Why some Montrealers are rejoicing that the Champlain Bridge is falling apart

Martin Patriquin on what Montreal’s crumbling, uninspired bridge could be

It’s not a bridge, it’s a road with legs

Maxim D. Nasab

There are bridges in the world that are as much statement as structure. The Golden Gate in San Francisco, the Seri Wawasan in Malaysia, Shanghai’s Nanpu: All are products of the awe-inspiring melding of steel into landscape, exclamation points on the horizon, proof of a city’s size and economic heft. Then there is Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. Low-slung and stretched out, it drapes over the St. Lawrence, less a bridge than a road with legs, its crowning structure—the part that’s supposed to soar—Meccano-set sensible and hospital-waiting-room green. Want a nice view when driving over the Champlain? Turn your head downriver and see the Jacques Cartier Bridge. It’s a reminder of what the Champlain is: a place to get stuck in traffic.

This is why some in Montreal are rejoicing that it’s falling apart. A few weeks ago, a gaping, melon-sized hole opened up near one of the bridge’s expansion joints. Officials assured the driving public the hole wasn’t dangerous; nevertheless, it was a reminder of the urgency to replace the bridge—and, perhaps, turn the page on Montreal’s recent, rather depressing, corruption-filled history.

About two years ago, the Montreal-born real estate developer, philanthropist, political adviser and former Watergate investigator Stephen Leopold, was driving over the bridge when he had an epiphany. “The bridge looked like something you’d build in the middle of a war,” Leopold said recently. “The location is great, you have this great view of Montreal, and yet it’s like driving to the Louvre through a swamp.”

The federal government, Leopold soon found out, was set to replace the Champlain. Years of salt use have corroded the girders and the bridge’s design is such that they can’t just be replaced. He gave speeches—he sounds like a favourite Jewish uncle in front of a crowd—and recruited prominent arts and business types to form AudaCité, a group whose goal is to make sure the bridge that’s built is nothing like the one it replaces. Rather than just ferry cars from a suburban clump to the city core and back, the new bridge “would let us dream again” and give back to Montreal, itself mired in corruption scandals and dodgy infrastructure, some of its lustre.

Bridges are important symbols for cities, and how one is conceived and built is indicative of the city it serves. Vancouver’s Lions Gate, a magnificent suspension bridge whose spires seem to emulate the surrounding mountains, was nothing short of a “symbol of Empire, memorial to the men of faith and foresight who made its construction possible,” according to the promotional material. Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct was used on war-loan posters as an example of Canada’s industrial prowess during the First World War.

Champlain’s origins are pedestrian. It was to be built as a “traffic artery” to relieve “Montreal’s pressing South Shore traffic problem,” read the Aug. 17, 1955, edition of the Montreal Star. Having seen the cost overruns of the Jacques Cartier, completed in 1930, the feds decided the new bridge would be done on the cheap. A technology imported from France called for the whole thing to be wrapped in steel cables, meaning the bridge didn’t need expensive (though pretty) swooping metal arcs like the Jacques Cartier’s. The Champlain was an anachronism practically from the day it opened in 1962. That same year, Montreal began loosening the purse strings, giving the city its Métro, Place Ville Marie, Expo 67 and that Lego-like ode to the future, Habitat. Alas, Montreal’s boom years are gone, and the new bridge will be built in a similar era of penny-pinching austerity.

Some are still dreaming. Architect Maxim Nasab’s design of an “inhabitable bridge” calls for the structure to be encrusted with modular boxes, not unlike Habitat, in which people would live. The six lanes of traffic would be covered, with parks, roads and shops built atop. Turbines affixed in the bridge pillars would generate electricity to power the bridge lights. Sure, it’s crazy—which is the point, says Nasab. “For a long time, Montreal and Quebec have suffered from a lack of imagination,” he says. “We used to look at architecture and design from all over, then we just stopped. But one piece of architecture can change the view.”