City builders

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Photography (unless otherwise indicated) by Claudio Calligaris

Since it was founded in 1896, the McGill School of Architecture has trained generations of architects who, collectively, have had an enormous influence on the way Montreal looks.

These graduates have played major roles in everything from building some of the city’s landmark churches (the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul on Sherbrooke Street, for instance, designed by Harold Lea Fetherstonhaugh, BArch 1909), to repurposing decommissioned churches in imaginative ways (Espace St. Jude, an award-winning transformation of a former church built in 1907 into a sleek spa and fitness facility, overseen by Tom Balaban, BArch’95, BSc(Arch)’95).

Here’s a sampling of some of the most iconic spots in the city and a tip of the hat to the creative McGillians who played key roles in bringing them to life.

Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise

Salle Wilfrid Pelletier

Whether working together as a team or separately on individual projects, the founding principals involved in Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise had an impact on the city that simply can’t be overstated. The five partners in the firm, known informally as ARCOP (Architects in Co-Partnership), were all linked to the McGill School of Architecture as graduates, teachers or both – Raymond Affleck, BArch’47, DSc’84, Guy Desbarats, BArch’48, Dimitri Dimakopoulos, BArch’55, former associate professor Fred Lebensold and Hazen Sise, who studied at McGill for two years before transferring to MIT. Many of the firm’s members had already attracted attention for major projects (Desbarats and Sise had collaborated on Mount Royal’s Beaver Lake Pavilion, for instance), but the team received its big break when it served as the associate architects working with New York superstar I. M. Pei on what would become Montreal’s signature skyscraper – Place Ville Marie.

Mount Royal’s Beaver Lake Pavilion

Place Bonaventure

The firm went on to oversee the creation of some of the city’s most familiar buildings, including Place Bonaventure (the unusual combination of a hotel, shopping centre and exhibition halls was ahead of its time) and Salle Wilfrid Pelletier (which became the site for performances by everyone from Maria Callas to Bruce Springsteen). In the late sixties, some of the principals went their separate ways, with Affleck and Lebensold remaining with the firm, now officially called ARCOP. The former partners continued to produce major works, including the creation of the Université du Québec à Montréal campus (Dimakopoulos) and Maison Alcan (Affleck, collaborating with restoration specialist Julia Gersovitz, BSc(Arch)’74, BArch’75). Earlier this year, the architectural legacy of Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold and Sise was recognized when the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada singled out the five for their joint efforts on the Fathers of Confederation Building in Charlottetown. The building was selected for the RAIC’s Prix du XXe siècle, which honours outstanding and lasting contributions to Canadian architecture.

Moshe Safdie


He is now one of the world’s most in-demand architects, with major buildings in Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Washington and many other cities to his credit, but his very first project might still be his most famous creation. During the Expo 67 world fair in Montreal, a young Moshe Safdie, BArch’61, LLD’82, unveiled Habitat, an eye-catching and unorthodox attempt to, in Safdie’s words, “reinvent the apartment building.” According to The Guardian, the complex, which consists of 148 residences constructed from 354 identical prefabricated modules, has “drawn comparisons to everything from Lego to a Cubist painting.” One of the city’s most celebrated landmarks, Habitat 67 was declared a heritage site by the Quebec government in 2009 and earned the RAIC's Prix du XXe siècle in 2007. Safdie, who also designed the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, has received the Gold Medal from both the RAIC and the American Institute of Architects – the top career prize for both organizations.

Hal Ingberg

Palais des congrès

Since it opened in 1983, Montreal’s Palais des congrès has hosted more than 6,000 events, ranging from a UN conference on climate change to the World Science Fiction Convention. Thanks to an expansion that was done in the early 2000s, the Montreal convention centre is now also regarded as one of the most striking facilities of its kind, worthy of being included in the book 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die (Habitat 67 is listed there too). While the centre boasts several striking elements – Claude Cormier’s surreal Lipstick Forest installation, for instance – there is no question that its most iconic feature is its multicoloured glass façade, designed by Hal Ingberg, BSc(Arch)’83, BArch’85. The vibrant glass panels pack a visual punch, both inside and out. Depending on the positioning of the sun, coloured light streams into the centre at different angles.

Robert Magne (Lapointe Magne et associés)

The Bell Centre (Photo: Perry Mastrovito)

The Montreal Forum, the longtime home to the city’s beloved Canadiens, was an awfully tough act to follow. It’s difficult to think of any building more widely cherished by Montrealers. The fact that the Habs’ new home, the Bell Centre, so quickly found its way into the hearts of the city’s rabid hockey fans, is a testament to the skills of Robert Magne, BArch’76, and his firm Lapointe Magne et associés, which collaborated on the project with Lemay et associés. Magne and his partners have won the Governor General's Medal for Architecture on multiple occasions and have been involved in the creation or renovation of some of the city’s most notable buildings. The Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, once considered an eyesore (it received a “lemon” from the Société d'architecture de Montréal), is now widely admired, thanks to the bold, award-winning renovations done by Magne’s firm and Aedifica. Magne and his partners also designed the National Circus School, a unique training ground for the young trapeze artists, clowns and contortionists who aspire to win starring roles with the Cirque du Soleil one day. The school, one of only four of its kind in the world, uses an abundance of glass (some specially designed to cut down on glare and heat loss) to attract plenty of natural light and to give passers-by an opportunity to glimpse the budding circus performers as they hone their skills in one of the school’s expansive gymnasiums.

Melvin Charney

The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s sculpture garden

Driving along the highway into downtown Montreal, commuters from the west-end know they’re nearing their destination once they spy a metallic chair looming in the sky. The chair is one of the many elements comprising the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s sculpture garden, the creation of architect and artist Melvin Charney, BArch’58, DLitt’09. The history of architecture is referenced by the garden’s allegorical columns, which feature everything from Greek temples to grain silos to church spires. A small apple orchard recalls how the site was once used for farming by Sulpician priests. In their Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Montreal, Nancy Dutton and Helen Malkin, BSc(Arch)'82, BArch'84, describe the garden as “a place of reflection and respite in an area of the city that desperately lacked breathing space.” Charney, who won the Quebec government’s Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas in 1996, also crafted Skyscraper, Waterfall, Brooks - a Construction, a prominent installation at Place Émilie-Gamelin, near the Berri-UQAM metro station.

Atelier in situ

The Phi Centre (photo courtesy of the Phi Centre)

Delightfully odd things tend to happen at the Phi Centre, a multimedia facility in Old Montreal that plays host to concerts, film screenings, art exhibitions and lectures. Earlier this fall, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, BA’04, was performing a DJ set at the centre to raise funds for the Haitian charity Kanpe, when Madonna showed up unannounced and started to dance. Two years ago, eclectic filmmaker Guy Maddin used the versatile centre as a movie studio, inviting a live audience to watch him at work as he directed such prominent Quebec actors as Roy Dupuis and Caroline Dhavernas. Originally built in 1861 as a warehouse for merchant John Ogilvy, the stone-clad structure had long been abandoned before its new owner, Phoebe Greenberg, decided to turn it into a multidisciplinary artistic complex. The Phi Centre is the product of an ambitious overhaul by Atelier in situ (co-founded by Stéphane Pratte, BSc(Arch)’89, BArch’91, and Annie Lebel, BSc(Arch)’89, BArch’91), in partnership with the firm Shapiro Wolfe. The centre earned a Prix d’excellence from the Ordre des architectes du Québec (OAQ) in 2013. Atelier in situ played the lead role on a similar project, transforming a neglected industrial warehouse complex in Griffintown into the Darling Foundry, now a prominent Montreal visual arts centre.


The Edison Residence

It’s been quite the year for KANVA, a small Montreal firm whose team of architects almost all trained at McGill. KANVA, led by Tudor Radulescu, BSc(Arch)’98, MArch’91, and Rami Bebawi, BSc(Arch)’99, MArch’01, received the RAIC’s Emerging Architectural Practice Award earlier this year. In collaboration with the international firm AZPML, KANVA also won a major competition that will lead to perhaps its biggest project yet – a major redesign of the Biodôme intended to give visitors to the nature centre a much more interactive experience. The Biodôme plan earned an Award of Excellence from Canadian Architect magazine. KANVA also won two Prix d’excellence from the OAQ. The first was for its work as part of the team that created Entre Les Rangs, the winning entry for the 2013 Luminothérapie competition at the Quartier des Spectacles, which evoked a softly glowing wheat field. The other OAC prize was for the firm’s Edison Residence, located near McGill. The student residence boasts full-height cabinets and polished concrete floors, but what really sets it apart is its imaginative exterior. The photo-engraved concrete façade displays stills from a 1901 film made about Montreal firefighters by Thomas Edison. The images are connected to the site’s history – the original building burned down around the time that the legendary Edison visited the city to make his film.

Manon Asselin and Atelier TAG

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace will open in November, 2016 (Image: Atelier TAG)

The newest addition to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, will officially open in November next year to help kick off the celebrations for Montreal’s 375th anniversary. The pavilion will exhibit an extensive collection of artwork, some of it dating back to the Renaissance, that the museum received from the Hornsteins. The pavilion will also house the museum’s collection of international art, the Ben Weider Napoleonic collection and a host of educational and community programs. The lead architect for the project is Manon Asselin, BSc(Arch)’90, BArch’92, MArch’01, in collaboration with her frequent partners, Jodoin Lamarre Pratte. Together with Katsuhiro Yamazaki, BSc(Arch)’94, BArch’96 (who is also involved in the Hornstein project), Asselin co-founded Atelier TAG, which has won the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture for such projects as the Raymond-Lévesque Library in Longueuil and the Châteauguay Municipal Library.

Our thanks to Professor Annmarie Adams, BA'81, Retired Professor Derek Drummond, BArch'62, and Assistant Professor David Theodore, BA'91, BSc(Arch)'94, BArch'96, MArch'01, from the School of Architecture, who were all very helpful in the preparation of this article.