From the Mont Royal Cross to the numerous cathedrals, Montreal has a rich history of architecture, but that winding, twisting, fabrication of metal resting just outside your front door has a history of its own, one that justifies the insane idea to build external stairs in a city that is annually coated in a thick layer of ice.

Architecture is defined by and defines the space and people around it; it provides a looking glass into the social, economic, and historical forces that have shaped the cityscape and changes the way people interact with each other and their environment every day. The stairs of Montreal are much more than just an inconvenience in the winter months; they are a unique reflection of the cultural bricolage that is this city.

Sama

The stairs curve, they twist, and they climb up from the sidewalk like vines growing out of a concrete jungle. In the summer they are spread over with green ivy or speckled with beer bottles and lawn chairs as residents survey the street-side from their urban tree houses. In the winter they become ramps of ice, the packed down crust of snow making them into a slippery adventure hung with frost. They are a burnished patchwork of rails and bars and rugged steps that flow out of the buildings as naturally as a glacier sliding down a mountainside. But, most of all, they come in colors and shapes and sizes as variable and beautiful as the people who use them. Montreal’s external stairs are a defining feature of the streets, as much a part of the façade as the brick, stone, and wood fenestration and masonry.

If you are “fortunate” enough to have one of these staircases, you may have speculated as to why it stands outside of your building. Perhaps it’s to save space for the interior of the apartments, save money on heating, or simply the result of some arbitrary building code. These guesses are all a part of the complex story that was the birth of these structures, yet they don’t provide the full explanation. In order to understand why the stairs exist on the outside, one must first understand the architecture on the inside.

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The term “plex” is a ubiquitous word in the city’s housing scene; a plex is a squat three to four storied building with different apartments stacked upon one another. Many Montrealers are familiar with this “L” shaped apartment layout, as it is almost synonymous with student living. They can be arranged to provide all of the necessary amenities for cheap living, organized in a number of varied, custom fit ways throughout the same building or can be multiplied, cookie-cutter copies of one another for cheap renting.

Montreal’s external stairs are a defining feature of the streets, as much a part of the façade as the brick, stone, and wood fenestration and masonry.

Though they originated in Europe, plexes are seen in several North American cities, including Chicago and Boston, but only in Montreal are they the most prominent form of housing. A 2006 census showed they made up 40 percent of all occupied residents, as opposed to 20 percent Canada-wide. Popularized by their ability to utilize space so effectively, plexes provide an almost limitless combination of arrangements. This may seem like an obvious choice for any city, thanks to its versatility, but it is uniquely prevalent in Montreal. Much of this configuration lends itself to a mash up of two different architectural practices employed by immigrants and locals during the course of the 19th century.

The idea of stacking residences upon one another was derived from Scottish immigrants, who were familiar with this format from its popularity in cities like Edinburgh, when they came to Quebec during the 1800s to escape persecution and poor economic conditions. Before that, some French-Canadian settlers had long utilized external staircases attached to terraces when constructing their country homes. When brought into the city, building codes consolidated these two practices, bringing together the most useful qualities into what is now the Montreal plex.

Denis

Plexes became common throughout the city during the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that they became so widespread. Architect and professor at the Université de Montréal, Susan Bronson, explained in an article featured in the Montreal Gazette that in the early 1900s, alongside mandates for washrooms (tenants had formerly used outhouses), apartment sizes in the downtown and what is now the Mile End were increased from “20 by 60 feet to 25 by 100 feet” and “setbacks were mandated on newly-built residential streets.” Setbacks are limits on distance from a buildings foundation to the sidewalk that prevent crowding on the street.

This meant that houses had to leave more space between the street and the front door but also had to have a larger interior. In order to save space within the apartment, landlords experimented with different formats to fit building codes, “indirectly encouraging the use of outdoor staircases.” This configuration made it possible to meet codes, created greater efficiency of space on the interior, and enabled tenants to reach their individual homes in a stacked plex. However, some neighborhoods, such as Outremont and NDG resisted this change by mandating indoor staircases in the 1910s and 20s, explaining their absence in these neighbourhoods today.

As waves of immigration over the course of the 20th century brought new people into the Plateau and eventually the Mile End, primarily Jewish landlords (who had purchased their property from outgoing Anglo-protestants) lived on the upper floors of their apartment, renting out the lower floors to Portuguese, Greek, and Italian families. This stratified mixing of different groups was fused by increased street-side activity on the external stairs and balconies. Neighborly interactions helped to shape the culture, reduced intergroup tensions, and contributed to the friendly feeling of these places that is reflected in the diversity of art, music, food, and culture found in these neighbourhoods today. The director of Héritage Montreal, Dinu Bumbaru, highlighted the importance of these structures when he said, “the rhythm of the street comes from the diversity of its people,” and what better way to bring them all together than to provide a place to meet and pass each other on a daily basis.

Gilles

Today, Montreal plexes have begun to be replaced by new condominiums, which in a 2010-11 census made up 52 percent of all new housing. But the plexes, with their beautiful staircases still stand as a monument to Montreal’s multicultural past. Some modern condos have even begun to adapt the external stair format.

As the weather warms and the leaves return, the city is coming back to life. With this, come the evening gatherings and chance meetings on the stairs, soft strumming of guitars and friendly conversations in a multitude of languages, and people coming and going in full view of the city. The external staircases have provided, for over a hundred years, a place for the residents of Montreal to share in meaningful conversations, exchange friendly good-mornings, or just watch the world go by.

Photographs, in order of appearance, courtesy of M.A.R.C.Samantha Cristoforetti, Peter BlanchardDenis-Carl Robidoux, and Gilles Douare

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