On the Metro, With No Small Fanfare, Art and Buskers

Montreal is a city of art and music, and its metro is no exception. This is hardly surprising as the core of the system was designed to whisk the world to the spectacles of the 1967 Expo on Ile Ste-Helene and, when it was extended nine years later, to the Olympics of 1976. These first two stages of construction, during the time of mayor Jean Drapeau, create so strong an association with the arts that it comes as a surprise to learn that the three notes heard before train doors close are not from Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, itself used as a theme during the Expo, but as Benoît Clairoux of the STM explains, are an effect of electrical resistance.

Berri-UQAM. Opened 1967. Green, Orange and Yellow Lines.
L’hommage aux fondateurs de la ville de Montréal by Pierre Gaboriau and Pierre Osterrath at Berri-UQAM. Opened 1967. Green, Orange and Yellow Lines.

Other associations are more deliberate, and as Clairoux explains here, Drapeau and the cartoonist, Robert La Palme, in charge of commissioning works for the first stations, foresaw “nothing less than a huge art gallery”. There are the murals, like those at Papineau and La Palme’s own at Berri, but much of the resulting art is stained-glass. Also at Berri, passengers on the green line hurtle beneath the dramatic curves of Hommage aux fondateurs de la ville de Montréal by Pierre Gaboriau and Pierre Osterrath. Further west, at McGill, they wait beneath an enormous and soon to be restored installation showing the first city’s first two mayors, Jacques Viger and Peter McGill, in front of scenes from the 1830s. Place des Arts too houses a stained-glass, Frédéric Bach’s L’histoire de la musique à Montréal, alongside changing exhibitions in the gallery above the platform. The tradition of stained glass continues with Du College station, opened in 1984, housing a number of clean, light abstract glasses by Pierre Osterrath and Lyse Charland Favretti.

The stained-glass panels are perhaps my favourite – for obvious reasons there are no windows, though some of the entrances, like that at Champs-de-Mars, include staining in their glasswork. There are the ceramics, and the tiles at Peel never fail brighten my day with their colour and simplicity, but in the poured concrete caverns, the fragility of glass seems an incongruous delicacy against the monumentalism of the stations themselves.

Lionel-Groulx. Green and Orange Lines. Opened 1978.
Lionel-Groulx. Green and Orange Lines. Opened 1978.

And that poured concrete, especially in the first two phases of construction, is itself a spectacle. In combination with bright colours, often orange, it belongs to a time of confidence, when the future was not something to be planned or hedged against, but to be imagined and embraced. Lucian L’Allier, the chief engineer, and the architects he commissioned for the first stations seem to have been entranced with the flexibility of concrete. I feel this most on the walkway at Peel which floats above the platforms without reaching the walls. The interchange, Lionel-Groulx, has something of this too. Like many of the stations it has wide open spaces, quite different to the London Underground or Paris Metro. Being a meeting of lines, the orange and the green, it is on two levels, and the openness exposes one to the other so that travellers on the lower level are conscious of the rush of traffic above them.

Monk. Green Line. Opened 1978.
Pic et Pelle by Germain Bergeron at Monk. Green Line. Opened 1978.

But the metro is more than a gallery filled with static works mounted on walls. Place-des-Arts station is not just the entrance to a concert hall and theatre, but a venue and performance space itself, hosting small (and not so small) concerts during the summer festivals and children’s dance workshops to go with this year’s production of the Nutcracker. Other stations, like Monk, make full use of their space for sculptures few galleries could contain. Later this month, Berri, the system’s busiest station, will host the physical theatre of the Cirque Alfonse.

As with London and Paris, Montreal’s metro is also the venue of hundreds of small concerts a year as buskers give otherwise hurried travellers a blast of song or a moment of fleeting contemplation. At Guy there is usually a singer or a musician to accompany my wait for the escalators and alleviate the tedium of what must be the system’s ugliest station. Often there is opera to be heard and writing this I realize I have not heard the Chinese harpist for a while.

Perhaps because of the architecture or perhaps because Montreal winters are so cold, the metro is much more than a means of transport or even the gallery intended by La Palme and Drapeau, and is more like the streets above. In the underground city downtown, thanks to the spontaneity of the buskers, the metro becomes the street, a lively and communal counterpoint to the slick commercialism of interconnected shopping malls and corporate offices. The metro is the space of common man; hence the fanfare.

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