Across North America, office buildings are still sitting empty. Nearly four years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, central business districts remain shadows of their former vibrancy. From Chicago to Calgary, weekday office occupancy is still far below pre-pandemic levels, and vacancy rates remain chronically — perhaps permanently — elevated. Even as a long-awaited return to the office slowly gathers momentum, the reality of a five-day commute is increasingly a bygone norm.
As the pandemic ground offices and commutes to a halt, the urban housing crisis accelerated, reflected by surging rents and financial insecurity. It raised a provocative idea: Could all those empty and underused commercial spaces be transformed into housing? While a modest yet growing number of office towers are now being adapted into residences, the excitement was quickly tempered by a messier reality. For starters, the deep, boxy floor plates of most commercial buildings don’t lend themselves to easy residential conversions, where direct access to natural light is paramount. Moreover, the cost and complexity of new plumbing stacks and mechanical equipment — not to mention the regulatory complexity — means that such adaptive reuse is far from a silver bullet. At Montreal’s Place Ville Marie, however, designers Sid Lee Architecture have quietly ushered in another kind of transformation.
Led by architects Jean Pelland and Martin Leblanc, the local firm has gradually re-shaped Place Ville Marie’s public realm — as well as the retail and hospitality program — with an inviting new presence that attempts to knit the office complex into the city’s pedestrian-oriented urban fabric. Since 2016, Sid Lee Architecture’s thoughtful reinvention of the mid-century complex has charted a new path for high-rise downtown office space, inviting new creative industries and hospitality destinations into what was previously a staid, white-collar setting.
It was also an International Style icon. Completed in 1962, the commercial hub combines extensive subterranean retail with an elevated public plaza topped by a 47-storey office tower alongside four smaller buildings. The landmark project was among the first built works by architect and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners co-founder Henry Cobb, who designed the complex with I.M. Pei. At the time of its construction, Place Ville Marie stood at the vanguard of Montreal’s nascent commercial core, staking a strategic position between the city’s central train station — as well as two metro lines — and the McGill University campus. By placing retail below grade, it also helped spur the development of Montreal’s underground city.
Built as the global headquarters for the Royal Bank of Canada, Place Ville Marie also held the title of the tallest building in the Commonwealth. Over 60 years later, the elegantly streamlined cruciform tower remains both a local landmark and a canonic North American skyscraper. Yet, the complex emerged from an urban economy — and a moment of civic optimism — that would soon fracture.
In the years after Place Ville Marie opened and Expo 67 brought the metropolis to the eyes of the world, Montreal gradually lost its status as Canada’s most populous city and economic engine. In the early 1960s, Toronto surpassed the Quebec metropolis as Canada’s largest city, with the shift of population reflected in the flows of capital. Mounting political tensions between Quebec’s English- and French-speaking communities resulted in the 1977 passage of the controversial Bill 101 — a language law that established French as Quebec’s official language and complicated the use of English in commerce and civic life. And when Quebecers voted whether to legally secede from Canada three years later, banks and financial institutions like Sun Life and The Bank of Montreal had already moved their headquarters to Toronto or elsewhere. By 1986, the city’s population declined by over 200,000 people from its 1960s peak.
For its part, the Royal Bank of Canada relocated its corporate headquarters and key functions to Toronto’s new Royal Bank Plaza in 1976, though the head office formally remains at Place Ville Marie. And even though the property’s owners Ivanhoé Cambridge consistently invested in maintenance and renovation, Montreal’s downtown core as a whole never quite supported the kind of economy — or, at least, financial sector — for which its soaring mid-century office towers were built. Yet, it’s now becoming home to a more eclectic, creative milieu.
For Pelland and Leblanc, the Place Ville Marie transformation started indirectly; via the renovation of the adjacent Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel. Although situated immediately south of the office complex itself, the hotel (also an Ivanhoé Cambridge property) forms part of a continuous public realm. And like its neighbour, it’s also linked directly to Montreal’s underground city and the Bonaventure transit hub. Re-opened to the public after a year-long closure in 2017, the International Style hotel — built in 1958 — now meets the street with a more welcoming and assertive urban presence. Framing the lobby, a restaurant, café and cocktail bar animate the perimeter of the building with new transparency, with additional street-level entrances subtly introduced to invite greater porosity to the sidewalk. As Pelland puts it, “the hotel literally opens onto the city. One of the principal goals of the renovations was to create stronger connections with the street, and make the hotel more a part of Montreal.”
Designed by Sid Lee Architecture and executed in collaboration with Architecture 49, the project also introduces an elegant new rooftop event venue (a sleek glass volume dubbed Espace C2) as well as updated meeting rooms and business spaces. For the storied hotel — which famously hosted one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 “Bed-Ins for Peace” — the introduction of a varied but coherent design sensibility breathes vital new energy into a venue that had drifted towards a bland corporate aesthetic. The hotel feels reinvented, though the project entailed neither adaptive reuse nor significant structural alterations: Programatically speaking, it was a relatively straightforward renovation.
A similarly light yet transformational touch has shaped Place Ville Marie. At the heart of the office complex, the 14,000-square-metre Esplanade PVM plaza stacks a marquee public space on top of a bustling subterranean network of retail and hospitality spaces. Situated at the foot of McGill College Avenue, the block-long public square is slightly elevated — both to negotiate the site’s varied grade and to accommodate the nexus of Montreal’s vast underground city below.
In 2014, the redevelopment began with a study of the site — as well as consultation with Henry Cobb himself. Working with local firm Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux (who collaborated on the project’s execution and build-out), Sid Lee Architecture sought to re-integrate the elevated square into its urban surroundings. Drawing on the modernist principles of free pedestrian flow, a repeating grid, and rigorous material unity, the designers reworked a previous 1980s renovation, which had transformed the urban platform into a park via a half-realized “garden city” motif. And though vibrant pockets of greenery remain, the plaza’s urbanity has been restored. Most importantly, pedestrians are welcomed in.
While Esplanade PVM itself always maintained hints of its original modernist elegance, its connection to the city was perpetually lacking. From the south, the 1980s renovation saw the elevated plaza framed by greenery and plantings beds, and accessible only via a small staircase that channelled pedestrians through a narrow walkway across the square and into the underground city below. And at the north end? A sprawling parking garage entry stood at the foot of McGill College Avenue, dominating one of the city’s most iconic vistas and abruptly cutting the flow of a bustling street. It was a painful concession to the automobile, one that relegated pedestrian movement to the stairs and doorways flanking either side of a four-lane garage entrance.
The connections have been reimagined. A broad yet gentle stair now opens up the plaza’s north end, inviting pedestrians into the square, which features a pleasant balance of open space, ample public seating, and shaded greenery. On the south side, a more emphatic transformation has taken place. The garage entrance has been replaced by an eye-catching central stair, punctuated by a ribbon ramp reminiscent of Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Oberlander’s iconic — though often criticized — accessible ramp at Robson Square in Vancouver.
It’s a new addition, but the design language is of a piece with its mid-century surroundings, which makes it feel like it’s always been there. At once respectful and subtly radical, the plaza’s redevelopment evinces a loving negotiation with the graces and shortcomings of modernism. And the compromises come at the expense of the right thing; the automobile. “Driving is definitely the least convenient way to get here now,” says Pelland. Although motorists have been relegated to a smaller back-of-house garage entrance, the redevelopment makes Esplanade PVM a place to be as much as a place to pass through.
Shortly before his death in 2020, Henry Cobb himself expressed support for the work-in-progress, which restored the spirit of the mid-century design. “The Esplanade revitalization has been thoughtfully conceived and brilliantly imagined. This work will greatly enhance Place Ville Marie’s contribution to the civic life of Montreal, fulfilling the promise of our original vision,” said the architect.
Of course, the delicate rhythm of Pelland and Leblanc’s grace notes never risked upstaging Claude Cormier. Above the plaza’s new northern entryway, a striking circular art installation — dubbed the Ring — is one of the late landscape architect’s final gifts to his hometown. Thirty metres in diameter, the steel hoop is suspended between two of Place Ville Marie’s smaller office buildings, framing the views of Mount Royal looking north — and the complex itself looking south. It creates a visual and symbolic link to the broader city, suggesting that its civic heart resides on either side of the circle.
It takes more than a revitalized public realm to bring life back to the commercial core. At the very least, you need to throw in a good meal. Fortunately for Ivanhoé Cambridge, Esplanade PVM was built atop an underground mall. Below the plaza, a retail arcade complements the grid of subterranean passageways, with a food court situated directly under the square. Still, the dark, aging space was far from a destination, serving only the functional daily needs of commuters and passerby without a sense of place — or enjoyment. Here, too, Sid Lee Architecture and Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux teamed up with A5 Hospitality to overhaul the 3,250-square-metre space — and re-introduce it to the city.
For the designers, the food hall revamp followed the same principles as the space above. Served by the plaza’s streamlined and accessible new entry points, the culinary hub — dubbed Le Cathcart Restaurants et Biergarten at Place Ville Marie — replicates the variety and cadence of a city street. Featuring 15 kiosks and bars as well as three full-service restaurants, the food hall (operated by A5) features an eclectic mix of fixtures, finishes and textures.
As at the Queen Elizabeth hotel, the diversity of design elements makes for a bold statement — and risks a potential jumble. To the designers’ credit, the gestures are driven by a coherent philosophy and connected by a central motif, allowing the space to maintain a sense of unity. The introduction of a striking glass skylight — and the ample indoor greenery it supports — anchors the central dining room and bar. One of the largest glass structures of its kind on the continent, the remarkably transparent pavilion (supported by 18 glass beams) punches through the concrete of Esplanade PVM, blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space and fostering intuitive movement and pedestrian flow. On a wintry Montreal day, the sunken oasis almost redeems the warren of underground tunnels around it.
Like the nearby square and the hotel, the project is — on its face — more or less a makeover. Yet, the combination of an expressive but contextually attuned design language and a sensitivity to the rhythms of urban life elevates cosmetic renovation into placemaking. “When we work on interiors, we still try to think on an urban scale,” says Leblanc, describing a through line from Sid Lee Architecture’s work across landscape, architecture, and interior design. “So we take all of the same factors — like circulation, flow, and connection to the city and our surroundings — into account as we resolve the finer details.”
Alongside the marquee food hall and beer garden, an extensive public art program animates the adjacent underground spaces, extending all the way into the Queen Elizabeth hotel. Moreover, the Place Ville Marie complex itself also provides a temporary home for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) as it undergoes renovations. (The complex was previously also home to the museum during a brief spell in the 1960s).
Then there’s the Place Ville Marie tower itself. On the three uppermost levels of the 47-storey skyscraper, Sid Lee Architecture and A5 have designed a pair of restaurant and bar venues that deftly integrate boardrooms and meeting spaces into a showpiece hospitality setting. On the 44th floor, the recently opened Rose Orange rooftop bar is a verdant al fresco venue, bringing a relaxed — and surprisingly casual — Mediterranean refinement to the top of a bank tower.
Upstairs, the 45th and 46th levels are home to Hiatus, a bar and restaurant that incorporates unique venues for meetings and workplace events. Situated alongside the restaurant tables, the boardrooms can be discretely separated with curtains and sound-proof glass panels, seamlessly creating a professional venue within a hospitality space. It’s a subtle design move, but one that meaningfully expands the possibilities of a bar and restaurant in a commercial setting, all while maintaining a distinct sense of place that’s rarely expressed in similar corporate settings.
Throughout, wood panelling and repeating grid motifs pay subtle homage to the building’s International Style design, while assertive contemporary details — including marble and limestone finishes, bold floral motifs, greenery, and standout custom lighting by Montreal’s acclaimed Lambert et Fils — round out the two-floor Hiatus.
The panoramic drama of rooftop dining may draw the eye, but most radical part of Sid Lee Architecture’s transformation is back at the tower’s base. Fronting Esplanade PVM, a pair of concrete clad podium volumes — which previously served as a banking hall — have been reimagined as Sid Lee’s own offices. Completed in 2022, the 7,300-square-metre project transforms an erstwhile bank branch into a pair of delightfully unconventional workspaces.
The imposing volumes are home to a pair of connected offices for Sid Lee Architecture as well as their sister company, the eponymous global creative agency. And this was no mere makeover. Within these concrete bunkers, rooftop skylights provide the sole source of natural light, making for a challenging conversion. Playfully dubbed the “Biosquare,” the design firm’s own office is a surprising, verdant oasis within a largely windowless — albeit decidedly graceful — mid-century concrete bunker.
Pelland, Leblanc and co. made a virtue of an inherent shortcoming, organizing their new multi-level interiors around the available natural light, with its sociable central stairs (and plenty of plants) reaching up towards the sky. The design deals in light and lightness. In contrast, private meeting rooms and washrooms are finished in sumptuously dark finishes, playing up the drama and contrast. The crisp white finishes and biophilia convey a sense of energy and optimism, while the geometric grids — of stairs, structural supports and lighting fixtures — wink at the original mid-century design.
From a distance, it’s not the type of place you’d imagine a boutique architecture firm (or, for that matter, a creative agency) to occupy. Even among the multi-national behemoths, these are industries that trade their reputations on the fickle markets of cultural capital and creative cachet, which is anathema to a building occupied by hedge fund managers and financial analysts. By the same token, it’s the perfect proof of concept: As legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs famously observed, “new ideas need old buildings.” In decades past, the axiom was frequently applied to abandoned warehouses turned artist lofts, or shuttered factories transformed into startup offices. Today, it means something very different.
In Montreal, the city’s unique economic turbulence presaged the pandemic-induced transformation now unfolding across the continent. In 2023, none of our downtowns really have the in-person economies they were built for. And if converting all those old office towers into homes remains a lofty — and even occasionally misguided — ambition, re-imagining these buildings to serve more diverse, vibrant, and creative industries and work cultures is a much more modest goal.
It’ll take a lot more than good design. At Place Ville Marie, the complex was historically bolstered by its unique urban position. “One of the reasons why the place always maintained activity is because it’s well connected to transit, so everyone passes through,” says Pelland. Indeed, the adjacent metro lines and Bonaventure rail hub are have recently been ameliorated with the first phase of Montreal’s Réseau express métropolitain (REM), a landmark commuter rail project that knits together the greater urban area.
As mass transit continues to expand, the city has emerged as a North American leader in building new cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, all while supporting “missing middle” urban density. A short block from Esplanade PVM, for example, the busy Sainte-Catherine Street has been partially pedestrianized, inviting greater foot traffic and commercial activity into the urban core. Such investments in quality of place and urban equity are fundamental steps that every city ought to be taking — least of all because they predicate the viability of a place like Place Ville Marie. In this regard, Montreal is an enviable model for North American cities to follow. (Conversely, a recently announced provincial policy will see sharp tuition hikes for Quebec’s English-language universities, likely stifling their substantial cultural and economic presence).
For all that, Place Ville Marie remains a surprising home for a design firm like Sid Lee Architecture. And maybe that’s the point. “This is the last place anyone would expect us to be,” says Pelland. “That’s exactly why we’re here.”
Led by Sid Lee Architecture, a creative transformation of the famed high-rise office complex offers a new paradigm for cities across the continent.