If we consider the following climatic components defined during discussions that took place at a research symposium on the habitability of communities in winter climates, held in Edmonton in 1986 (PRESSMAN, p. 130) :

  • temperature normally below the freezing point;
    2. abundant precipitation, usually in the form of snow;
    3. limited hours of sunlight/daylight;
    4. extended periods characterized by all three of these factors; and
    5. seasonal variations…

… we must agree that Montréal is undeniably a “winter city.”

Place d’Armes after a snowstorm, undated
Source: BAnQ Fonds E.-Z. Massicotte
Call no.: 4-26-b

Place d’Armes after a snowstorm

It is true that the cold almost always has negative connotations and that urban life becomes dreary in the winter months. Public spaces are then deserted, or used merely as shortcuts on our pedestrian routes.

Urban planning is meant to be a reflection of a given society’s cultural values. Since the development of public squares is a major component of urban planning, how are we to explain the generalized ignoring of the winter season in their design, which sometimes extends to preventing their use during those months?

In this regard, it would seem that among the Nordic peoples, we are the only ones with a “summer mentality”! No doubt this is because of our historical roots in southern Europe, on the one hand, and, on the other, the pervasive influence of our nearest neighbour, the United States, where the climate is generally much milder. This makes for a much different approach to our public spaces

The plywood fountain covering, 2006
The plywood fountain covering
Source: © Denis Tremblay, 2006
Comment: This photo shows the scale of the facilities needed during the Holiday period.


As concerns Place d’Armes more specifically, it is not cleared of snow in the winter, and the Maisonneuve monument fountain is turned off from early November to late April, or fully six months of the year. What is more, during that entire period it is covered in a temporary plywood structure.

And yet, Place d’Armes was once a significant site for winter gatherings and festivities.

Montreal’s first winter carnival was held in 1883, in the western part of the city. Besides outdoor activities and sporting competitions, the main attraction was an ice palace in Dominion Square (now Dorchester Square).

It was not until the third edition of this carnival that an “East-end” committee made of up Francophones was created and organized its own program of activities: “Thus in addition to the usual centres (Dominion Square and the mountain), the celebration was from then on extended to Place d’Armes, Champ de Mars, St. Helen’s Island, Place Jacques-Cartier and Saint-Denis St.” (DUFRESNE, p. 143)

As part of these festivities, a huge ice sculpture of a lion was put up in the centre of Place d’Armes in 1885. It stood six metres high and was lit by electric bulbs. Two years later, a maze was built. Inspired by much larger constructions such as the royal hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace, it was some twelve metres high and contained nearly 200 metres of paths. It is surprising that constructions so clearly emblematic of the British Empire were erected in the Place, known at the time as the “French Square,” though some have offered the explanation that the carnival marked an opportunity to disseminate “the dominant discourse of the period” (DUFRESNE, p. 153) – especially given the fact that the Catholic Church disapproved of this sort of event.

The ice lion in Place d’Armes at the carnival of 1885
The ice lion in Place d’Armes at the carnival of 1885
New Album of Montreal Views, from Choko, p. 49

Ice maze, place d'Armes, Montréal, QC, about 1887
Ice maze, place d'Armes, Montréal, QC, about 1887
Alexander Henderson Gift of Mr. Omer Lavallée
Circa 1887 Call no.: MP-1980.47.5
Source: © McCord Museum

These 19th-century carnivals would prove almost as short-lived as their ice sculptures: the last one was held in 1889. A little over a century later, beginning in 1999, the Montréal High Lights Festival has risen to the challenge of reviving celebrations of winter in the city. Eight editions of the festival have been held, taking advantage of public spaces such as the esplanade of Place des Arts, Place Jacques-Cartier and the facilities in the Old Port. This proves that public areas and their flexible facilities are fundamental to the organization of such events.

Admittedly, however, some such sites, because of their smaller sizes, are less suitable as venues for activities directly related to the wintertime. Place d’Armes is probably in that category; another disincentive is the fact that it lies in shadow for much of the winter due to the height of the National Bank of Canada building.

In such cases the public space can still find use as an atmospheric venue for the holding of seasonally scheduled events; e.g., revolving around the Holiday period or Mardi Gras. To that end, Place d’Armes is usually decorated and lit up for the Holidays. Such temporary facilities, however, often pose logistical problems; e.g., attachment methods. Take the Christmas tree, often very tall, that is traditionally installed in the Place: the arrangement requires guy wires bolted to concrete blocks on the ground surrounding the tree, and this rigging is not always aesthetically pleasing during daytime.

To mitigate the impact of such omnipresent technical equipment, the solution may be as simple as integrating the notion of seasonal decorative elements into the general concept of the Place’s layout. Such elements should be designed for longevity, much like the stylized Christmas tree used at Place Ville Marie. One advantage of attending to the seasonality of the Place would be that the necessary facilities could be integrated into the permanent layout, e.g., power supply and support structures and mechanisms, which would ensure a quality environment year-round.

Mario Brodeur, architect


Question for the public:

What could be done to enhance your enjoyment of Place d’Armes in winter?

Answers from the public:

What could be done to enhance your enjoyment of Place d’Armes in winter?

Il me semble évident à la lecture de votre mot que pour être animée, ou à tout le moins utilisée, la place devrait être déneigée un minimum. Toutefois, il n'est peut-être pas nécessaire de disposer de toute la neige (la disparition nocturne) et, des bancs de neige pourraient être utilisés tant comme quasi-vestiges de l'hiver (utiliser la matière quand elle se présente) que comme muret, sentier pour baliser les lieux où l'on ne doit pas passer. Ces contre-plaqués dont vous parlez et qui semblent horribles, ne pourraient-ils pas être remplacés par un bel amas de neige contre une rambarde designée. Restera à gérer les "traces" laissées dans la neige par les chiens, par les passants, à l'arrivée du/des dégels, et à gérer l'inventivité des cols bleus.

S'il s'y passe quelque chose, ou si on peut y passer, il devrait y avoir des gens. Si ce n'est pas une destination, ce peut aisément faire parti d'un parcours, une façon de raccourcir le trajet; on pique au travers de la place d'Armes. C'est l'hiver on peut aussi avoir froid et vouloir aller au plus vite. On peut encore, par contre, vouloir s'attarder et regarder la lumière froide sur les façades grises et rouges.
Gilles Thomas

Beaucoup plus de lumière s.v.p.! Il est désolant de voir qu'une place publique de cette importance et qui attire chaque année autant de visiteurs puisse demeurer dans l'ombre pendant toute la période hivernale.
CHEF Carole

De l'éclairage pendant période des Fêtes, décorations comme la Ville le fait déjà sur la Place Jacques Cartier.
Carole Leblanc

I have not lived in Montreal in the winter yet so I don't know how practical this would be. My comments elsewhere support significantly broadened sidewalks all around the place with sidewalk cafes, vendors' stands and so forth. I noticed that north on St-Urbain IGA has erected a sort of porch on the sidewalk. Is it feasible to permit those operating sidewalk cafes on such widened sidewalks on Place d'Armes, to erect seasonal enclosures that would permit year-round use of the premises for these purposes? At the present time there would not appear to be any reason for anyone to be in the place during the winter. Having some lively restaurants and coffee shops looking out on M. Maisonneuve's monument and the various buildings surrounding the place would give people a reason to be there. It would also encourage a deeper appreciation of the architecture of these buildings as presently there is nowhere to comfortably sit and contemplate them, their juxtaposition, and what it signifies about the city's history.
Bill Buholzer

I believe that permanent, lively and sophisticated lighting (or at least infrastructural wiring) would serve to spark the imagination of those who would be likely to sponsor winter events. The Place looks dead in winter, and for it to become known as a beautifully lit space would serve as a natural magnet.
Christopher Carlisle
Massachusetts, USA and Old Montreal

Un entretien régulier et écologique
Yves Deschamps

Un espace à l'abri du vent, avec des animations (kiosques vendant des boissons chaudes, des marrons chauds) et de la musique diffusée par hauts parleurs les dimanches, notamment une rediffusion des concerts se déroulant dans l'église.
Brigitte Verdière

Nettoyer, éclairer et réchauffer la Place. Je crois qu'il serait possible de récupérer la chaleur rejetée par les immeubles de pourtour et de la canaliser en sous-sol afin de créer une place "percolante" d'où se dégage une agréable chaleur. Je crois d'ailleurs que plusieurs trottoirs de Montréal, au centre-ville, en particulier dans le futur Quartier des Spectacles pourraient se prévaloir de cette technologie de récupération de chaleur pour le bénéfice des promeneurs.
Jules Bélanger

I would invite the architects working on this exciting project to consider solar-powered lighting systems based on high efficiency, low powered lighting technology such as LED (Light Emitting Diodes), LPS (Low Pressure Sodium) or HID (High Intensity Discharge).

As Montreal is a city concerned about environmental protection and supportive of sustainable development, solar powered lighting systems would reduce dependence on the electricity grid, enhance security during power failures and demonstrate the city's commitment to renewable energy technologies. The technology today allows for sufficient lighting hours even in the middle of winter.
Andrew Wilkins
Pointe-Claire, Québec

Une patinoire avec un grand sapin au milieu comme celle proposée dans le Projet 3 m'apparaît comme une excellente idée. L'été, retour de la fontaine et de grâce ne touchez pas au kiosque de fleurs sinon pour l'embellir.
Marjo Jacob

Un bel arbre de Noël et des bancs, pas de patinoire car il y en a une tout près.
Yves Girard

Il faut prévoir un immense sapin de Noël plein de lumière avec de la musique et pourquoi pas faire entendre les cantiques de Noël en direct de la cathédrale Notre-Dame.
Danny Wade
Longueuil, Québec

Une belle patinoire et surtout de belles lumières, oui beaucoup plus de lumière. Il paraît que la ville de Lyon en France est très forte pour ses idées et son style de projet urbain.
Nathan Dratler


CHOKO, Marc H., The Major Squares of Montréal. Trans. Kathe Roth, Montréal: Meridian Press, 1990.

DUFRESNE, Sylvie, “Fête et société: le carnaval d’hiver à Montréal (1883-1889).” Essay in Montréal: Activités, habitants, quartiers. Société historique de Montréal. Montréal: Fides, 1984.

LAFONTAINE, Luce, Place d’Armes, Montréal: Évolution urbanistique et architecturale. Survey conducted for the Société de développement de Montréal. Montréal, March 2007.

LÉGER MARKETING, Sondage auprès des clientèles pour le Vieux-Montréal et analyses comparatives avec une étude réalisée en 1998. Survey conducted for the Société de développement de Montréal. Montréal, 2004.

PRESSMAN, Norman, “The Idea of Winterness: Embracing Ice and Snow.” Essay in Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism, under the direction of Mirko Zardini. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture & Lars Müller Publishers, 2005.

TISCHER, Stefan et al. Place d’Armes: Étude sur la circulation des piétons. Laboratoire de création en architecture de paysage, École d’architecture de paysage, Faculté de l’aménagement, Université de Montréal. Study conducted for the City of Montréal. Montréal, June 2007.