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The Next Design City: Montreal

Annie Schlechter The lobby at Montreal's Hôtel Gault, designed by architects YH2.

Photo: Annie Schlechter

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 anymore."

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 Palace–inspired 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 on earth.

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.

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