What I noticed over the five days may not actually produce this blog’s most profound post, but I found the learning intriguing nonetheless. So here we go. If you like it, I’m happy; if you don’t, blame it on the fatigue.
On my brief drive to the office, at the corner of Sherbrooke and St. Urbain streets, beside a red light I always seem to hit, sits a majestic building (that's it above). This building houses this province’s Office de la langue française (if you’re a Quebecker, you know what I’m talking about; if you’re not, you don’t want to). I know that this building houses said office because a sturdy, yet transient, blue sign affixed to the wall next to its front door tells me so. You can spot it just above the burgundy car.
Yet above the front door, literally carved in stone, are the words “Ecole des beaux-arts,” words that demark the building’s original raison d’etre and occupants (it was a fine arts school). The Quebec flag on the building actually juts out from it.
In a city as old as Montreal, you see this frequently—ornate, artistic, “hard-coded” descriptors/branding of heritage buildings, engraved in cement, stamped in brass or twisted out of wrought iron. Not all of ‘em are hoity-toity throwbacks to the high life either. Case in point is the city’s Parisian Laundry, an old clothes-cleaning factory with another doorway-topped, engraved sign that has been resurrected as an art gallery called, well, Parisian Laundry. (That’s it down below.)
So what went through my mind was wondering what went through their minds—the builders, that is—so many decades ago. These people had a headspace, almost a conceit, of longevity and permanence; their structures, and their structures’ purposes, would live forever. Go tell the builder of the elitist art school that one day his mighty edifice would be home to an awkward agency that would harbor complaints about the use of the English language and the size of printed English words and he would think you were from another planet.
Despite the previous sentence, this is not a political rant, but a social one. These days, “naming rights” on stadiums and buildings are big business, but the corporations or causes they represent can be altered in a day or two. Replace the big, glowing neon sign on top, unscrew a few things and screw in a few others, and voila—a new identity and a new intent. Our current buildings have become mere shells, fleetingly taking on the personality of their tenants until the next ones roll in.
Indelible branding hasn’t entirely vanished though; it just seems to have moved from buildings to people. I can go into a whole separate discourse on the tattooing (more than a quarter of the entire American population has at least one tattoo, and that’s a stat that is six years old), but the point is that perhaps we consider ourselves more eternal and built to last than our buildings are. In other words:
The conceit of grandeur
and living forever
has become personal.
To put a button on this post, every morning, directly across the street from that building at Sherbrooke and St. Urbain, at that red light I always seem to hit, I come across a group of homeless Native Canadians. Nice guys down on their luck, they are usually through their first beer when we trade a few words and they hit me up for some spare change.
And wouldn’t you know it…in one way or another, they’re all sporting some sort of tattoo.