Cultural critics face off at Walrus debate

Two prominent cultural critics squared off at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, arguing about—and, more often than not, agreeing on—how best to promote the arts in Montreal.

The debate, hosted by McGill and The Walrus, a monthly publication that fancies itself “Canada’s Best Magazine,” was planned to focus on the merits of the Quartier des Spectacles, a cultural district anchored by Place des Arts that the City of Montreal has been developing for years.

But the participants—Witold Rybczynski, a University of Pennsylvania School of Design professor, and Simon Brault, the CEO of the National Theatre School and a vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts—often veered off in other directions, commenting on more general issues of culture.

Rybczynski, for instance, who is also Slate’s architecture critic, kicked off the debate by commenting on a ranking of world cities compiled by Foreign Policy magazine, on which Montreal ranked 31st.

In the subset of visual and performing arts, however, the city came in fourth in the world. This, Rybczynski said, was evidence that Montreal had little to worry about in terms of culture.

“What does it take to build a cultural metropolis?” he asked, referring to the debate’s theme. “We are a cultural metropolis. It doesn’t take anything to build it. We’ve done it.”

Both men have roots in Montreal—Brault is the head of Culture Montreal and Rybczynski is a McGill alumnus—and they came close to agreement on one of the debate’s main topics: the value of designated cultural districts in cities.

“I don’t think cultural districts are a good idea,” Rybczynski said. “I don’t think it’s an organic way for cities to grow. It’s a kind of warmed-over idea from the 1960s.”

Brault agreed on this point, complaining that most such districts were artificial and instituted from the top down. But the two men disagreed on whether or not the Quartier des Spectacles fit this stereotype. The Quartier, Brault said, had been a cultural centre for more than a century. The construction of new venues there will simply emphasize this, he argued.

The Quartier des Spectacles, he added, is “not something that has been created as a theme park, as a Disney, in the middle of Montreal.”

Rybczynski, however, seemed lukewarm to the idea. Some of the most successful cultural meccas, he noted, such a Broadway in New York, had emerged organically over many years.

“Broadway is an idea,” he said, “and I think the problem with politicians is that they take an idea and then they make it literal.”

One of Rybczynski’s main objections to planned cultural districts was the planner-imposed uniformity.

In Washington, D.C., for instance, Rybczynski serves on the Commission of Fine Arts, which reviews the designs of federal buildings. Graphic designers, he said, often want put up signs in front of the buildings with standardized designs—even though most of these buildings have their names carved over the entrances. This, he argued, makes cities feel more like theme parks than organic places.

Several years ago in Washington, Rybczynski added with a laugh, the National Park Service tried to place a sign in front of the Washington Monument to identify it—exactly the type of theme park signage he was railing against.

Brault insisted, however, that Montreal’s version of the cultural district would be different.

“I hope that the Quartier des Spectacles will never be a place where we try to establish standards and make it all beautiful and perfect,” Brault said. “I hope it won’t be like that, and it’s not like that now.”

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