Greystone: Tools for Understanding the City

Until 4 March 2018, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) presents Greystone: Tools for Understanding the City, an exhibition curated by Phyllis Lambert that reveals her deep attachment to Greystone buildings. This interest gave rise to a vast research project initiated more than forty years ago. It is an in-depth study of the history of these buildings from the 17th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, through the Greystone photographic series. It reveals the influence of geology, topography, politics, culture, and ethnicity in shaping the city over time.

Conceived as a photographic mission conducted by Phyllis Lambert and Richard Pare through the Montreal neighborhoods from 1973 to 1974, the Greystone photographic series reveals the relationship between city growth, architectural expression, and individuals. Phyllis Lambert explains that this mission, a research approach focused on the visual, became “a catalyst for increased concerns about the conservation of the city’s heritage. Greystone buildings create a unifying sense across the island of Montreal.” Greystone evokes the scope and demanding aspects of the project: “Early in the morning we trudged through the snow, photographing the neighbourhoods presented in this exhibition: Old Montreal and the original faubourgs directly north of it, as well as other faubourgs and suburban towns on the island of Montreal, as mapped in 1890.”

Among the possible ways of analyzing city fabric, the focus on a single material of construction provides insight into a wide range of topics. Originally functional, Montreal grey limestone buildings, distinct from those built with other materials, came to hold special symbolic value. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thick stone walls provided protection against attack, fire, and the cold. During the 19th century, Greystone buildings developed from a pragmatic to a symbolic role through successive, layered material transformations, reflecting the changes in politics, trade, cultural identity, society, and human ambition. “This approach would be less productive in cities like Paris or Jerusalem, for example, where all buildings are faced with local stone. However, in Montreal, the North American city with the greatest amount and concentration of stone construction, such focus is revelatory.” underlines Phyllis Lambert.

“Photographs are the protagonists of this exhibition”. Black and white, they are expanded on and complemented by maps that are key to understanding the city, its topography, building dates, architects, owners, and occupants at the time of construction. They explore Old Montreal and the three central neighbourhoods — the former faubourgs of Saint-Laurent, Saint-Louis and Saint-Jacques, which have been the heart of Francophone Montreal for two centuries. Among the sources of research underlying this study are primary documents that include insurance atlases, historical city maps, cadastral plans, municipal tax assessment rolls, city directories, notarial records and private papers.

The research undertaken and presented in this exhibition permitted constructing a social history of urban change.

Greystone: Tools for Understanding the City is among numerous projects Phyllis Lambert has devoted to heritage in a context of research and museology. In the mid-seventies, the initial study of Greystone buildings was carried out by the Montreal Greystone Building Research Group formed and led by Lambert – before archival research programs on architecture of the city were implemented. Subsequently the Groupe de recherche sur Montréal established at the CCA. It was at the origin of an important data bank on property and buildings in Montreal at the beginning of the colony, a work in collaboration with Alan Stewart that led to the CCA exhibition and publication entitled Opening the Gates of Eighteenth Century Montreal (1992-1993) which Lambert curated. The exhibition and publication Montreal Metropolis, 1880-1930 (1998), concerning the period during which Montreal was transformed from a 19th century merchant city to the metropolis of Canada.

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