In its third incarnation, this graduate seminar in Montreal’s urban history made a special focus on public spaces, comparing the past of a given site with its present spatial and visual characteristics. In his Arcades Project, cultural critic Walter Benjamin used the term, “dialectical image” to describe his experience of the late-nineteenth-century covered passages, or arcades that had been part of Baron Haussman’s transformation of Paris (1852-1870). By the time that Benjamin was writing in the 1930s, the arcades had already fallen out of fashion and had become, in a sense, a ruin. As he pointed out, however, what was ruined was not so much the arcades but rather the society to which they belonged, the Second Empire. To experience the arcades, for Benjamin, was to confront the incommensurability of the past with the present, yet to be surrounded with the evidence of the past’s regimes, its failures and beauty. Architectural theorist, Jane Rendell suggests that the dialectical image is therefore “a moment where the past is recognized in the present as a ruin that was once desired” (2006, 77).
How might the idea of the dialectical image, the “ruin that was once desired” be useful to the study of Montreal’s built environment? Historic architecture and urban space provide clues to how power was expressed spatially in days gone by (via mansions, les hôtels de ville, universities); how values were demonstrated (via the creation of public parks and institutions), whose voices can still be heard (civic leaders and philanthropists) and whose have been muted through urban change such as city planning and slum clearance. The built form of the city likewise can tell us about present-day concerns, priorities and struggles. Montreal is full of sites where present-day spatial experience collides with the multiple histories of politics, policy and culture. No urban site is, however, as powerfully evocative of the overlap, or dialectic between past and present as the public spaces of a city.
The authors of the papers found on this site were asked to become the cultural archaeologists of a specific public site, broadly defined, in Montreal. Comparing an historic image with present built and social circumstances, students investigated the transformation of that site over time, asking what, architecturally, has been preserved from the past, what has been celebrated, retrofitted, excised, erased? And just as importantly, what do these gestures tell us about the city: how does its multiply layered surface communicate continuity or contradiction, ruin or rupture? Using site visits, archival resources and visual culture, contributors to Palimpsest III explored their chosen sites as cultural landscapes, reading them for their investment in specific pasts, and revealing the traces of their polyphonic histories.
Dr. Cynthia Hammond [email@example.com]
Department of Art History,
Editor, Palimpsest III