A public art project to put granite sculptures of trees in a park is blossoming into a major controversy in Montreal. City officials have voted to spend $3.45 million CAD (~$2.69 million USD) on a project that includes dozens of pieces intended as benches that critics say resemble tree stumps. Planned as part of “Escales Découvertes” (“Discovery Stops”), a large-scale project planned by Mayor Denis Coderre’s administration to celebrate the city’s 375th anniversary next year, the sculptures will dot several significant historic locations on Mount Royal in downtown Montreal. Rather than commissioning an artist to envision them, the city has signed a contract with landscaping company Aménagement Côté Jardin to execute the works, whose design origin is unclear.
As the Montreal Gazette reported, city council approved the project in May even though opposition party Projet Montréal and all suburbs had voted against it in individual meetings. Dissenting councillors reportedly described the somber seats as “redundant” and “incredibly wasteful” and are calling on Coderre to reconsider the pricy project, which will also include 10 larger granite rest stops and 12 granite pedestals featuring 3D maps of Mount Royal. Projet Montréal is now also accusing the mayor’s office of lack of transparency, saying that officials did not show policymakers a report by the city’s heritage advisory body that is “highly critical” of the granite seats. The five-page report also allegedly calls for the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communication — which is charged with protecting Mount Royal — to reject the project, noting that the sculptures alter the hill’s topography in a problematic fashion.
Additionally, the council of Westmount Summit — one of the hill’s three peaks – has also rejected the sculptures, deeming them “expensive, intrusive, and not appropriate for the natural appearance of the mountain.” Locals, too, have criticized the project, with some questioning why the money isn’t funding the planting of real trees instead.
Coderre described the commission “as an investment,” according to CBC News. “It’s not just the expense of the project itself, but look at the impact that will come [for] our citizens and Montreal as a city of design.
“It’s not a stump,” he said. “It is a piece of art.”
The otherwise monotone seats will feature bronze decorations. The granite, however, is the main reason for the project’s costliness, which has pushed its expenses to over 27% more than initial budget estimates — and the city is reportedly paying nearly double the market price of the material. The creation of the seats is consequently eating up about 41% of the budget for “Escales Découvertes,” which totals $8.26 million CAD, the Montreal Gazette reported.
Mont Royal preservation group Les Amis de la Montagne recently shared their own thoughts on the project, recommending that the city instead use local materials such as gabbro rock, limestone, or hornfels for the seats. In a statement issued last Friday, members also stressed the need to maintain the park as envisioned by its landscaper, Frederick Law Olmsted. Drawing from a quote in a book on the esteemed architect’s work on the hill, they write, “Just as with his other urban parks, Olmsted wished to avoid a proliferation of structures at Mount Royal. … His goal of making the mountain accessible to the public for recreational uses does not provide grounds for the installation of architectural art.”