Montreal’s Modest Proposal

Since the Guggenheim Bilbao opened its doors in 1997, there’s been a lot of talk about how design and architecture can improve a city’s prospects—but the results have been mixed. For example, Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati opened to critical acclaim in 2003, but the long exodus of residents from that city to the suburbs shows no sign of stemming. Milwaukee’s ongoing population decline continues despite Santiago Calatrava’s lauded addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2001. And there’s no shortage of similarly intended new projects in the works. Cleveland is pushing ahead with Rafael Vi–oly’s Cleveland Museum of Art expansion even though previous projects, including I. M. Pei’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, haven’t turned the city’s fortunes around. Brooklyn is debating a Frank Gehry arena that proponents argue will bring the borough some of Manhattan’s commercial luster. And Moshe Safdie is working on a museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, that supporters say will anchor further economic growth in the city that is home to Wal-Mart. But in the face of all this big-name architectural activity, a 10-year-old program in Montreal that fosters small-scale business improvements and community input is proving that good design—not necessarily “starchitecture”—can in fact generate big rewards.

The trouble with betting on an iconic building—or a few—to transform a city is that the area of improvement is tightly focused and the impact doesn’t always filter down. Neighborhoods still get lackluster development in more routine construction. “Every city thinks, If we get a fancy architect to build a building, things will turn around,” says Joel Kotkin, an urban affairs consultant and author of The City: A Global History. “I don’t know if that’s such a great idea. As celebrity architecture becomes commonplace it loses its novelty. In certain places there may be better ways to use the money—whether it goes toward schools, public infrastructure, or something to stimulate the economy. I think celebrity architecture has become a self-reinforcing industry for the design community. It empowers them, but I’m not sure that it’s always the best public policy.”

Taking a different tack, the City of Montreal founded Commerce Design Montreal (CDM) in 1995 to revitalize commercial streets by demonstrating to merchants the value of investing in the services of design professionals. In an annual competition a jury of architects, designers, and prominent community members selects 20 businesses that have undertaken exemplary construction or renovations. These winners form the basis of a promotional campaign that runs throughout the summer and includes city design guides, guided walking tours, advertisements, and pop-up kiosks at community events, which help drive consumers to the businesses. Citizens and visitors are then asked to vote on their favorite designs for a People’s Choice Award, which is announced in the fall. The cost of the intense promotional campaign that drives it all is about $823,000 a year.

A diverse group of winners is purposely selected. “It’s not a matter of size. It’s not a matter of money. It’s not a matter of being downtown and in very trendy places,” says Montreal’s design commissioner, Marie-Josée Lacroix, who heads CDM. “We want to undo this preconceived idea that good design is elitist.” Honored businesses have ranged from upscale restaurants and hotels to everyday food stores and Laundromats. For example, the large Middle Eastern supermarket Adonis, based on the concept of a covered marketplace with a series of small shops and stalls, won an award last year. The Alfred Dallaire funeral home, honored in 2000, updates the traditional parlor by bringing in sunlight from expansive windows and offering an airy consultation center that’s open to the community. Selected in 2003, Hôtel Gault is a spare Modernist space set in a restored nineteenth-century warehouse in the city’s oldest section. “These businesses are the soul of the city. They’re in the heart of the city, and if they are badly designed, they can destroy your experience,” Lacroix says.

One of the key differences between CDM and the planning of a major architectural project such as a museum or a stadium is that it relies heavily on public participation. Lacroix says the inclusion of the People’s Choice Award is necessary to effect citywide improvement. “We need to continue to get the public involved in the evaluation of architecture and design because it’s the only way you can make them more demanding,” she says. “Then the overall quality of architecture and design will improve. It’s basic, but sometimes in this milieu we forget about the population.”

A recent survey conducted among past winners found that 51 percent of businesses attracted new customers after winning awards, and 40 percent registered higher sales. The promotional campaign also appears to be instrumental, encouraging almost a hundred new establishments that have undertaken design work to enter the program each year. These investments in professional architecture and design at the community level have helped Montreal streets come alive.

Other cities have noticed the results and have come knocking: CDM has already been exported to Saint-Étienne, France, and New York’s Times Square. The City of Montreal, which owns rights for the program, sells licenses and lends its expertise to help spin-offs get up and running. Saint-Étienne originally put itself on the design map with the 1998 launch of its international biennial. It is one of many cities—including Lisbon, Rotterdam, and London—that are now using design festivals as another high-profile way to harness the power of architecture and design. Much like brand-name architectural projects, festivals generate exposure, pull in tourism dollars, and increase discussion among designers—but they don’t necessarily leave behind concrete changes.

“During [the biennials], the owners of the shops and the chambers of commerce were always asking me what they could do to participate during the festival and what the result was in terms of design in the city,” says Josyane Franc, international relations manager at Saint-Étienne’s School of Art and Design, which helps organize both the biennial and Commerce Design, implemented in 2003. “There was always this question about why the city organizes such an event. When I heard about the competition in Montreal, I thought it was a good program to do here to integrate local city life.” Because of its smaller size, Saint-Étienne (population 185,000) is running the program every two years, with the second edition currently under way.

Times Square, also hosting its second edition (cosponsored by Metropolis), introduced the program last year for slightly different reasons. “Some people say Times Square is in danger of losing some of its authenticity,” says Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. But the organization hopes that Times Square will continue to differentiate itself from generic commercial spaces in other cities. “Because Times Square is so expensive, it is more likely that businesses coming in may be part of a national chain. We’re saying that’s alright, but if you’re going to come here, do something different. Don’t just have it be like every other location.” With its emphasis on notable high-quality business design, the Commerce Design program fit the bill. “There’s a deliberate focus on trying to influence businesses—whether they’re a chain store, a small restaurant, or even a Laundromat—to invest in good design as an economic-development strategy,” Tompkins says. Times Square’s inaugural jury selections last year, part of the centennial celebration, included a John’s pizzeria outpost in a former church, the McGraw-Hill building’s public plaza with a waterfall wall, and a miniscule U.S. Armed Forces recruiting station on a traffic island.

CDM normally honors the winner of its People’s Choice Award in October. However, after celebrating the program’s tenth anniversary last year, Montreal is taking a break in 2005 to further study its impacts and map out its future. Given its success to date, the city intends to expand the reach to other sectors. When CDM resumes in 2006, it will still include a business component but may also focus on an additional area—possibly housing, parks, or street design. “It will be an area of activity that has a huge impact on the quality of the city,” Lacroix says, noting that CDM’s expansion has to be in the public realm. “It can’t be residential interiors, for instance. My business is to really try to develop the quality where it has an impact on all citizens.”

While it’s too early to judge whether the Commerce Design program will have similar success in smaller Saint-Étienne and bigger Times Square, Montreal stands as a powerful case study. Even though CDM may not generate projects as sexy as celebrity architecture, it has managed to have a significant impact on Montreal’s urban environment at a relatively low cost. Now the program will be put to the test in a different way. If broadening its scope in Montreal works and CDM’s influence sweeps from commercial streets into other areas at the same time spin-off programs take root elsewhere, the city will have a lot more than its own neighborhoods to be proud of. It will have a proven, versatile design tool that can be put to use in other cities. As Kotkin points out, “Anything that looks at how streets or neighborhoods look and focuses on things that are doable without massive amounts of money for celebrity architecture is a great idea. We need to focus more on the day-to-day life in cities and not so much on any one symbolic architectural feat.”

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