The two sides of mountain: the moral duality of Montreal’s contemporary architecture

Nina Vroemen

At nearly the highest point of the city, visible from Saint Catherine strip joints to ritzy Holt Renfrew storefronts, the Mount Royal Cross is a stake stuck in a city of seduction and scandal. The unholy history of the Cross casts a long shadow from its time of erection to its current controversies. The Cross, as a deeply symbolic monument, is the central focus of this essay, revealing the paradox between the architectural symbols and the socio-political gestures of this iconic landmark and the city itself. The Cross can be read as an incongruous narrative that emerges from the fabric of Montreal’s cityscape revealing the superficiality that plagues the reality of Montreal: a contemporary, urban, and industrial city.

The Cross was originally erected in 1924 to commemorate the humble wooden crucifix that the city’s founder, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, had staked into the ground, three decades earlier. In 1643 during a period of ceaseless flooding, with high water threatening the city’s initial settlement, the rain miraculously cleared after Maisonneuve prayed to the Holy Virgin. In thanks for this miracle, he climbed to the top of the mountain and placed a wooden crucifix there in her honor. Although the original cross has never been found, the idea of erecting a monument in commemoration of the founder’s devotion was conceived “on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the St. Jean Baptiste Society… in 1874.”1 The responsibility of designing the Cross was given to Sulpician priest, Reverend Pierre Dupaign, renowned for his Renaissance-Man reputation: as a builder, designer, artist, poet, musician and composer.2

When erected, the Cross stood eight hundred and twenty eight feet above the shore of the St. Lawrence River facing North-East, with its arms stretching thirty-feet across and structurally six feet in width. 3 The original construction had two hundred and forty 75-watt lights built within the frame making it visible from forty miles away.4 However, this design was not Pierre Dupaign’s original vision for the cross; he had wished it to look and function much differently than it does today. His design included “a suitable base to house the Cross…that would first of all raise the Cross one hundred and fifty feet…comprise a staircase and include space for a chapel shrine to Our Lady of Montreal.”5 The plan had also included a “living quarter in the concrete base of the cross for a caretaker.”6 However, this dream of Reverend Pierre Dupaign was never lived out.  Instead, the base remains an intricate network of steel lacing, resembling more a train bridge than a religious monument.

Suitably so, the steel that was used to construct the cross was donated by the Dominion Bridge Co. Ltd who were known at the time for constructing some of Canada’s first steel bridges such as Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge, 1929.7  The “2,000 pieces of steel and 6,376 clinches” can be seen as a remission for sins given that Dominion Bridge Co. was not only Canada’s leading bridge company but, more notoriously, was also its leading weapons provider during the First World War.8 Considering the ceasefire was only five years earlier, one can presume that the Cross, a Christian symbol of peace and devotion, was controversially built with the profits of war.

Other contributors involved in the project were local architects Donat Gascon and Louis Parent. Their firm is known for the construction of a number of Montreal’s schools and religious buildings.9 Gascon and Parent were responsible for carrying out the architectural practicalities of Revered Pierre Dupaign design, however the labor to execute this design was predominantly funded by school children.

The stamp sale for “The Cross on Mount Royal” printed in 1924 [was] sold by students for 5 cents apiece and 25 cents a book. In that way $10,000 was raised through the help of 88,000 school children and 12,000 pupils of different colleges.10

The fraught dedication of these elementary school children reflects the reverence and influential position of the Catholic Church in Quebec at the time. The idea that nearly ninety thousand children were motivated to voluntarily raise such a large sum of money for such an austere statue reflects the church’s power and its implications on youth consciousness in the 1920’s. Shockingly, there is no indicator at the Cross that grants recognition to these children who independently funded one of Montreal’s most iconic landmarks.

The early nineteenth century marks a period in Quebec history where juvenile delinquency was not tolerated and children were rigorously policed. Perhaps this omission of the children’s contributions to the Cross is the result of an unfavorable gaze, where children’s acts of goodwill were seen as social obligations, not worthy of redemption. In fact, Montreal was one of the first cities in Canada to establish a juvenile court in 1912.11  According to Montreal historian Tamara Myres:

The Montreal Juvenile Delinquents’ Court charged thousands of boys with a variety of delinquent acts. Unlike other jurisdictions this court was not overly concerned with truancy…justifying substantial sentences in reform institutions where they might obtain rudimentary learning and acquire industrial skills.12

Thus, while some Quebec school children were busy selling stamps to fund Sulpician Pierre Dupaign’s Mount Royal Cross, others in Montreal were laboring in the industrial sector; sentenced to a livelihood that Mount Royal Park’s creator, Fredrick Law Olmsted, considered inhumane.

It is precisely this awareness of the harsh, unlivable conditions of urban industrialization that American landscaper and social critic, Fredrick Olmsted, sought to remedy in creating the Mount Royal Park. His inspiration was to design a refuge from the brutal, sickening conditions of the industrial world:

He [Olmsted] observed that the living conditions in industrial cities were often worse than those of slaves, who were often treated better than the children toiling in factories. From then on, Olmsted sought to make the beauty of green spaces, until then the reserve of the aristocracy, accessible to all Americans.13

Nearly fifty years before the Mount Royal Cross was erected, Olmsted had ensured the grounds to be sacred, a sanctuary from the city.  In 1876, the Mount Royal Park was officially opened. It was well received by its citizens who celebrated its inauguration: “The opening ceremony on the mountain was preceded by a parade through the streets of Montréal.” 14 At a time when social class divided the city in respected boroughs, Olmsted sought out to create an arboreous refuge, free of social stratification; “[he] wished to preserve the natural charm of the mountain… [moreover] He wanted the park to be accessible to everyone, regardless of social class or physical condition.” 15 The social awareness that inspired his design was revolutionary for the time. The integration of social and environmental concerns in urban planning was not customary, as it is today. However, the social consciousness that inspired Olmsted’s design shifted to a more conservative gaze in the 1950s prompting drastic city alterations… one of which severely changed the face of the mountain forever.

It was some twenty five years after the Holy Cross was erected on Mount Royal that Montreal mayor, Jean Drapeau, decided that something needed to be done to prevent the “un-holy” behavior that was occurring on the mountain: “In the 1950s, the forest undergrowth was “cleaned up” for greater visibility, so as to control activities that were judged immoral.” 16 The cross was to be one of the only things left standing after the 1954 “Morality Cut’s” that decimated the mountain’s vegetation and created a hostile environment for its visitors. Mayor Drapeau felt it to be a necessary procedure to prevent “gays, perverts and criminals” from engaging in “scandalous” behavior behind the bushes.17 To expose “them”, Drapeau drastically made the decision to strip a large portion of the trees from the mountain, “leading to the nick-name “bald mountain.””18 The beautiful old trees Olmsted had carefully preserved and planted were clear-cut in the name of ‘goodwill’ and ‘safety’. The park that once provided a refuge from the city was left to bear but the cross, appearing hostile and dogmatic. Jean Drapeau went to great lengths to clean up the city’s image, enforcing better litter management, remedying traffic congestion and aggressively cracking down on organized crime. Although Jean Drapeau did succeed in improving some aspects of the city, his rash decisions and overall conduct resulted in much scandal, especially during the Olympics. In contrast to the supposed Catholic ethics of reverence and humility that motivated the parks razing, Mayor Jean Drapeau was also responsible for some of the most extravagant city spending.

Drapeau promised “a modest Games”— [however] After only one meeting, Roger Taillibert of France, brilliant and eccentric, was awarded the contract to design the Olympic stadium, without an open competition. It was to cost $60 million. He had never designed anything in a climate like Montreal’s. 19

This frivolous, machoistic squandering is a testament to the hypocrisy of Drapeau’s morals that had previously decimated the mountain’s vegetation. The decision to strip the mountain of its natural properties can be seen as a symbolic gesture that communicates the trend in “moral” measures that ironically result in harm and further corruption. As scholar David Watkin describes: “Architecture expresses social, moral, and philosophical conditions, and that if one knows enough about such conditions in a given period one can therefore predict what its architecture will be and declare what it should be.”20 Yet, Montreal undermines this theory by investing in architectural projects that are in conflict with the socio-political atmosphere of the time. Especially problematic is Montreal’s contemporary architecture that emphasizes the incongruity between the city’s ethics/needs versus its architectural undertakings. Watkin continues, “architecture is an instrument for attainment of social policy employed to achieve supposedly ‘moral’ ends… [where as] contemporary architecture takes its start in a moral problem…”21 The issue that arises in this theory is the subjectivity in identifying “problems”. Depending on a person’s particular class, social, political or economic standpoint, a “problem” can, in another case, be a blessing.  Moreover, the particular remedy that is chosen for the problem may in turn create others. Often times these problem-projects are performed in an extravagant fashion, concentrating more on gaining recognition than efficiently solving the problem. These types of architectural projects are a testament to the trend in contemporary architecture that creates spectacles rather than useful spaces.  As Mark Wigley explains, “Treating each project as if it might be their last … Projects turn into projectiles, and architectural quality is judged by the number of images that land around the world.”22 This contemporary habit of architectural extravagance is not only evident in Drapeau’s Olympic over-spending but is also bound to the history of the Mount Royal Cross.

In 1991, under the governance of Mayor Jean Doré, the city decided to upgrade the mountain’s Catholic emblem. During the midst of a recession, the city’s administration approved a plan to replace the existing bulbs with advance fibre-optic lighting costing the city over $300,000.23 In the hopes of justifying the grandiose investment, the city claimed that the new lights would be more energy efficient and would, in comparison to the previous lighting system, save maintenance, time and money: “The $300,000 investment will now free the city from the need to replace 156 bulbs, each priced at about 50 cents. The cross can now go purple with just the tap of a button…”24 The new lighting was not only brighter—intensifying the glare of the pious religious symbol—but it also integrated, within the structure, a complex color system that allows the cross to change from red, blue to purple: “The purple lights shine when a pope dies. It seems that when two popes died in 1978 workers twice had to dip the light bulbs into purple paint.”25 The occasional inconvenience of changing burnt lights and the tedious ordeal of having to dip each individual bulb in purple paint, on the off-chance that the pope dies, was felt to be reason enough for such a lofty investment. Yet, given the economic fragility, when the recession was causing citizens to lose their jobs and city services were experiencing drastic cutbacks, the unnecessary extravagance of the upgrade was received as glutinous and borderline sinful. As an editorial from the Montreal Gazette explains, “What would be far thriftier, and far less tacky, would be not to honor a deceased pope like this in the first place.”26 It appears that extravagant city projects, like the Cross’s upgrade, are chosen to distract the public gaze from the immediate problems of the city; investing in costly projects that do more damage than good: “Excess in particular sites are broadcast across the planet to mask deficiencies in the wider terrain.”27 Thus, Doré, during the economic crisis of the 1990s recession, reacted by taking the opportunity to spend lavishly. As an article from the Montreal Gazette explains:

Waste is becoming a Doré administration pastime… the administration recalled its scheme for urination posts for dogs. But it has plunged ahead with other dubious spending trips abroad … a $300,000 window for the mayor’s office, a $500,000 grand stairway at the rear of the city hall, and marble washrooms in the city hall costing $1,275,000 that are better suited to the Ritz.28

These frivolous investments appear a trend in Montreal’s contemporary architecture, becoming artifacts that mark the city’s disreputable reputation with further shame and embarrassment. In this way, the Mount Royal Cross can be seen as an ironic symbol, a monument that has withstood the course of time; evolving with the city’s scandals and trends while still attempting to parade the virtue and morality of the Catholic Cross.


1. “Mt. Royal’s Cross Shines,” The Ensign, November 19, 1949. II.
2. Ibid.
3. “Mt. Royal’s Cross Shines,” II.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. James Mennie, “A Cross too Bare: City’s Symbol unprotected from vandals, litterbugs,” The Gazette, January 8, 1992.
8. “Mt. Royal’s Cross Shines,” II.; Dominion Bridge Company, Of Tasks Accomplished: The Story of The Accomplishments of Dominion Bridge Company Limited and Its Wholly Owned Subsidiaries in World War II (Montreal: The Co., 1945), 45.
9. Gascon & Parant Architectes: CCA Vertical File. Date unknown. Montreal.
10. “Mt. Royal’s Cross Shines,” II.
11. Tamara Myres, “Embodying Delinquency: Boys’ Bodies, Sexuality, and Juvenile Justice History in Early-Twentieth-Century Quebec,” Journal of the History of Sexuality (2005): 383.
12. Ibid., 385.
13. “About Olmsted,” Les Amis de la Montagne, accessed April 29, 2012
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. “Saint-Jean Baptiste Woods,” last modified January 25, 2012.
17. “Get to Know Your Drapeau,” Spacing Montreal. Last modified October 21st , 2009.
18. “Short History of Mount Royal,” Les Amis de la Montagne, last modified April 29th, 2012. Accessed April 29, 2012.
19. Allan Fotheringham, “The woes of the Olympics began in Montreal,” Maclean’s, Vol. 112, Issue 6, accessed April 28, 2012.
20. David Watkin, Morality and Architecture: The Development of a Theme in Architectural History and Theory from the Gothic Revival to the Modern Movement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 33.
21. Ibid.
22. Mark Wigley, “Toward a History of Quantity,” In Clark Conference: Architecture Between Spectacle and Use (Williamstown: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute: 2005), 157.
23. Jack Todd, “Purple Passion: Let’s turn the mountain into the peak of bad taste,” The Gazette, June 19, 1991.
24. “A tacky, morbid investment,” Editorials, The Gazette, September, 20, 1991.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Wigley, “Toward a History of Quantity,” 156.
28. “A tacky, morbid investment.”