Friday 24 August 2018

Montreal, Canada: What Lies Beneath

This article from my first visit to Canada appeared in The Sunday Age newspaper in 2011, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

When the architects of Montreal’s underground shopping mall beneath Place Ville-Marie drew up their plans in 1962, they had little idea what they’d started.

As newer malls and office buildings were constructed, they were all linked together. Thus the Underground City was born.

RÉSO, a play on the French word for network, “réseau”, is now the largest underground complex in the world, stretching some 33 kilometres and linking malls, museums, train stations, government buildings and hotels.

All can be reached without ever setting foot in the outside world; a compelling alternative in winter, when temperatures can plunge to minus 15 degrees.

I’m usually allergic to shopping malls, but RÉSO intrigues me and I decide to walk its entire main loop (with a Metro trip in the middle)...

10am. I pause to look up at the statue of a young Queen Victoria in the centre of Square-Victoria, then spot the RÉSO entry sign and head down the rabbit hole. Below ground, I enter a long, strangely curved brick-lined tunnel, its curves accented by wavy tracks of lights in the ceiling.

10.25am. Nearing Place Bonaventure, I’m surprised to realise I’m back at street level, as I can see manicured lawns out of the occasional window. Soon after I descend into the ominous-sounding Le Passage. It’s pure 1970s down here, with exposed concrete walls and stained timber handrails.

10.50am. After twists and turns, I emerge into the lofty hall of the Gare Centrale, Montreal’s main train station. Above me there’s a magnificent bas-relief frieze depicting stylised figures engaged in everyday activities with a 20th century gender bias - men working in construction or playing lacrosse, women teaching or planting trees.

11.15am. I’m heading into prime retail territory now, up pebble-dash steps into a sunlit atrium with a low glass ceiling. There’s a cafe beneath the glass, dotted with low black couches on which shoppers lounge. It’s surrounded by shops, and I realise this is Place Ville-Marie, the mall that started it all.

11.25am. A few more turnings and I’m beneath Rue Ste-Catherine, Montreal’s major shopping strip. Above me towers the upmarket Centre Eaton, the largest shopping mall in the city, with 175 stores over four levels surmounted by a vast glass roof.

11.35am. I catch a train from McGill Metro station to Place-des-Arts. At the end of the Place-des-Arts station concourse is a huge and beautiful backlit artwork depicting Montreal’s musical history across multiple glass panels.

12 noon. Entering the Musée d’Art Contemporain from beneath, I encounter a huge wall projection called Le Tournis, in which a camera spins dizzyingly around the centre of a room while glass smashes loudly between the foreground and the far wall. Oddly, its unrefined chaos makes a refreshing counterpoint to the controlled nature of the Underground City.

12.30pm. After the art, it’s startling to return to RÉSO and enter the Complexe Desjardins’ vast terraced shopping mall. At ground level there’s a fountain with a 30 metre high jet that almost grazes the lofty skylight. I wonder whether the settings have ever slipped, resulting in a soggy ceiling.

1pm. Back above ground at Square-Victoria, I discover the morning’s clouds have departed and it’s turned into a perfect day - bright, sunny and warm. The perfect day, ironically, to be outdoors.

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