Go visit Place des Nations: Montreal’s post-modern, retro-futuristic ruins

“Few cities have abandoned, historically significant, fantastically interesting ruins set in a place that’s otherwise considered a nature park, so take advantage of it, because this is your last chance.”

Every once in a while, the powers that be in this city do something that catches my attention because it’s both an overall smart decision that also moves against what you might call conventional wisdom. The Plante Administration’s decision to renovate Place des Nations and make it whole again is just such a decision.

If you’re reading this and wondering where Place des Nations is, you’re likely under the age of 30 and I’m not going to hold it against you: for the better part of the last 15 years or so, it has been decrepit, overgrown, falling apart and more or less officially off limits. The fact that we have so many public spaces that some of them are occasionally forgotten about is one of the truly great and weird features of this glorious city 

To orient you in time and space, Place des Nations is a public plaza and open-air amphitheatre at the western end (or, more accurately, the southern tip) of Ile Ste-Hélène. Technically, its address is 1 Chemin Macdonald, though most people would see it — and access it — by Avenue Einstein. 

Yes, these are real, albeit exceedingly obscure, street names in Montreal.

I strongly recommend you go see this place for yourself before the renovation work begins. (You may not have much time. It could begin this summer, and given this project has been more or less on the books for a decade, the city is hopefully interested in getting moving right away). Spring is ideal because the park islands are still relatively quiet. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see Place des Nations right as the trees and plants start to bloom and the various critters that inhabit the islands come out of hibernation. Few cities have abandoned, historically significant, fantastically interesting, post-modern, retro-futuristic ruins set in a place that’s otherwise considered a nature park, so take advantage of it, because this is your last chance to see a prominent Expo 67 site in ruin.

I realize that may seem like an odd phrase, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were many more still-standing (albeit dilapidated) Expo 67 pavilions. The collection of crumbling futuristic buildings brought out film crews looking for post-apocalyptic cityscapes, and for a while at least, Ile Ste-Hélène provided just such a service (see the movie Quintet starring Paul Newman as an example). 

Place des Nations was the primary ceremonial venue for Expo 67. This is where the fair’s opening and closing ceremonies took place, as well as a variety of other official ceremonies involving a wide variety of dignitaries. It was also one of Expo’s principle performance venues, and was further integrated into a transit station for the since-demolished Expo Express train. In other words, it was a central location, a gateway to the fair, a place to see and be seen. Between April and October of 1967, you can bet about 50 million people from all over the world probably made their way through Place des Nations.

It’s hard to imagine that such an important place would be left to ruin, but that’s Montreal for you. In this case, we’re lucky the space has been preserved and that there’s interest to return it to its original state. But more on that later.

While you can see Place des Nations from Pont de la Concorde, it may actually be easier to walk there from Parc Jean-Drapeau metro station. Exit the station and walk straight towards the Calder monument (i.e. towards the city), then make a left turn onto Chemin du Tour de l’Ile. You’ll walk for about 5 to 10 minutes and go under Pont de la Concorde. Once you get to the very end of the island, look behind you. It’s been a minute since I’ve been there, so I can’t tell you whether it’ll be easy to get into or not. It may look overgrown, but in early Spring you should be able to see the buildings and the plaza and probably also figure out how to get in. You’re walking into a space that’s seen its better days and is likely home to a variety of critters big and small, so keep all that in mind when you go there. You definitely don’t want to trespass on this taxpayer-funded, public land that’s really easy to get into, but in my experience the worst thing that will happen to you is that someone might yell at you from a distance. (Seriously, go with a friend, be careful, have a blast.)

It certainly doesn’t look like much, let alone a place 50 million people once visited, but there you have it. It’s a plaza and a park and an amphitheatre — useful space. Oddly enough, despite the fact that Place des Nations was primarily a ceremonial venue during Expo 67 (and you’d figure that, post-fair, it wouldn’t have had nearly as much re-use value), Place des Nations wound up being one of the most useful post-Expo pavilions. The American pavilion (today’s Biosphere) burned in 1976 and was left abandoned until the early 1990s. A strike at the Alcan Aquarium led to the deaths of several dolphins, which in turn led to its closure in the early 1990s. The Quebec pavilion was going to be turned into a permanent dinosaur museum (with animatronic dinosaurs, no less) until it was absorbed into the casino (which replaced a museum space known as the Palais de la civilisation). 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the original Expo 67 pavilions were torn down and destroyed, and yet Place des Nations carried on largely because it met a need for a large venue that wasn’t the Olympic Stadium or the old Montreal Forum. With a capacity for between 7,500 and 9,000 spectators, not to mention its unique location, Place des Nations survived because it was a surprisingly ideal performance space. Well before summertime festivals like Osheaga or the purpose-built outdoor public performance spaces like Place des Festivals or Espace 67, Place des Nations was both carrying on a tradition established by Expo 67 while simultaneously laying the groundwork and foundation for future performances and performance spaces in Montreal. Early editions of the Jazz Fest were held there, and it was also used as seating for early editions of the fireworks competition. Film festivals held screenings there. In the 1970s and 1980s, Place des Nations hosted major rock concerts, including performances by the B-52s, Chuck Berry, Harmonium, Black Sabbath, Supertramp, Frank Zappa, Offenbach, Joni Mitchell, Peter Tosh and Peter Gabriel. Into the 1990s it served as a venue for the 1994 edition of Lollapalooza, and hosted groups like Bad Religion, No Doubt, the Offspring and the Roots.

Remarkably, though this venue was well attended by Boomer concert goers back in the day (and Montreal anglo Boomers are super nostalgic for the “good old days” of Expo 67), it was the Montreal Gazette that argued just about nine years ago that Place des Nations wasn’t worth saving.

This was back in the context of the preparations for Montreal’s 375th anniversary, a celebration that was much more of a Denis Coderre re-election campaign than a festival of all things Montreal. Back then, the city had proposed a $55-million revamp of Parc Jean-Drapeau, which included an estimated $12.5-million restoration of Place des Nations. The Gazette’s editorial board sided with Coderre when the latter got cold feet about the proposed Place des Nations rebuild, arguing that the venue had outlived its usefulness, as there were ample other outdoor venues throughout the city. Coderre wound up spending double the amount on an electric car race no one wanted, and then lost the mayoralty in probably the biggest political upset in the city’s history.

I have said it before and I cannot say it enough: Thank God no one listens to The Gazette’s editorial board when it comes to urban planning issues.

What future awaits Place des Nations is anyone’s guess, but the decision to restore its original design is a strong step in the right direction. There were no calls to monetize the site, integrate space for tchotchke vendors or install a gourmet food court. If it winds up having a modest canteen and a well kept public toilet, frankly I’ll be ecstatic.

Place des Nations, once revived, may again become a slightly out of the way but oh so worth it concert venue, but it may also simply be a quiet place at the end of Ile Ste-Hélène that has no specific purpose. That’s fine — Montreal needs more of those anyways, particularly as the Old Port cedes ground to all manner of halfwit tourist traps. Montrealers don’t need to be harangued with organized leisure activities, we just need a place to be. That was the essence of Place des Nations throughout Expo 67, when it wasn’t being used for official pomp and circumstance. It’s nice to see that someone at City Hall considered a disused public space and decided it doesn’t need to become anything new, as it was fine just the way it was. ■

This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.