Celebrating the Brutalist Beauty of Montreal’s Metro System

When the first two lines opened 50 years ago this year, the Montreal Metro was on the leading edge of Brutalism and Modernism in architecture


You can easily overlook an underground train system’s aesthetic, especially when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing in a subway system: rushing from point A to point B. But when in Montreal, it’s worth taking the time to pause and admire the Metro – a system born of an optimistic and forward-looking time in Canadian history.

Among important Canadian anniversary celebrations on the horizon (Canada’s 150th and Montreal’s 375th both take place in 2017), the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Metro has felt overlooked as it breezed past with little notice in 2016. The system’s efficiency, cleanliness and otherwise user-friendliness is worth a toast, but it’s the Metro’s design concept that deserves the biggest cheers.

The Montreal Metro opened in 1966, just ahead of Expo ’67. For visitors, the Metro was meant to telegraph a message of a forward marching, innovative Canada to the world – not just a place with blue lakes and cute beavers. In an act of forward thinking, the legendary 1960s Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau conceived the Metro as more than an underground transportation system – he thought it should function as a public gallery, too. The city held architecture competitions for each station, which led to each one serving as a bold, unique construction. (It was usually Communist countries that used subway systems as aesthetic and artistic showcases; among cities in the so-called “free world,” Stockholm and Montreal were among the few that made their metros into public art projects.)

John Martins remembers the system’s heady early days. Martins, who owns DoMo, a store that sells Montreal memorabilia, and wrote a book about the Montreal Metro, recalls: “As a kid the Metro captured my imagination, the deep stations drilled into solid rock, some, three gigantic escalator rides down was a trip of discovery for me, into architecture, art and design.”

Martins (from whose book, Metro: Design in Motion, the photographs in this article were taken) also notes that while the Metro instituted one of the first great public art programs in the country, “the stations were so artistically done that they almost didn’t need it.”


Today, the different stations come across as an intriguing mixed bag – Brutalist or Modernist re-imaginings of folkloric or ecclesiastic styles, with stained glass works, edgy sculptures and murals all part of the mix. The common denominator: They are all “a reflection of social values on which Quebec society was built,” according to a modern-day spokesperson with the Société de transport de Montreal (STM), who spoke with Billy.

Looking for standouts? Start with Peel station downtown, which has almost become an icon of the entire metro system with its groovy, brightly circular ceramic panels. The architects, Papineau, Gérin-Lajoie & LeBlanc, tried to give the interior space a sense of volume and height by playing with contrasts.

At Champ-de-Mars station in Old Montreal there are huge stained-glass murals, the work of major Quebec artist Marcelle Ferron. The stained glass at nearby Place-des-Arts is by Frédéric Back. Jean Talon, a main transfer station – which was designed by Architects Duplessis, Labelle et Derome, with later parts by architects Gilbert Sauvé – boasts a brightly 1960s vibe. Its a viewing platform that overlooks giant graphic murals, and orange and blue tile floors (the colours match the map colours of the Metro lines the station serves).

Lasalle station, designed by Didier Gillon & Pierre Larouche, is pure 1960s Brutalism. The slanted entrance and ceilings in this station are a reminder of the ceilings in the factories of the formerly industrial area it serves. Walls and ceilings are unfinished concrete with a grooved surface texture, with massive blocks of purple, orange and red livening up the space.


From the book Metro: Design in Motion / Courtesy John Martins-Manteiga


There’s Modernism and then there’s Postmodernism. Opened in 1986, the Blue Line is recent enough to feature the latter. Take Outremont station, for example: Its bright geometric shapes bring light right down to the platform, while stone-coloured ceramic tiles and brick on the walls evoke the neighbourhood houses.

Also on the Blue Line, De Castelnau station’s folkloric Terra-cotta bas-reliefs by Jean-Charles Charuest are an homage to the ancient cities of Rome; the station serves Montreal’s Little Italy. The aesthetic at Angrignon station, with its stark Brutalism, couldn’t be more different. Fabre station, by architects Bruno Bédard & Raimondo Averna, has a groovy purple, pink and blue Scandinavian-looking graphic carved into concrete walls. Station Acadie, meanwhile, has charming murals by artist Jean Mercier of cartwheeling Quebecois and besuited businessmen.


Homages to the Montreal Metro

The Montreal Metro also inspired a 20-year-old Montreal-based architecture photography student, Chris Forsyth, to create a photo essay of its architectural details last year. His Montreal Metro Project used a series of stylish, graphic photos to focus commuters’ gaze on the beauty of stations’ designs. Most of Forsyth’s metro photos are devoid of people and the rushed atmosphere of a metro, but are framed as galleries of art. “Montreal’s metro system is a microcosm of 1960s Canadian architecture,” Forsyth told CNN.

Visitors wanting to delve further into the history of the metro, or who want Metro-specific souvenirs, should fast track a trip to John Martins’s DoMo Montreal, in the city’s hip Mile Ex neighbourhood, which sells memorabilia and paraphernalia such as T-shirts, posters, mugs, bags and illuminated signs all to do with theMontreal Metro, Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympics.


From the book Metro: Design in Motion / Courtesy John Martins-Manteiga

Jean Talon Station

Of course his book is there, too. Martins says he wrote Metro: Design in Motion because “the sheer scale, engineering, and artistic nature of [the Metro] was something I wanted to document.”

For the project, Martins documented and photographed all 68 stations that now comprise the system. He finds it hard to name a favourite. “All the stations are like my children.”

Celebrating the Brutalist Beauty of Montreal’s Metro System
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