Residents that walk the streets of Montreal, and visitors alike, are often drawn to the city’s architecture, particularly its iconic form of the plexes. These two to three story, flat-roofed residential buildings may take the form of duplexes (two units), triplexes (three units), or multiplexes (four to six units), and are most widely recognized for their outdoor metal staircases. Though a rich part of the city’s built environment, their dominance in the urban grid has shifted due to the increasing popularity and production of new condominium developments.
A common building form in the late period of industrialization, duplexes and triplexes were originally constructed with indoor staircases. In the late 19th Century however, newly instated building codes mandated that an area of green space exist in front of the now set-back buildings in an effort to improve living conditions. French Canadian settlers thus saw outdoor staircases as a space-saving mechanism, while Scottish immigrants were credited for originally bringing along the technique of stacking residences on top of one another. Many plexes were thus built between the period of 1900 to 1945 in brick, with wooden balconies and metal staircases and railings. Finally, the plex model was fabricated based on municipal regulations of the early 20th century. This set out requirements for having bathrooms in each residential unit, and the necessity of having natural light enter all the units' rooms, resulting in the traditional L-shape of many plexes.
Though plex plans were invariably the same from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the building facades differed. Certain localities, including wealthy Westmount and Outremont, increased the ornateness of their buildings in order to differentiate themselves from the “working class architecture” of industry worker housing. In this context, they would also build interior staircases so as to disguise the look of a plex in order for it to appear as a single family home.
There was a renewed wave of plex construction between the 1950s and 1970s, particularly in the suburbs of the city including LaSalle and St. Leonard. In line with the automobile-centered ideals of the time, garages were a prominent feature lying at the front of the house, while interior staircases were again prevalent in this modern twist. However, sizeable front and back balconies remained common features of the buildings, including back outdoor staircases with their own separate entrances into each unit. It is these continuous features, and the outdoor staircases themselves, that provided an active street culture. The constant presence of neighbours occupying their outdoor spaces made their surrounding streets and public spaces, including alleyways and nearby parks, safer and more vibrant.
Owners often lived on the premises, and rented out the remaining apartments to pay off their mortgages. However, plex construction largely stopped by the late 20th Century when instead there was increased construction of single-family homes and traditional apartment buildings. Fast forward to today, and based on a 2012 analysis, condominium construction is now favoured by builders and developers because it provides a greater return on their investment. Yet, the existing plexes remain important rental stock particularly for immigrants, students and others searching for affordable housing. Though the plexes require added maintenance and modernization costs, they continue to have a lasting presence in Montreal’s urban grid.
Is there an iconic building form that makes a presence in your city?
Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources.