Altering the face of historical past: A take a look at the altering panorama of Montreal

Refurbishing existing buildings for new uses is encouraged in the sustainability world, since it allows for a greater integration of evolving needs into the existing urban fabric—something that would otherwise be hard to do with the urban density of Montreal. The concept of revitalization—also known as rehabilitation—allows changing a building’s original purpose for modern uses that redefine the structure’s existence and usefulness to society. Many Montreal churches have undergone such projects to incorporate them into the future layout of the city.

These projects tread a fine line between transforming a church for a new use however, and altering the intrinsic structural and visual aspects of the church.

For example, there are various projects throughout the city that are changing churches into renewed public areas or community hubs that retain the church’s architectural elements. Salon 1861—a project which McGill was in fact part of through the Desautels Faculty of Management—is one example. In that case, l’Eglise St. Joseph, located in Little Burgundy, underwent a substantial architectural rehabilitation to rejuvenate the neighbourhood. The project repurposed the church as a community hub, ultimately continuing the public-based existence, while retaining its interior and exterior architectural elements in order to preserve the qualities that make it distinctly a church.

On the other hand, the rehabilitation of churches into private places or areas that disregard any structural elements like apartments, threaten the building’s integrity. It turns what was once a public space into a privatized area that only allows access for a select number of individuals. Converting churches into apartments often goes against the nature of the church’s communal purpose.

It is important to realize that the legacy of religion is clearly dwindling—as shown with the aforementioned closures throughout the city; however, churches—especially the historic buildings which most often succumb to these rehabilitation projects—evoke a specific architectural form which is inherently and implicitly unique to its history. Such projects also require a large amount of interior and exterior rework, as the interior is subdivided up, ultimately compartmentalizing the once-soaring ceiling height entirely.

Many church rehabilitation projects take the shell of the church and completely reorganize the interior to make the prescribed apartment units fit. The church-to-condo conversion is tricky to pull off well, ultimately resulting in units with unwelcoming, windowless rooms towards the building’s interior. In addition, the once-soaring ceilings of church interiors are compartmentalized and divided up, and the sense of grandeur that made the church so special is lost. An example of this is the church-turned-apartment block located at 315 Rue Prince-Arthur Ouest, where the large, soaring interior is compartmentalized and divided into apartments, while the exterior of the building is also altered in order to increase light and ventilation.

Julia Gersovitz, a professor at McGill’s School of Architecture, also expressed concerns with such a concept.

“When you destroy an entire wall to put windows in, does that still make it a church?” she asked. “There is the problem of turning a public building and making it private, [and] there is the question of appropriateness [….] Should the churches be treated as absent real estate or as if they belong to the community? [When a church is built], it becomes a landmark; and when you change the nature of it, you change the way in which the community begins to view it.”

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