Comments on “Lost Urbanity”




[Montreal Serai received this comment from architect Michael Fish on Roger Jochym’s LOST URBANITY and Serai editors think Fish’s remarks are sufficiently pertinent to appear as an article. We hope the debate about this project will be ongoing.  Roger Jochym’s original article may be found here.]


This is an excellent article. In the earliest years of the project, I had been a twenty-odd year member of the senate development committee of McGill University.  That status, together with the fact that for almost all those years, I had been an outspoken heritage activist, caused the three founding doctors from the Montreal Children’s’, the Royal Vic, The General and the King Edward Chest Hospitals to visit me in my most humble office for several hours, three times to discuss with me their hopes and their plans for the massive building that they would build.  (As I understand it, the Montreal Neurological Institute was never planned to be re-located to the new building.) (I may be wrong about this).   This new super-sized building would leave empty and to the fortunes of future hazards their valuable, equally massive buildings on the Mountain, without any plans for their reuse, beyond the hope that their superb sites should attract many developers specialized in high-end residential rehabilitation.

My first and only reaction was that surely I was a person of almost no consequence in their plans, that I had very little influence over any public reaction that might develop, that I had virtually no expertise that would be of value to friends or foes of the project.   But they insisted….

They spoke of their principal reason for the project in that it would be a multi-disciplinary hospital, the principal value of which would be that local medical research of Nobel Prize quality would finally be possible in Montreal. But not far behind as a reason, would be the convenience to patients and medical staff of being able to deal with all patients in a single multi-specialist environment.

My only comment of any value in my private opinion, was that a system of shuttle buses serving all of the hospitals might allow patients to get advice from multi-specialized doctors with about the same efficiency as might be effected in a new super-sized building at much less cost.

Many years passed, and not much happened. Letters criticizing the whole idea from doctors of every sort more or less balanced other letters and comments filled with fulsome praise for the new medicine which the new super-hospital would make possible. Then of a sudden, a site was chosen for the project.

An old railway yard it was.   Its new hospital complex, multi-pavilioned, would be nestled like a string of beads between train and subway tracks with an intermodal station to the north and a super highway to the south. Where tens of thousands of vehicles pass every day.

More years passed while architects seemed to have been hired to do conceptual designs and fired almost as quickly to be succeeded by quiet but fierce squabbling about nearly every aspect of the new building and more plans. My own circumstances changed as I retired from my own private architectural practice to take up other challenges.

I heard little beyond the newspaper covered raging of nearby neighbours to the west of the hospital where neighbours faced a series of traffic plans, each of which threatened to cut their neighbourhoods from circulating to their surrounding city-scapes.

A long pause had settled on to the project, ostensibly caused by a stated inability on the part of the province to raise money from the public in the form of provincial bonds on public financial markets, not only for this project, but at the same time for another super-hospital down town, supposedly for the French speaking public.   Both hospitals, for political reasons, it was said, had to proceed more or less simultaneously.

Then of a sudden, one day, aided by the adoption of a financial stratagem where the province (now to be known as the public) would effectively rent the new facility from a private entity (a bank) which would use their own capital. This money would presumably not be added to the public debt of the province.  And maybe best of all the entity would design, build and operate all of the non-medical aspects of the new complex for many years: twenty, thirty, fifty years, who knew?

The beauty was that the Province would add nothing to its public debt while someone (who knew who?) invested their own money for the privilege of owning a guaranteed return on their capital which would not only be double or triple the rate which could be raised in the market where national bonds were bought and sold; and this for many years. This deal would benefit the Quebec public by not adding to the debt, so feared by the Very Serious People of the world.  But by inserting a disciplined representative of the investor between bureaucrats and politicians on the one hand and on the other hand, the user-patients, the doctors and other medical staff, not to speak of the neighbours, All criticism could be dealt with in an orderly manner, curbing disputes, obviating costly time consuming delays, so that the project should be delivered ON TIME and ON BUDGET whatever that might mean, after a quarter century between first conception of the project and its eventual delivery.

And the building is now virtually finished.   (2014-01-20) Like every project built under the strategy of PPP, Public Private Partnership, there was a minimum of transparency, of public fuss, a minimum of competitive tendering on the different aspects of the work, and a minimum of changes to designs once the building was underway.

Perhaps we are lucky that there has been little scandal about the project.   Perhaps the one that is well known involves a monumental bribe which was allegedly paid to the hospital’s senior organizer on the project.

Perhaps also there is only one fault with the planning for the connection of the building with its surroundings pointed out by Mr. Jochym.

There is allegedly, extremely poor access to the building from its surroundings: from the south and the huge population living there, from the east, which is closed off unless there is a fire.  (Fire trucks can access the site from the east.)  Most strangely, pedestrian access from the Vendome multi-modal subway bus and train station seemed to have been overlooked by the public until the project was only weeks from opening. Access from the north seems never to have been part of the planning.    It now seems that millions of dollars must be spent to build a pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks so that the bulk of users can access the site.   No Extras…..?   EH….?  (But on time and on budget – Oh yeah!)

The west access is by automobile only. The parking garage for the entire project is located at the east end of the site which is about as far from the main entrance as it could possibly be.   Not much has been said about this, perhaps my old aching knees would notice this as a negative point before others.

The word is that many doctors and other staff have still not been assigned their office spaces yet.  Much informed criticism (both positive and negative) is blocked behind a dam of fear that any negativity by any medical users will be met with revenge for its expression, in the quality of space which will be assigned, if not its outright denial.

It is a truism in the development industry and especially among architects, that the best building one has ever built is the next one, while the worst is the one that has just been finished.

One other small thing.   At the meeting of the senate development committee back in the ‘eighties, when the existence of the project was exposed for the first time, absolute horror had been expressed by the University’s highest placed officials that use had been made of the name “McGill” in the name of the New Super Hospital.   The new hospital had no permission from the University whose legal name is not McGill University but: The Royal Institute for the Advancement of Learning. And the Institute had never registered the name “McGill”!

I guess we will all be doing a bit of learning in the near future: about how to plan and execute large projects, and how to be taken to the cleaners when governments slough off their responsibilities to bankers with their own agendas while they cater to the very serious people, who condemn public debt at the same time as they increase their own, opportunities to collect rents at above market rates while performing the functions of government with the public’s guarantees.

Hail the all-powerful convenience of “Your project, On Time and On Budget (whatever that really means).”



Michael Fish was a member of the Order of Architects from 1958 until 1994 when he retired from active practice. He is still active in preservation.