Montreal, celebrated for its historical architecture and its vibrant urban life, is known for its unique setting on a major waterway, the St. Lawrence River, and for its small, highly emblematic mountain rising from the downtown core. Mount Royal is a protected natural site, which has always been a magnet for Montrealers and visitors to the city. Transformed into an urban park by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th Century, the 495-acre mountain is part of a larger but lesser-known 1850-acre territory, designated as the Mount-Royal Heritage Site.
In 2017, a series of landscape and urban projects were inaugurated in Montreal as the City commemorated its 375th anniversary. The Discovery Halts project was one of these. It was designed to offer visitors an entirely new experience of Mount Royal and a clearer understanding of its natural and historical features. The initial terms of reference called for a multidisciplinary landscape / signage / wayfinding approach to be expressed in an innovative way. The project was initially perceived as a new public path through the territory punctuated by unique landscape / interpretive installations that would engage the public.
The size of the territory, inversely proportional to the available budget ($2.8M), was the first challenge to be met by the landscape architects. The second major challenge, given the site’s heritage status, was the complex stakeholder approval process in the hands of groups not particularly inclined to favour contemporary interventions. Other challenges related to the choice of materials within a heritage context, as well as to weathering and maintenance.
A new approach
Searching for a contemporary, critical approach to the project, the designers stayed away from traditional wayfinding options, such as linear trails, directional signage or commemorative markings opting instead for an open-ended strategy using natural features as wayfinding clues. They also cast aside grand civic interventions to favour intimate narratives suggested by multiple small-scale intrusions.
A family of objects was designed in keeping with the requirements deriving from the site’s special heritage status. Made of granite and bronze to better withstand Montreal’s harsh winters, these objects were installed throughout the park and its immediate surroundings. They were meant to engage visitors in a sensorial and intuitive discovery of the site’s features. “We started talking about objects, rather than signage. Objects appearing in the landscape would be enigmatic and attract people to them.”
A collection of landscape installations
Three types of objects were created: tridimensional maps designed as orientation devices, low conical stones serving as place-markers in the landscape, and larger belvedere-like halts. The bronze maps, each set on a granite base, were strategically placed at twelve access points. Each map clearly identifies Mount Royal’s three distinct summits, rising above the city grid, and three built landmarks. Together they provide visitors with a visual and tactile understanding of the mountain’s geographical identity.
The conical place-markers, clustered in groups of two or three, vary in size, some as small as stepping-stones, others large enough to sit or lean on. With their bronze inscriptions, they provide clues to the more intimate characteristics of the mountain’s historical and natural features such as notable rock formations, prairies, the trace of a now-buried river or a vanished ski slope. Twenty-five of these granite cones clusters were installed on the mountain.
The third type of interventions designed for Mount Royal is a series of ten landscaped belvedere-like halts. Each one is either anchored in the ground or projecting from a cliff. It is also defined by a granite border featuring a verse written specifically for the location by an assigned Montreal poet. The halts, at times curvilinear, at times angular, all with built-in seating, were located on strategic locations with privileged views of the park’s interior landscapes.
The Discovery Halts project is about place making, discovering and interacting. It invites visitors to look within rather than without, to change their perception of celebrated landscapes, to find meaning in topography, in geological features and in a territory’s intimate stories. It encourages learning through feeling, seeing, and listening. One could describe the experience sought by the designers as a constant tug between landscape mindfulness and landscape dérive. Meandering about on Mount Royal becomes a phenomenological experience.
Other designers involved:
• julie margot design
• Vlan paysages
• LN paysage
Photos: Adrien Williams
Project location: Mount Royal Heritage Site, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Design year: 2015-2017
Year built: 2017