Just as the ice age left its mark on global geography, the polar chill that descends every winter on Montreal has helped to shape the city’s lifestyle and architecture. Every November, shoppers in the city begin their retreat into the network of underground malls that extend beneath the city’s downtown core, while others plot their escapes to winter retreats in Florida and the Caribbean. Indeed, the city’s long and bitterly cold intemperate winters once inspired former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau to fantasize publicly about enclosing the entire city in a dome. Although Drapeau’s vision remains a futuristic fancy, an ambitious Montreal real estate developer has succeeded in partly transforming the concept into reality. At Tropics North, a 120-unit condominium building on the Montreal waterfront, luxurious apartments overlook a Hawaiian gar-
den and lagoon enclosed in a 12-storey atrium, creating a lush and verdant environment in even the bleakest seasons.
Unveiled in September by businessman Jean de Brabant as part of a fund-raising benefit for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the $48.5million project has created high interest among the city’s property developers and buyers as it nears completion. On a recent Sunday, about 300 visitors went to see the building. De Brabant also showed former prime minister Pierre Trudeau around. Many of them were curious to see the building’s indoor waterfalls and palm trees, one of which stands five storeys high. But while some Montrealers praise the building as excitingly original, others dismiss Tropics North as gimmicky and pretentious. Said René Lépine, a local developer: “A lot of people are talking
about it. It is definitely controversial.”
No one is more prepared to extol the project than de Brabant, a 50-year-old Montrealer who gave up practising law 12 years ago to design and promote real estate projects. The bilingual de Brabant has been promoting the idea of a residential development looking onto a huge atrium for close to a decade. Now, he lives in one of the building’s most expensive threebedroom, 6,000-square-foot apartments (worth just over $1 million) and talks of soaking up the atrium’s exotic atmosphere while dining on his terrace. Declared de Brabant: “I always believed the idea made common sense.” Tropics North itself is anything but common. Built on a narrow spit of land adjacent to a container port in Montreal’s downtown harbor, the L-shaped complex gives its residents a year-round perch over a 24,000-square-foot tropical mini-park that contains about 100 palm trees, 10,000 other plants, a lily pond and a stream, as well as a 50-foot-long lagoon-style swimming pool. With apartment prices beginning at $272,600 for a one-bedroom unit—and monthly maintenance fees from $295 to $697—the project is aimed at a decidedly upscale market. Said de Brabant: “If you want jasmine plants in your backyard in January, you have to pay the price. This is the
first building of its kind.” It took de Brabant eight years to convince investors that his proposal was practical. His original design for Tropics North envisaged a building entirely enclosed by a climate-controlled shell. But that was rejected as extravagant by potential financial backers. Then, in 1985, on the advice of a fellow developer, de Brabant revised his plan to propose a condominium building linked to an adjoining atrium. With that proposal, de Brabant was able to find financial backing and, in the spring of 1986, he made his first advance sale on a unit in the proposed building.
Within a month, de Brabant had brought preconstruction sales to $5 million. He said that at one point he had to take out a third mortgage on his former home in downtown Montreal to keep the project alive. Eventually, he formed a partnership with an unlikely ally, Sol Pomerantz, a 58-year-old polyurethane foam manufacturer who started his working life as a taxi driver. “Sol was looking for some excitement,” said de Brabant. Added Pomerantz: “Everyone else thought it was too risky. I wanted to take a chance.”
The initial skepticism about his concept intensified de Brabant’s determination to succeed. In 1986, he hired Tolchinsky & Goodz, a firm of Montreal architects, which assigned a young architect, John Saba, to design the residential building. De Brabant recruited Floridabased Herbert Ramsaier, former director of landscape architecture at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., to lay out Tropics North’s large indoor garden. Ramsaier responded by sculpting a mini-park that includes huge slabs of synthetic rock imported from Palo Alto, Calif. Even more striking is the exotic selection of flowers in the atrium, which include hibiscus, bougainvillea and camelias. Indeed, when William Clough, an executive with a Montreal computer firm, first saw the atrium, he expressed amazement at the full-grown hibiscus trees planted next to the garden’s walkways. Said Clough, who bought a three-bedroom Tropics North apartment a year ago: “It is beyond what I imagined. They did not spare any money on the plants.” Still, some members of the Montreal architectural community remain critical of Tropics North. The new building is located in Cité du Havre, the former site of Montreal’s Expo 67, next to one of the fair’s enduring landmarks, Habitat, architect Moshe Safdie’s widely praised prototype of modular housing construction. Bruce Anderson, the director of
McGill University’s architecture department, dismisses Tropics North as a gimmicky development. He added: “I don’t even think it is worth talking about. It is not architecture.” De Brabant himself acknowledges that the building is a bold variation on an old theme— the glass-enclosed winter gardens of Victorian mansions. Moreover, Saba said that, in translating de Brabant’s ideas into reality, he was concerned not only with architectural style but with the functional challenge of integrating the greenhouse and apartment block. “We had to play it safe,” said Saba. “The main thing was making sure the building would work.”
One of the most important features of the project is the atrium’s heating and air-conditioning system, which will cost an estimated $210,000 a year to operate. The system is designed on the same principle as a car’s windshield defroster to prevent condensation
from forming on the inside of the atrium’s glass during the winter. Although some skeptics doubt that the palm trees and tropical plants can survive in the artificial environment, de Brabant is slowly winning converts to his dream project. So far, he says that he has sold more than 50 per cent of the building’s units. Buyers have included such prominent Quebec artists as Dominique Michel, who played a history teacher in The Decline of the American Empire, a movie about a group of Quebec intellectuals and their sexual escapades, and ballad singer Serge Laprade, along with welloff professionals and business executives. Said Robert Losch, a vice-president of Pratt & Whitney of Canada Inc., who bought a twobedroom apartment at Tropics North: “I made inquiries about obvious concerns like hail-
storms. But I am convinced the thing is manageable.”
Real estate experts say that the ultimate judgment on Tropics North will be made by condominium buyers during the next six months. A growing oversupply of luxury condos on the Montreal housing market could make it difficult for de Brabant to sell his remaining units. And some critics say that Tropics North could fail if the novelty of a yearround tropical setting wears off. Landscaper Ramsaier, for one, says he doubts that will happen. “I can’t imagine anyone ever tiring of having gorgeous plants blooming all around,” he added, “especially when it is -33°F outside.”
For his part, de Brabant says that his project could mark the beginning of a new trend in residential construction. Canadians, and especially the elderly, he says, have been held hostage by the country’s winters for too long.
Tropics North offers what he says is a revolutionary compromise with the country’s harsh climate. “I would like to think of myself as an inventor,” said de Brabant. “Some day, a significant number of Canadians will live in buildings like this.” If Tropics North is a success, de Brabant says that he hopes to build two more condominiums, each with its own atrium, on seven acres of land next to the existing building. In the more distant future, de Brabant dreams of developing more buildings like Tropics North elsewhere in Canada and the northern United States. But that is only a dream as he struggles to find buyers for the remaining apartments in his opulent and unusual building.
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