Montreal’s Olympic stadium: time to get real
comment Comment Written by on September 2, 2010 – 5:00 pm


Last Friday afternoon, I went up the tower at Montreal’s Olympic stadium.  It is the tallest leaning tower in the world and, on a clear day, provides views that stretch up to 80km.

While I was there a man with an electronic clipboard collared me for a questionnaire. “What did I think of the information provided? Do you think it is… 1. Very satisfying, 2. Quite satisfying. 3. Neither satisfying or unsatisfying”. Etc, etc. Yawn, yawn.

“Honestly?” I said, as his pen hovered expectantly over the ‘additional comments’ section.  “Surely, it’s time to be more straight with tourists. All the real interesting stuff had been glossed over here.”

Currently, the stadium’s history is told through a few faded lightboxes that look like they’ve been there since the ’76 Olympics. Together they present a very sterile and evasive version of its story.

In truth, most Montreal locals are not fans of their Olympic stadium. The construction process was pretty disastrous. It took an incredible 11 years to finish. It ended up costing over $1.6bn –  which according to my Lonely Planet – is $1,000 for each man, woman and child. It’s nickname is the big O, or the Big Owe.

Recently, the Montreal Gazette mused on ‘What to do with Montreal’s infamous stadium?‘. “No, apparently, you can’t blow it up” was the first line.

Last week, there were reports of cracks appearing. This week, the media is debating the value of a new roof (the current roof needs to be repaired once  a week).

The Big Owe has been making headlines for 35 years. There is no point pretending it hasn’t. Why not use them? To me, this is much more interesting and it gives it much more personality.

A truthful exhibit doesn’t have to be negative. The stadium is still an icon and very much a part of the city’s skyline. It was an ambitious design, perhaps ahead of its time. That could be celebrated. Who was the architect behind it? What was his view of the way things turned out? These are things that a thoughtful visitor wants to know.

They don’t, however, want to be patronised with the daft history that only goes as far as the mid 80s. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle!” says one caption about the construction process. Please.

My housemate in Montreal – an engineer – asked me what I learnt about the architecture after my visit. My answer? Next to nothing.

A new exhibition needn’t be expensive. Having a display that is titled ‘stadium controversy’ will entice enough people to read it, rather than just scuffing their feet on the ground waiting for the lift to arrive. And why not create a drop-box for kids to write down their suggestions for uses for the stadium? Just for entertainment value. In my own fantasies, I’ve already earmarked it as a giant roller-skating rink.

London’s white elephant – the Millennium stadium – got a new lease of life when it was turned into the O2 Centre, a concert venue that has hosted arena tours by Prince, Britney Spears and many more. This may not work in the Montreal structure, but maybe something else would.

“Will you be recommending a visit to any one in the UK?” was the final question from the man with the clipboard.

“Yes, you could say that,” I said, knowing I was going to include it in an article for national magazine.

I do recommend a visit for the views, but the experience itself could certainly be improved. Especially given the $20 fee.

They are clearly planning something new, at least on the level of tourist visits. I am sure they already know what most of the problems are. They don’t need this blog to know that what they have is out of date. But will they still try and create the illusion that it was/is a roaring success? I’ll be interested to see how it turns out…

Photo: Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Copyright Vicky Baker

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