Canadian Centre for Architecture CCA

The Case of the Turcot Interchange

Artist Victor Arroyo and urban planner Pierre Gauthier talk about the social and urban development issues in the case of the Turcot interchange. As a product and symbol of the grand ambitions of Montréal in the 1960s, its physical legacy highlights many issues around the contemporary city’s relationship with its past.

Welcome to everybody, I’m Fabrizio Gallanti the curator of ABC:MTL, which is the exhibition within which this event is taking place tonight. We’ve opened an open call for contributions and among these contributions, we received one that really got our attention, from Victor Arroyo, a Mexican filmmaker, that proposed to us to present how the reconstruction of the Turcot interchange is going to implicate significant change in the life of several of its citizens. Throughout the program, Victor was very interesting to watch, because he was trying to use the tools of filmmaking, documentary and interview, in a video installation. Pierre Gauthier is here with us tonight as well, a researcher in urban planning and professor at Concordia University. He will helps us grasping the economical and social issues involved with the reconstruction of the Turcot interchange.

Pierre Gauthier: We would like it to be more of an informal conversation than some kind of proper presentation. For instance, we thought that it would be appropriate to start by providing a very brief explanation about the Turcot Interchange, and on the debate surrounding its reconstruction, very factual, very quick. Some of you might not be familiar with the infrastructure, so I will read over just a few basic facts. The Turcot Interchange was commissioned in 1967, just in time for the opening of Expo ’67, exciting times of Montreal, for modern Montreal. At the time it was one of the largest interchanges in North America. It is located in St. Henri, where it connects to highways 15, 20, 720 – also known as Ville-Marie. The structure elevates at some 30 metres above the ground, and accommodates 18 lanes of traffic that are distributed between 12 ramps, so it’s quite large. Now it is part of an even larger complex, which is made up of four interchanges, and they’re connected to the highways, so that’s 28 structures, 160,000 square metres, 7.7 kilometres of ramps that are spread on three levels. So we’re talking about a gigantic infrastructure here.

The Turcot Interchange, the heart of this complex, is crumbling currently, it needs to be replaced—rebuilt—and we need a consensus on that. So in 2007 the Ministry of Transportation of Quebec—the MTQ—made their construction project publicly known. Eventually, this was the object of public hearings, like the bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement. And the proposal of the MTQ had much criticism from citizens, community groups, experts, and even public bodies, for its failure to meet minimal environmental, social, economic and societal standards. I will now turn to Victor, who studied the question, and I was quite fascinated, Victor, when we first met and had this exchange about your work, the way in which you became interested in the Turcot Interchange and the debate surrounding its reconstruction, and how this triggered an interest which became part of your work, and produced a significant piece of work. So I would like –I was interested and I think people would be quite interested in hearing about your démarche artistique or the process, as I understand it, it’s two-fold. So can you talk to us about it?

Victor Arroyo: Don’t know how many of you here actually had the chance of seeing my work that I’m about to talk about, nonetheless, it comes from, I would say, two different questions I was having more than a year ago. I was trying to expand documentary filmmaking practices and at the same time, I was interested in the Turcot Interchange issue. All of this is coming, I have to say, from Daniel Cross, who is here, he’s sitting right here in the front row with a little hat. He is, in my opinion, one of the most important documentary filmmakers in Canada, hands-down. He’s been working on a documentary about the Turcot Interchange for the last, what is it now? 5 years?, something like that. His documentary work continues as the Turcot-debate continues. I became interested in the debate thanks to him. I was thinking about the documentary from a critical level, how do I start using the documentary form in a different way, far from the conventional viewing conditions -with remains of the spectacle viewing conditions from the 19th century- where you have a linear narrative which has a beginning and an end?. It doesn’t matter how avant-garde you get, but you still go home or to a theatre and you have to watch a fixed screen and you have a fixed duration and you have to watch it only once at a time, in a linear way. So I was thinking and researching, how do I combine different kinds of information – archival footage, interviews, books, quotations- into a single viewing experience?. In a documentary you have to go through the whole thing and wait until it passes 10 or 15 minutes and then you get to a specific information, so I was trying to offer something different. I realized that for my documentary that wasn’t a convenient way of working with the information I was dealing with. So I asked permission to Daniel Cross, I was like “you know what? I’m going to go and do my thing, is that okay with you?” and he was like “yeah, sure, go ahead and do it.” So I did and I disappeared from his life for a year. After a year then he got mad at me, he was like “I don’t know what’s going with you, with your documentary, you disappear for a year, etc..” and I said “well, I was at Turcot.” So I spent roughly a year at Pierre’s Zovile, place using different techniques, for example, oral history techniques. I didn’t want to just do an interview, say “okay, gimme the goods”. With oral history you get to a different level with your subject, you build a more intimate relationship with your subject, you just let the person speak. I was doing what is considered as research, however, not knowing exactly how the installation it’s gonna look like. I wasn’t thinking “okay, the installation’s going to be that, or it’s going to be that”, I didn’t know the way the installation is going to work, how many channels, etc.., I had no idea whatsoever.

PG: You described the interviews with Pierre Zovile as “the flesh and bones experience of the resident”, because Pierre Zovile is a resident, he’s an artist and he’s living nearby. And as a matter of fact, he’s part of these people who might very well be expropriated. Which connects to this other aspect of your work which is more theoretical, I don’t know if you are allowed to discuss it, you discuss the notion of displacement, which was very interesting and informed your work. Would you like to talk about it?

VA:We are right now in this conference where most of the people are academics from diverse fields, and I think this fact reflects the kind of multi-disciplinary research that we all are doing. So I would put my social-activist- hat and head to Pierre’s place, to try to experience the living conditions of a person under the economical and social forces at the Turcot site, then I will go back to Concordia University and start graduate work and writing papers academically informed by sociology and anthropology. I would say there are the two most important aspects of my work. Pierre lives on St. Remy street, and when you’re at his place you have the Interchange right there in front of your face, you see the Interchange at all times. For the people who live on St. Remy street it’s a real experience, to have the interchange right there. What interested me the most was the attempt to convey different moments in history that I uncovered through my research. One of them would be to highlight that this will be the second time that this displacement happens. It already happened back through out the 50’s and ‘60s with different mega-urban projects involved during the construction of the Ville-Marie highway and the Turcot interchange as well.

My installation is comprised of four video channels, two of them are showing archival footage from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and footage from five years ago showing some of the public demonstrations against the Turcot demolition. One of the most interesting things that I found in my research is that the first process of displacement and the activist movement against mega-urban projects that happened some 50 years ago shares some characteristics with the displacement that is going to happen again. There was a social activist movement against the construction of the Ville Marie highway and the Turcot interchange called ‘No a la autoroute’, a very similar activist movement as the one we have right now called ‘Mobilisation Turcot’, in which your work, Pierre, is foundational, as well the work of Pierre Briset and many politically-engaged citizens. Also there was a group of filmmakers and activists working as part of the NFB unit B, in the Challenge for Change Program. These filmmakers have been not only a great influence on my work, but I feel great proudness to think that I’m building upon their legacy. So you find many similarities, even though there are 50 years in between, so that was an interesting thing to come across.

I’m expecting that people that don’t know what the Turcot is, that my installation will offer them little bit of awareness, to say “oh, Turcot! What’s Turcot? What is this? Is there something going on there?” and probably they’ll try to get a little bit more of information. One of the things that happened to me is people asking: “oh, what do you do?, and I’ll answer “well, I’m working on the ‘Turcot’ and people don’t know what the Turcot is. They’re like “Turcot? What’s Turcot?”. I would answer “The interchange, when you’re coming to Montreal and you’re driving, that huge thing, that’s the Turcot.” “Oh, really? And what’s going on?” I have no clue”. Partially what I’m doing here with this installation it’s just to spread the word out there, and that’s it, just trying to bring a little bit of awareness to the problematic. It all started basically, the way that the whole installation came together was based on ‘oh, I just got the idea of playing with boxes”, and now I’m still trying to understand what the boxes really mean. The boxes became a really integral part of the installation.

PG: Part of it is political then?. These boxes that you were referring to, the video was using these as a screen for the presentation of the video?

VA: There is not only an aesthetical concern, but also a political. We can get our entire life into boxes, your life can be contained into 20 of those boxes, which to me is one of the biggest crimes of contemporary societies. Of course there are more important issues, there’s tons of social issues, but from my perspective, the issue of displacement in contemporary societies is one of the biggest issues. It’s happening all over the world, it’s happening in Hong Kong, it’s happening in Mexico City, Montreal, etc. Cities are strategic sites for growing economies, with so many economic and political forces at play that we just, as citizens, cannot escape those forces. I do feel the responsibility of talking about that, in this case in an artistic form, and I’m sure Gauthier shares these concerns.

PG: To me these boxes are a symbol of efficiency and transportation as well. My “deformation” as an architect and as a planner make me read that into your work, because they symbolize displacement as well. Maybe we could talk a bit about my research in the Turcot interchange then.

My work on Turcot basically started when I was working with my urban planning students in a studio, at St. Henri in 2007-2008. And as we were working, I tried to understand the issues, the planning issues, the potential for revitalization, and so on, and the social, economic, and material/physical conflicts of St. Henri. This project was made public from the Ministry of Transportation, so first we were trying to understand the nature of the project, which was difficult to do, because people who were there at the beginning could testify about the fact that it was made to not allow for the understanding of what was being proposed, the documents were not amenable, they were not very easy to interpret even for a specialist like myself. We were trying to understand the project in itself and obviously its implications for the local population, and the effects on urban planning, the potential for planning in the area if you wish. I was also involved at the time with a Community/University Research Alliance project, which started the mega-project, the MUHC, Mcgill University Health Centre project which is just next to the Turcot Interchange. We were basically looking at and trying to understand what would be the impact, was there a negative part trying to capitalize on it?, Should be try mitigating the negative impacts and capitalize on the presence of the new hospital for all those communities – St. Henri, Westmount and NDG-?. It became very evident for community groups and researchers involved with that project that Turcot would have a very important—and I should say negative—impact on those surrounding neighbourhoods, as well as the broader Montreal context. The more we knew about the project, the more perplexed we became, and at some point, you know, quite alarmed. Eventually, the discussion has expanded as we got in touch with transportation experts, environmentalist groups, even public health experts around the project, which are basically working for the Quebec government. I should mention here that the BAPE hearings really triggered such collaboration. Eventually, we continued to work, to study and to try to understand the implications. This work culminated with the production of an alternative scenario with Pierre Briset, -who’s here and who’s an architect-, and it was presented with the title Turcot 375. There’s a video on youtube which summarizes the whole episode, if you wish, explains what we were trying to do, and how we came to the conclusion that perhaps, illustrating how the principles that we were advocating for and also the community groups we were advocating for, could inform the project. We felt that such a thing wouldn’t come from the MTQ itself.

But now, as time passed, I started to reflect, as you did -Victor- in your work, on trying to understand what Turcot says about Montreal, as you would put it yourself, and more broadly, how highways are shaping cities in ways we do not necessarily suspect at first glance. As a researcher, my specialty is in material culture, the evolution and the buildup of it over time. I’m also teaching Urban Planning, Physical Design, which is a natural extension of this research work, but it’s also looking at how people engage with the built environment, and how the built environment supports and favours social interactions and social transactions and so on and so forth. Even if I focus, research-wise, more on the built forms, I’m doing it so knowing and trying to understand the cultural debt, and how, city inner highways and taller buildings are manifesting cultural forms and have broader implications and have deep roots. As far as the highways are concerned, this reflection was triggered by the Turcot Interchange, then I came to see highways as a complete manifestation, as you did, of broader forces that impact the social fabric of our city. But also the physical fabric of our cities. Not to forget, of course, the environmental impact, they’re very important, they’re documented, this is where public health experts come into the debate for instance. I think that you -Victor- understand the fact that this forces that shape our city, are broader, they are associated with capitalism and with industrialism as well. We know that these forces are there, we know that they are shaping our environment, we know that they entail the commodification of everything. When the built environment becomes commodified doesn’t come as a surprise for anybody. The way in which highways are conceived, or the way in which they’re designed, their function to the city and so forth, the way engineers approach that, or transportation planners, has very deep historical roots – it goes to the origin of urban planning, basically, which was trying to articulate a response to the Victorian industrial city, with all its problems, pollution, overcrowded cities with industrial production and so on. The work of Haussmann, for instance, in Paris comes to mind. Obviously it’s a marvel, you know, when you visit Paris and the grand boulevards and so on. But if you’re a bit more familiar with the work of Haussmann, as many of you certainly are, you realize that Haussmann was approaching the problem of the city in a very different way. A very systematic way: as a technical problem. And the city was looked at and seen as a series of technical problems of networks, technical networks, networks for the sewage system, the park networks, etc.Very systematic in his approach, a new rationality was at play there. When reacting to the industrial city, then a certain number of solutions emerge. One such solution involved transforming drastically the city centre according to new principles of efficiency, applying a rationality that was applied to its design. To try to build a new life in the suburbs, it’s basically just marking the distinction between the domestic sphere, which was relegated outside the city, and to differentiate it from the work sphere, and the associated production activities, in the city centre.

But this is extraordinarily pernicious, because what you realize is that in the day-to-day activities of planners and engineers, when you start conceiving the city and its transportation networks as technical networks, then the street becomes just one more component of this technical device. It gets reduced to be only one more component. The way in which a street is used becomes a function within a more complex system. Highways function very well when they’re part of a networked system, because they’re designed according to mathematical models that try to predict the way in which people will behave. It’s basically, plumbing. But there is an implicit understanding of the city behind such an approach, and this is so pernicious because it goes against 8000 years of urban civilization. Cities were always meant to ensure the circulation of people.The streets were open in order to have lots and build things that had their address on them. As a concept, they’re all part of the public collective space network, they’re a place where people can meet and interact. Streets are, basically, the background that serves community and social interactions, and this is what is lost. Montreal, for instance, in its master plan of 1992 referred to Montreal as a city of villages. Villages as articulations of domestic spaces -their sidewalks, the streets, the church-, they all are a site for socialization and exchange. They are basically a materialization for the ways in which we inhabit the city. There’s a shared culture behind these physical forms. The way in which the houses are build, for example, is fundamentally different in our Western context, than what you find in China. There are deep cultural meanings to these things, and this is what is under attack when you trivialize the city and instrumentalize the city fabric.

VA: One of the aspects that interests me the most, that I was trying to highlight, was the notion of speed and its relation to progress. It is Paul Virilio who has written about that issue lately, and he says that ‘the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century is the city, the contemporary metropolis of the disasters of progress’. We must continue to questioned our notions of speed and efficiency. It’s actually a very simple issue but just so dense that we forget about it. For example, in Mexico everything it’s super slow, but really, nobody cares. But here—well, in North America in general—the notion of speed is everywhere, everyone’s in a rush. That has a toll, and the toll is that we are so used to have an efficient postal service, that we don’t even stop to reflect about what’s involved on that. We want everything fast and efficient, we want to have our stuff delivered on time. Here in Montreal, as in any city in North America, we can think of any good, article, item, you name it, and we can find it, right here in the city, and it is precisely the inner-city highway, that networked system, that enables that efficiency. That has a cost, and the cost is high. The inner-city highway is just breaking the social fabric of your city, because the city is a privileged place for social interaction—for being people.

PG: Should we open for questions?

Q: Since we have a new government in place now, do you think it’s going to affect the evolution of the project? I’m sort of hoping that the politics of the MTQ might’ve changed now that the parties have changed, so do you have any ideas about that?

PG: That’s a big question. We don’t know that, very little has transpired, so I think that they have a different approach for transportation, a different vision of policy, now it’s a minority government, do they want to re-open that file? That could become a factor in re-election, because it’s such a complex project that it’s not very well understood by the majority of population, and some people have all sorts of conceptions about it. People from the suburbs, for instance. So I don’t know. I’m a bit pessimistic because it’s a minority government, there’s a high political risk if you re-open the debate, of being accused of delaying things, you know if something bad happens and they have to close a significant segment for instance, and it falls during the election. Even though we know that it wouldn’t necessarily entail delays in the reconstruction, but do you want to get into this type of discussion and debate during an election if people are caught in their car and there are traffic jams all the way to the South Shore because they had to close a section of it because, you know, it could be collapsing. Everything is monitored, I don’t think there’s a question here, but they might have to shut it down, if it deteriorates more, and quicker than they anticipate.

Q: I’m just curious about what’s being done in other cities, because in North America, I’m under the impression that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a lot of cities were building highways and interchanges. And I imagine that theirs must be crumbling apart at some point, were they repaired? Are they just replacing it? Why aren’t we doing that? Would that be a better option, just to replace it? No expropriations, no additional cost, no additional volume, maybe nothing for public transit anyway. Have you explored that?

VA: Yeah. I do just have one example from Mexico City. At some point they decided to build a second level to their major inner-city highway. I don’t remember the precise technicalities of the Mexico City inner highway, but it is very large, larger than Turcot. Everything in Mexico City is larger than life right?. You can imagine this highway that just goes on and on and on forever. Engineers faced that question, “what should we do, we need more cars, we need more space but this structure is crumbling, what should we do?” you want to remove those people, you’re going to remove like 2-million people, that’s just impossible. So they just add the second level. And of course, many people were displaced, I’m not sure exactly how many people. And many people were killed during the construction, construction workers.

PG: There are opposing forces in different social contexts, the response varies. But in the Northern Hemisphere, generally speaking, when the growth is modest, as in Montreal, the general tendency when governments are serious about climate change -40% of greenhouse gas emissions in Quebec are attributable to transportation-, it’s that these jurisdictions and other governments reduce their highway-growth transportation, putting in place very efficient public transit systems. And especially for the clientele that is targeted as those who will move back and forth between the suburbs and the city centre. And our research determined that up to 70% of the people using the East-West corridor use it for their daily commute, so these are the people that are targeted. And the solution exists. Why is it they don’t want to do it? I don’t know, we might learn more in the coming weeks and months.

Q: It seems like we’re talking about systems here, so I wanted to ask: have you studied, if you look at the corridor, the tonnage of materials coming into Montreal, how much of that is transferred to trucks? And how much tonnage of what goes, for instance, out of Ville-Marie, is actually commercial traffic and how much of it is people actually?

PG: Well it’s a very technical question, and Ville-Marie you know, all sorts of material cannot go there ‘cause it’s a tunnel, for safety reasons and so on. But not much worked on Ville-Marie, we know that there’s a significant corridor—the 15—going towards the bridge, and we know that there’s no quick fix for that problem. We’ve been accommodating for the future. So there are more innovative solutions to deal with freight outside of the road, but we know that there’s no quick solution for that. The short-term solution is far more evident as far as passengers and motorists are concerned. In our scenario, even when reducing significantly the size of the interchange, it would still accommodate the same level of freight.

Q: What lessons can be learned from the way the Turcot Interchange was treated? Let’s say the 40 needs replacement, what do we do now? Do we just give up, because the government doesn’t listen to its citizens, or the BAPE or any recommendations from experts? Where do we go from here?

PG: Well, the short question is that it needs political courage, because a lot of people will be affected. And in my mind, we need to open up the debate. So that the commuters and people who live in the suburbs modify their habits, to leave their car at some point and switch to the train, and come to Montreal quicker and more efficiently. And then the effort required by people living in the city centre is something else. But the nature of the effort that is required from different groups of people will be different. So the arbitration in my mind needs to be done collectively, in an open debate, where the people realize that we’re all for virtue, that we’re all for the better environment, that we’re all growing very concerned about climate change. If people have the sense that their effort needs to be collective, that there’s benefit for all groups of people and that there’s also benefit for the collectivity at large, I think that it’s the only solution. But the debate is so complex, because it’s technical, it entails changing debates between experts, it requires changing habits, and there are political implications if you’re trying to get elected in different times or regions and so on. So in my mind, democratic process is the answer, and making the information available and putting the options on the table. There is no other way. I mean, it cannot be imposed. But still it takes courage to say that now we’re serious about these things, change needs to occur now, and let’s sit down and figure out how to do it in a short period of time, with clear objectives at the end.