Montreal’s South West is in the midst of transformation. Some residents have had roots in the borough for generations, while others have flocked to the area attracted by new housing as well as business opportunities.
Two young entrepreneurs want to create a unique space in the borough that will pay homage to Montreal’s history while opening up space for locals to mix and enjoy the arts. Brothers Frédéric and Etiénne Morin-Bordeleau are going to integrate eight Montreal métro cars, called the MR-63, into a three-storey sculpture that will house a community space, café-bar and art gallery. Montreal’s transport agency (STM) approved Project MR-63 along with six other submissions to repurpose the retiring metro cars after putting out a call for submissions in the spring.
With the brothers’ goal to make art accessible, MR-63 will be a place for emerging and established artists to exhibit their work. It’s one of the reasons South West borough Mayor, Benoit Dorais enthusiastically endorsed the project.
A new public space for a borough in transition
Art is seen as the equalizer for the borough with mixed social backgrounds. “I think we need to be able to provide locations where there will be opportunities for all people to rub shoulders,” says Dorais. He sees MR-63 as a way “to promote the arts while respecting the history of the neighbourhood, the history of the South West, and the history of Montreal”.
Locating the MR-63 building in the Quartier de l’innovation (QI), a district in the southwest of the city that straddles Montreal’s cultural, artistic, economic, technological and multimedia boundaries, seems like a logical fit.
He thinks the innovative sculptural form of the building will act as the calling card but that people will stay and return because of its functionality.
Exhibits will give visibility to local artists who will also be given opportunities to build their capacity to market their art and run their own businesses.
The café-bar will introduce people to locally produced food and eco-friendly vendors. The community space will also host public events, and will be available to rent for private events.
“In short, what we want to do is to use MR-63 to animate public space,” says Dorais.
A civic commons approach to development
The final location of MR-63 is still a toss-up between two plots of land and the decision will boil down to which space is considered most viable (ability to attract foot traffic, access to services). One thing is certain — the mayor wants MR-63 to be used as a public space on city land.
Rayside Labossière, an early collaborator on the MR-63 project, is an architectural firm with a mission to design with a social purpose. This idea of occupying public space is what senior partner Ron Rayside calls part of a civic commons approach to development. Used interchangeably, he defines the civic commons or public space “like a knitted network that reinforces ways that people can meet and get together for themselves and outside of their own homes”.
For Rayside, the MR-63 project “could be a way of making an existing public space more dynamic or could bring a sense of purpose to a new public space that is sort of abandoned and unknown”.
The metro cars themselves are also part of the civic commons – and in being uprooted, their meaning is being transformed as means of physical transportation to place holders of artistic imagination and community building.
Innovation in form and function
“The real innovation is to use subway cars in a built environment in public space, it’s the original idea that came from the brothers,” says Rayside. The architects came up with the idea of creating a sculpture with the cars, with three-dimensional public terraces and real functioning uses, all adaptable to the final location.
With the sculptural form, the architects want to make a dramatic statement with a lasting impact on the city; achieving real viable uses within the iconic public space is equally important. “It would provide a bit of an example to follow,” says Rayside.
In the end, “the real challenge is the notion of viable space, is it really going to work in the long run,” says Rayside.
Frédéric is optimistic and is working with a team on the best way to refurbish the cars. He says, “The dynamic between engineers that are putting trains on rails and architects who are fixing things and have to respect building codes is very interesting. On the one side, the end goal is to make something last for 50 years when it’s rolling, and the other is to make something last forever, or as well as possible, when standing.”
This also plays out in relation to the environmental guidelines built into the architectural road map. The principle of reusing is an obvious way the brothers are thinking about ecology. Frédéric and Etiénne want the building to be as ‘green’ as possible but “there is no precedent for using metro cars as a building,” says Frédéric. Their final design will be based on project management, mechanical engineering and architectural considerations.
But going back to the purpose, “anything that you do has to be sensitive to the local environment and everything has to do with improving the way people live and interact,” says Rayside.
Frédéric is a chef turned social entrepreneur, Etiénne is a video producer turned art promoter. Both run Art Bang Bang, a website that helps publicize the work of local artists.
For MR-63 to succeed, the brothers now need to get creative in raising $4 million, the estimated amount needed to turn their dream into a reality.
Frédéric says the money “will come in different ways: sponsors, donations, crowd funding; so we’re looking into all this in exchange for visibility and international collaboration”.
The many firsts in this project are being documented by a Montreal business school student at HEC who is creating a case study on social entrepreneurship.
“At the end of the day, we don’t measure project success by the amount of profit we make but by the impact – so it will be different for students to think in that way,” says Frédéric.
Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics, and social issues. She has also worked in the community, media and cultural sector as well as national and international non-governmental organizations
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