Square des Frères-Charon
Conception: Gavin Affleck, architect; Raphaëlle de Groot, visual artist; Robert Desjardins, landscape architect, City of Montreal. With the collaboration of Gilles Arpin (lighting), Sandra Baronne (plantation), Michel Morelli / Morelli Designers (urban furniture), François Riopel / Genivar (engineering), Julie Leclerc and Paul Martin / Moitié-moitié (interpretation concept and design), Annick Poussart (writing).
In 2005, the City of Montreal appointed a multidisciplinary team to work out a concept for the development of the square des Frères-Charon (corner of McGill and Wellington). The selection process organized to engage an artist interestingly proposed an open-ended collaboration where the production of an art work was not the pre-set objective. The intention was above all to integrate the artist’s point of view and expertise in the whole conception process.
At the start, the challenge was to provide the square with its own identity and coherence. Looking at its history, we can see that from the moment the land appears on the map of the city (1845), its destiny remains undefined for quite some time. As a sort of “orphan” space, it successively belonged to different owners who didn’t build anything significant on it and used it as a storage area and then as a parking lot. In 1965, the East portion of the site was expropriated to set up the Saint-Jacques D'Youville main sewer. The rest followed in 1974 for the purposes of a pumping station. It is only in 1989, after completion of these works, that the «parc des Frères-Charon» is developed. Its design is a sort of stopgap solution. During that period, the sector is a bit left to itself. Nevertheless, at the end of the 1990’s, the increasing number of residents and workers transform the neighbourhood. Some major real estate projects are built around the square and it becomes out of date.
The square is an elusive space, torn between different urban dynamics and designs. As a kind of turntable, it serves as a threshold to various destinations and activities, thus playing an important role in maintaining the relationships between the Faubourg des Récollets, the Cité multimédia, Old Montreal, the Vieux-Port and McGill street. It also harbours infrastructures and public equipments that impose inescapable constraints.
The first challenge was to reconcile the square’s own space with its function as a crossroads. The second was to better integrate the infrastructures it must shelter. The team proposed a landscape experience revealing the present-day city as well as traces of the site’s original use. This is obtained through a circular shape cut out directly in the pavement, to recall the field where the Charon brothers, erected a windmill, itself evoked by granite marking in the south-eastern area of the square. This move suggests a time span that lets one imagine the site’s gradual transformations. The city/field contrast is accented by a choice of vegetation that stresses seasonal changes; the coloured night lighting also underlines the vegetation. Finally, one of the technical buildings was modified to inaugurate a small belvedere. Walking up the circular stairway to its top, one discovers yet another view of the square and the city all around.
Interview with Raphaëlle de Groot by Jean-François Prost, «Le square des Frères-Charon» in Dis/location 1 : projet d’articulation urbaine, square Viger. Directed by Jean-Pierre Caissie. Montreal : Dare-dare, Centre de diffusion d’art multidisciplinaire de Montreal, 2008, p 133-146.