Of Montreal

After the establishment of the Committee d’Organisation des Jeux Olympique (COJO) in 1972, the body tasked with not just running the Olympic Games in Montreal but controversially to build the structures, the Canadian Ambassador for Argentina wrote to his superiors in Ottawa. After some pleasantries he made the following statement: “Let’s be frank and to the point. In Buenos Aires COJO means fuck.’ Furthermore, he pointed out that the acronym for the body established to deliver unified TV coverage of the games, Olympics Radio and Television Organsiation, ORTO, was in the same colloquial Spanish of urban Argentina, a word that would best be translated as asshole. He then detailed how exactly he was going to obfuscate the issue with Canada’s Latin American trading partners.

The left-wing politician and journalist Nick Auf der Maur notes this story in his book The Billion Dollar Game. The hard-drinking hack / politico tells a story of the blighted Montreal games of popular legend. Auf der Maur bewailed the way in which democratic systems in Montreal such as they were were circumvented. The Olympics to him were an event over which hung a pall of misfortune, such as suggested by the story above. To him Montreal was created by an egotistical tyrant of a mayor Jean Drapeau and an extravagant – and this is significant to Auf der Maur – French architect Roger Tallibert.

It is hard to reconcile Auf der Maur’s extraordinary exposé of the Montreal Olympics published before the Games were even held, with the joy of visiting a truly extraordinary spectacle in the east of the city. What is significant is that the stadium is still tabboo to some. This extravagant architectural gesture built by a duo who constantly compared their endeavour to the building of the Parthenon and the Pyramid deserves to be heralded not just on its own terms but as the first of a particular kind of Grand Projet that defined the late 20th century – formally and structurally extravagant and legible primarily as a gesture rather than as a building. It is more Calatrava than Calatrava and a very obvious result of the unfettered ambitions of Tallibert and Drapeau that even later apologists for the Games acknowledge was out of control.

And yet reading the book in the CCA archive, just hours afer having visited the megrastructure – a pool, inclined tower, stadium and velodrome in one – one realises that a narrative arcs particular to the Olympic Games defines our appreciation of the archtiecture the Games produces. Montreal defined a narrative of Olympic Games, which subsequent Organising committees have done their best to control.  Disapproval and dischord prior to the Games as costs shoot up for as yet unseen buildings. This is then followed by an alloyed appreciation of them during or immediately after the Games themselves.

In terms this is then followed by the legacy phase. This is typified by various state figures and critics engaging in intederminate economic arguments as to the true cost and benefit of the event in the aftermath which ultimately are irreducable to a result. How does one ultimately quantify the economic benefit resulting from an ill-defined changed in global perception of a place? Observing the 2008 Games in Beijing, one could see this arc established by Montreal followed closely. London is slipping into this pattern as well. The only thing that has changed is that the story is anticipated and managed in a much more ruthless fashion than it was during Montreal.

In the CCA Library is also a book by the novelist  and Professor of English Jack Ludwig called Five Ring Circus. It tells the story of the construction of the buildings through the actual event itself. Recording the opening ceremony in florid style Ludwig notes. “The Olmpics were all set to begin. With an unfinished tower. With temporary ramps and walks and staircases, wooden flooring that boinged under bodyweight and looked at  closely showed in spaces between boards an unbridled  prosepct of ground 30 or 40 or 50 fee below. A strong fresh smell of epoxy, the bonding material used to join the block in Roger Tallibert’s building plan, charged the air with an effluvium of newness.’

To Ludwig, the failure to complete the building on schedule becomes part of the pageantry of the Games. The extraordinary political battle taking place over who was responsible for failing to deliver the project on time and overspending is part of the spectacle of the event. Construction, even incomplete construction is part of the Olympic experience. There have been no greater failures in Olympic history than the failure to complete the inclining tower over the Montreal Stadium, but Ludwig reconciles this with the performances of the Romanian gymanst Nadia Comaneci and the German swimmer Kornelia Ender and pretty much shrugs it off.

For Ludwig, the spend on the Games is melioriated by its quixotic, almost poetic effect on Montreal, which becomes in his eyes forever touched by the Olympic spirit. Structures may not be finished, doping may take place but the Games took place. “In time Kornelia Ender’s every motion became part of a unique signature on Montreal space,” he says. Although the book is published in the same year as Auf Der Maur’s, the narrative has changed utterly simply becaue the book takes place after an incredibly successful event. Ludwig is able to cast his eye forwards to the future as well. ‘No matter what happens to Montreal … as result of the Olympic deficit, Drapeau will always believe that he was after all right.’

When asked by Nixon what he thought the impace of the French Revolution would be the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is supposed to have said it was “too early to say”. It has taken Paul Charles Howell a planning consultant and key player in the Montreal Olympic Organizing Committee some 33 year to finally put his thoughts on the event out into the world in his book The Montreal Olympics: An Insider’s View of Organizing A Self-Financing Games. By now he feels able to show that in terms of organsiation the Games were in fact a success.

Howell posits the fact that what is termed Olympic defecit was in fact cost. Explaining away Drapeau’s promise to make the Games self-financing, he suggests the figure of $2bn, commonly described as a defecit after the Games is inaccurate because it involves costs such as the completion of the stadium, the later conversions to the buildings and the cost of constructing the Olympic village without taking into account its resale.

The book redresses the balance to a degree pointing out how well used the facility is but it is far from conclusive. Howell overlooks the interminable problem with the stadium’s roof and although he states the benefits that have accrued to Montreal in as persuasive a way as possible, he admits ultimately however that his account-balancing is futile. One has to believe in the Olympic goals of excellence and fraternity through competition to acknowledge the benefits. One senses today that there is no sense of shared ownership of the stadium, which is although not for the delicate or faint of heart a truly remarkable piece of architecture.

These three books in different ways suggest that the political faultlines between city, state and federal government as well as the International Olympic Committee that existed during the mayorship of Drapeau, and were frequently manipulated by him, perhaps still endure. It is possible however, for greatness to exist in this internecine atmosphere and for the various viewpoints on the Games to be right and yet somehow miss the point. To an untutored observer, Montreal possesses a certain romantic sense of ambition, thwarted in part, attained in others that is peculiar to an Olympic city. But then that self-same untutored observer could also be the kind of person that finds the sight of his fellow countryman’s name inscribed onto a wall, surprisingly moving.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
This entry was posted in 2012, Architecture, Media, Old Things, Urbanism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Of Montreal

  1. The use, or non-use, of the stadium, has been a deliberate political act for decades.

    • cosmopolitanscum says:

      Interesting. It hasn’t been used much so I’m guessing you are suggesting this has been deliberate. Why would that be the case?

  2. Pingback: Remembering football. « Another Kind of Unity

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