, reinventing itself
to attract a certain breed of urban sophisticate: one who is as likely to select a restaurant
for the lighting effects as for the food, one who might visit a museum as much to experience
its architecture as to view what's hanging on its walls.
So here we are, perched on Pierre Paulin chairs at cunningly made tables that can be raised
to dining height for meals and lowered to cocktail height for happy hour, complaining that
design has become too damned popular. Everything, we gripe, is now so tasteful that there's
hardly any point to having taste. "It's the Ian Schrager invention of young people in black
suits, and large amounts of well-detailed space, and immaculate people sort of hanging around
not doing very much," Thackara grumbles. "And you think, I don't want to be in these places
New Design Cities, held at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, can be regarded as a milestone
in this trend. Except it's no longer just about hoteliers remaking their rooms and lobbies
to appeal to a certain affluent, knowing demographic, but entire cities using a heightened
sense of aesthetics as a marketing tool. The symposium was organized by the city of Montreal—which
describes itself as "an emerging design city"—to address questions such as: What is
a design metropolis?What does a design metropolis do?How does a city become one?The commissioner
of New York City's Department of Design & Construction is in attendance, as is a representative
of the Swedish government, promoting something called "Future Design Days" in Stockholm.
New Design Cities seems like an official endorsement of a trend that was launched, depending
on whom you ask, by the appearance of an inventive new café scene in 1990's Barcelona,
the founding of Wallpaper magazine in 1996, the triumph of the Guggenheim Bilbao in
1997, or the current ubiquity of American pundit Richard Florida, who has convinced city fathers
everywhere that they can survive only by appealing to the so-called creative class.
Most speakers are from the less obvious design cities—not Milan but Antwerp, where
the local fashion industry has become a magnet for international shoppers; not Paris but St.-Etienne,
a provincial French town that is building a Crystal Palaceinspired exhibition complex called
the Cité du Design. Oh, and the president of the Times Square Alliance is here describing
his struggle to bring back "creativity" and "authenticity" to one of the most commercial neighborhoods
At its best, the design city is a phenomenon crafted by the selective habits of the design
tourist, who discriminates not against old places or things but against standard-issue attractions.
In London, for instance, the design tourist will shrug off the Tower Bridge and St. Paul's
Cathedral but seek out the Faraday Museum, for its collection of intriguing 19th-century electromagnetic
devices, then shop for topologically confounding Hussein Chalayan clothing at a store designed
by minimalist architect David Adjaye.
At its worst, the design city phenomenon is a handmaiden to the current real estate boom
in which everything is aestheticized to achieve what developers think of as highest and best
use. So in New York, for example, major commercial development schemes now trumpet names like
Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Santiago Calatrava, and Philippe Starck. And there is also pressure
to make every square foot of the city into usable space: no neighborhood, no tract, no bit
of disused infrastructure can be allowed to simply endure. Take the High Line, the abandoned
elevated freight rail track that snakes along Manhattan's far West Side, which is being transformed
into an architectural spectacle by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The new High Line
will be a technologically advanced meadow, a fine addition to the West Side and a must-see
attraction for design tourists. But it's a shame that in the design city a striking ruin cannot
Montreal's design commissioner, Marie-Josée Lacroix, who organized the symposium,
says New Design Cities was inspired by "the need to learn from other cities, to meet with
people who are design advocates, who share the belief that design quality is a key element
of a sustainable city." The best way to understand what Lacroix means by design city is to look at her most visible undertaking, an annual competition called Commerce Design Montreal.
Every year, dozens of ordinary businesses—restaurants and boutiques, banks and laundromats—compete
for awards. Since the competition's inception, in 1995, Montreal's shopkeepers have been encouraged
to consciously use design in their places of business to gain public acclaim. In fact, the
first event on the New Design Cities schedule is Commerce Design Montreal's awards ceremony.
After much solemn speechifying by a whole raft of officials, the 2004 People's Choice award
is handed to the designers of a sleek new supermarket, the Adonis.
In my room at the Gault (a 2003 Commerce Design winner) I come across evidence of how Lacroix's
efforts have influenced the city. On my bedside table is a little booklet published by a nearby
Scandinavian boutique called Want Stil. The cover of the booklet shows a print of Habitat,
the revolutionary modular housing project that architect Moshe Safdie designed for Expo '67.
The guide directs me to places in the neighborhood that someone staying at the Gault might
like, businesses chosen for their aesthetic sensibilities. Besides Want Stil itself, with
its carefully curated assortment of clothing and artifacts, I can choose among a housewares
store, Espace Pepin ("like walking into a fashionable loft"), an optician specializing in
glasses with severe frames, or any number of restaurants, such as Ristorante Brontë and
Olive & Gourmando. I follow the Want Stil map to Olive, where my fellow diners seem
uniformly attractive. I feel as if I've walked into a page from Florida's book The Rise
of the Creative Class, in which cities are rejuvenated by energetic hipsters.
At the symposium's close, I drift into a cocktail party in another Commerce Design winner,
the Cluny Artbar. Built into a corner of the Darling Foundry, an old industrial building that
has been turned into a gallery, Cluny is so perfectly to my taste that it's a little frightening.
Designed by Jeremiah Gendron and Patrick Meausette, it has a high ceiling of unadorned concrete,
tables made from recycled bowling alley ﬂooring, huge metal-framed windows, and raw-looking
Cluny is located south of downtown Montreal, in a neighborhood that is just now being reclaimed
as a high-tech, start-up loft district. In another city—San Francisco, for instance—this
transformation would have happened 5 or 10 years ago and the whole area would already be designer-perfect.
But this building, in all its industrial chic, is typical of how things look and feel early
in the cycle. I go back the next day, and the area is pretty much deserted.
Thackara, meanwhile, has returned to his willfully underdesigned house in a small town near
Montpellier, France. In a phone conversation he tells me that his current fascination is a
new anti-design movement out of Brussels advocating vrijplaatsen, or free zones. "It's
about this thing that's happening in Europe now, this exact phenomenon of overdesigned cities,
of me-too design concepts where everything is made perfect and beautiful and chic but therefore
loses its vitality," he says. The idea is that certain neglected parts of cities should be
saved in perpetuity from development: "There's a very serious attempt to say we should protect
areas from design so the cultural equivalent of wild mushrooms can grow." In other words,
now that the concept of the design city is pervasive enough to merit its own international
symposium, it's time for the next thing: the new anti-design city.
Where to Stay
449 Rue Ste.-Hélène; 866/904-1616 or 514/904-1616; www.hotelgault.com; doubles
from $294, including breakfast.
355 Rue McGill; 866/380-2202 or 514/380-2222; www.hotelstpaul.com; doubles from $194, including
Where to Eat
1800 Rue Sherbrooke W.; 514/934-1801; dinner for two $90.
Olive & Gourmando
351 Rue St.-Paul W.; 514/350-1083; lunch for two $26.
257 Rue Prince; 514/866-1213; drinks for two $12.
Where to Shop
231 Rue St.-Paul W.; 514/499-8549.
350 Rue St.-Paul W.; 514/844-0114.
2001 Rue Sauvé W.; 514/382-8606.