The Underground City

Fred Hapgood

For hundreds of years, from Dante's circles of Hell to the sewers of Les Miserables, underground spaces have been portrayed as hellholes of oppression, monotony, and confinement. And why not? Who wants to live like a mole, like an ant? As open-minded and flexible as we humans are about our addresses -- and we can be found in the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest neighborhoods on the planet -- it seems only common sense to draw a line at moving into the realm of cellars, vaults, and caves.

So a visit to the great underground city of Montreal comes as a bit of an eye-opener. Even on a glorious day last September, with the weather offering every inducement to be outside and on the surface, the 20+ miles of underground lanes and passageways were flooded. A visitor looking around would see commuters striding forcefully, tourists meandering, suits networking, window shoppers appraising, friends chatting in clusters, Gen-Xers slacking in the corners of the many street cafes, pensioneers people-watching, and inevitably, drawn from all over Quebec, packs of squealing mall rats, chasing through the crowds like breezes through standing corn. 500,000 people are said to pass through the Underground every day; some might suspect even that number was an underestimate.

Yet another species that might be found bobbing on this tide are planners or designers from other countries, come to rethink their prejudices about underground space. The great lesson of modernization is that as income rises, cities grow. Dozens of cities around the world now have populations in excess of ten million; when planners look ahead they see even these populations expanding. At the same time, as income rises, so does interest in parks and gardens, open spaces, the preservation of historical architecture, and escape from the noise, stench, and risks of the automobile. Planners trying to juggle these goals and trends keep finding themselves vectoring back to the underground. Because underground development literally manufactures new real estate, it ameliorates the old zero-sum squabbling between development and all other possible uses for the Earth's surface. In theory, assuming reasonable progress in the construction technologies, it could do so indefinitely, since the amount of room down there is for all practical purposes unlimited.

Perhaps a dozen cities* around the globe are experimenting with growing "roots" -- passageways that contain or give access to various urban activities. Montreal is unique in that its Underground is by far the largest and most complicated. It is where to go to see what a semi-mature underground city looks and feels like; what another city embarking on this new direction of development be like in thirty or forty years. A planner thinking seriously about underground development and the issues of cost and design that come with that commitment might well decide to do some of that thinking in Montreal. The paradox and lesson of the Montreal Underground is that it was not built for any of the good reasons mentioned above: not to preserve old buildings or make cities livable or clear space for gardens. It wasn't planned at all. The parties that dropped this seed had no idea of what they were starting.

In the late 50's some developers became interested in connecting an office building then under construction with a railroad station that  lay just across  a major avenue. The obvious choice of a structure to support that function was an overpass running over the street. However, the city authorities disliked overpasses -- they felt they scarred the skyline of the city -- and refused permission to build one. The only choice left was diving under the street. That seemed like no option at all, since tunnels cost money.

Then one night, perhaps when everyone was sitting around exhausted, their coffee cups overflowing with butts, some bright soul suggested going ahead with the tunnel, only building in some commercial spaces and renting them out to upscale boutiques. The rents could then be used to defray the cost of construction. The numbers were crunched and the idea was taken up.

When the spaces were finished they comprised a mini-shopping center that was compact, isolated from traffic, protected from the weather, and very handy. Workers from the office building (which was named the Place Ville-Marie) could walk to the stores during lunch, buy and walk back in time for work, all without putting on gear. The railroad station brought shoppers at offpeak times. The daily commute sent people back and forth in front of the store windows, which delighted the merchants. The spaces proved tremendously popular. Rents soared. Developers noticed. Shortly thereafter Montreal announced plans for several new subway stations (in part as preparation for Expo 67). With the Place Ville-Marie model fresh in their minds, the commercial real estate community lobbied for including some variation of the same ideas in the proposed stations.

Ordinarily city planners would have been deeply involved with the details of such a major investment in the city. However, real underground urban space, as opposed to a nightmare landscape in a science fiction book, was a new concept. No one had any certificates or credits in the field; there was no rule book, no precedents, no experts. Further, underground development was (and is) fiendishly complex. Typically one bundle of rights would be owned by the city, another by the regional transit authority, a third by non-participating abutters, and a fourth would emerge contractually, from tortuous cost-sharing negotiations among the businesses involved.

Even by the standards of commercial real estate, each deal was a Russian doll of deals, pieced together by players -- banks, developers, tenants, architects, lots of lawyers -- wrestling with questions they had never even contemplated before, all looking at the city from a perspective that was new to them. "There was a lot of screaming and shouting in board rooms," recalls an architect involved with some of these projects. Sometimes passageways were run all around the block just to avoid dealing with a specific hardhead.

When city planners looked down into this mosh pit, they wisely decided to let the private sector fight it out on their own time. After all, to a planner trained to think of a city as what sat on the surface, whatever happened "down there" was invisible anyway. Nobody was going to be writing letters to the paper denouncing pinhead bureaucrats just because some tunnel angled off to the left instead of to the right. So the city satisfied itself by defining a few guiding principles (for instance, passageways, even those on private property, have to stay open until the subways close) and then retiring.

That act of restraint (probably) helped the Underground find its own costs, grow quickly and flexibly, and establish the heterogeneity and liveliness that characterize it to this day. On the other hand, it also meant that the Underground that emerged around these new stations was intensely commercial. Developers kept bench space to a minimum (so as not to attract loitering nonshoppers, who raise liability exposure without bringing compensating revenues), rented every square foot they could, and designed the spaces to keep visitors circulating in front of their display windows. The passageways were long and narrow, which made it difficult for people to stand still and talk in a group. Stairways were staggered so that a person wishing to go down two flights of stairs would have to walk past at least one wall of store windows. The owners were hostile to street musicians and political activity.

This relentless focus on commercial values led to complaints that moving the citizenry from city-owned streets to private property was undermining the public, civic, character of urban life. Then, in the 70's, countervailing pressures appeared. Developers and owners began to devote more space to amenities and conveniences, to plantings, fountains, bathrooms, and seating areas. They sponsored public art, exhibitions and other community events. This change came about not because of new regulations or a newfound enthusiasm for subsidizing civic life but because a new actor had appeared in the complex: the River had emerged.

From a merchant's point of view the defining character of the Underground is the high fluidity of the traffic. People are drawn to it in the first place because they can move around easily. There are no cars or trucks, not even any bicycles. There is no weather. The facilities are relatively densely packed, which means you can walk from one complex to another in minutes, and where you can't or don't want to, a subway station (there are ten) is usually close by.

That people can go to any point as easily as any other point, means that small changes in relative attractiveness induce large responses in traffic flow. These two factors, the high volume of people and high sensitivity to the environment, combine to make the River. If an improvement is installed in complex A on Monday the River will start pulling people out of complex B on Tuesday. The more developments that connected up, the more intense this competition became; the more people that went into the Underground, the greater the rewards of winning that competition.

In the 70's the Underground, using the force of the River, began to take over its own design. It started to evolve. Long snaky corridors were torn out and replaced by plazas, courts, and arcades, where people could cluster or sit and talk. Developments were planned around large vertical atrium-like "spacefalls" -- a painful sacrifice of marketable floor area, but the river insisted on them. Gradually a public sensibility emerged. Recently Pieter Sipjkes, a professor of architecture at McGill, published research finding that for the elderly, at least, the Underground has begun to support a community life. "Some centers have become an essential component of the everyday routine of local residents," he says.

Today, thirty-five years after Place Ville-Marie opened, the Underground has become the normal setting for commercial development in downtown Montreal. Not one downtown retail development has been built on the surface since 1964. Connections run to about 80% of the office space and 35% of the stores, including 1,600 boutiques, 200 restaurants, 45 bank branches, 34 cinemas and theaters, and two exhibition halls. Projects now in the works are going to add five more miles of lanes to the system, bringing the total to about 25. "It's crucial for a Class A building to be in the system," Tom Granger, VP at Devencore, Ltd., a local commercial real estate company, says flatly. The Underground has even developed a global reach: People fly in from Europe to shop at what has become one of the great markets of the French-speaking world.

Despite the stereotypes of underground life, the Underground does not feel oppressive or confining. Part of the reason is that there is no common look, no stylistic identity imposed topdown by a single developer/owner. No two corridors, arcades, atria, or plazas are alike. A passageway with spare, clean, neo-classical walls will open into an large art deco railroad station with a lavender ceiling supported by triangular legs. Pass though the station and you might find yourself walking by walls composed of rippling strata of colored bricks. Soapstone gives way to granite, granite to marble, marble to aluminum or steel sheets or to patterns of colored tiles.

Even when you sit in one spot, so the surrounding surfaces stay the same, the Underground seems to work. Fundamentally, what makes it tolerable -- more than tolerable, exhilarating -- is the River, the flood of people. Everywhere you look are flows of color and movement, all immersed in a chorus of voices, a stream of people music, gathered, blended, reflected, and channeled back throughout the matrix. The Underground feels like a new kind of urban experience: intensified, concentrated, almost purified.

The evolution still has far to go before The Underground becomes a real city. For all the public amenities installed since the 60's, it could use more. There is as yet no low rent neighborhood where you can find second-hand bookstores, bargains in office space, fortune tellers, experimental art galleries surviving on a prayer, thrift stores, cheap antiques, and stores catering to fringe markets like model railroading hobbyists. There is no red light district.

Perhaps the worst failure of the complex is in navigating aids. A city surface is rich with landmarks that people use to orient themselves: mountains or hills, the silhouettes of high buildings, long streets framing some distinctive design. A person walking towards a store on the surface can center herself between the lines of perspective focused on the store's entrance. As she walks towards the store the entrance expands along the lines of perspective, keeping her sense of location stable and unbroken.

There is not much like this in the Underground. While the atria help, they don't help enough. There is no skyline, no long sweeping vistas. There are few gradual transitions, either stylistic or functional. There are no neighborhoods -- nothing like a Chinatown or a Theater District -- that you can feel yourself gradually approaching or leaving. Anything might lie around the next corner: a bus depot, students selling books from shopping carts, a TV talk show taping a session. The interior quality of the complex makes it very hard to picture it as a whole and find yourself inside it. Even residents report feeling a bit anxious about where there are as they walk around. Sijpkes has found that some elderly so dislike being forced to ask directions over and over they avoid the system altogether.

Over the last three decades Montreal has tried several approaches to the problem of orientation, including different signage systems, but none have quite worked. New structures now have large compass roses on the roofs and ceilings, which is a step. The city is planning to install electronic kiosks that will allow visitors to see the complex in cross-section and simulate trips before they take them. This might help, but such kiosks will be far apart. A real solution to the problem of orientation and navigation would work like a glance at the skyline does today: instantly, wherever the visitor is. Perhaps one possibility would be to make sensory neighborhoods, with each area having a different suite of background acoustics or a distinctive atmospheric character, like a mist or a breeze or even a scent. Also, since Montreal is built on a hill, there are many spots where the Underground, perhaps paradoxically, could have windows. These would help a bit, though the problem awaits a comprehensive solution. Even in its relative youth, the success of the Montreal Underground has left planners fearing it will suck the life out of the surface, leaving the streets depopulated and softening the market for offices and stores not connected to the system. (Commercial real estate values on the surface are indeed depressed, though there might be several reasons for that. The economy of the entire Province is in a recession.) Even if that is happening, pulling traffic underground also releases downtown streets for activities that might be more appropriate for the surface, such as public festivals and fairs. Sijpkes points out that in recent years the streets of the downtown have been given over to a series of summer festivals -- a jazz festival, the "Just for Laughs" Festival, the Francophonie Celebrations, a film festival. Organizing these celebrations might have been harder without an Underground to relieve the pressure on the surface streets. The Underground appeared first and grew fastest in Montreal for several reasons unique to that city: punishing weather, an excellent subway system, a commitment to the tourist industry, and a large downtown residential community. Not every city will have these reasons, but all have this in common: they are competing with suburban shopping centers and neighborhoods for the commitment and attention of people. All these forms of social organization are calling for the River. So what does the River want? The River wants social experiences, it wants natural experiences, and it wants both as conveniently as possible. Up until now the only way civilization has found to offer these is by setting them against each other. One solution was to separate them geographically -- country homes and pied-a-tierres -- which sacrifices convenience; the other mixes them together in the tepid gruel we call suburbia, which gives a measure of convenience (assuming automobiles) but supplies a pretty pallid measure of both the other pleasures. The Montreal Underground suggests a new approach to these needs: combining a concentrated dose of city life with a surface characterized by gardens, parks, conservatories, playgrounds, fairs, and festivals, while keeping access to both sets of experiences within walking distance of each other. Moving our cities in this direction would obviously not be simple, but that seems to be what the River wants, and the Montreal Underground testifies that what the River wants, it usually gets. *In the US, there are urban undergrounds in Atlanta, Crystal City (VA), Chicago, Dallas, and Houston; outside this country, in Toronto, Helsinki, Tokyo, Tsukuba, and Tenjin in Japan, Paris, Sidney, Shanghai, Moscow, Oslo, and Stockholm, among others.