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 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 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.
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 just exist.
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 brick walls.
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 breakfast.
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.