World-class urban designer fell in love with Montreal 50 years ago, he hatched the concept for revolutionary underground city
ALAN HUSTAK, The Gazette Published: Sunday, March 12, 2006
Vincent Ponte was one of the world's leading urban planners who 50 years ago first envisioned the concept for Montreal's underground city - the 30-kilometre subterranean RESO network that today links most of the city's downtown skyscrapers.
He died Feb. 9 at his winter home in Jensen Beach, Fla. He was 86.
"He was a very visual planner. We no longer see that in cities anymore. Today, planning is all the result of zoning regulations," Herb Auerbach, a longtime friend who was resident architect of Place Ville Marie told The Gazette in a telephone interview from Vancouver.
"He was a great visionary who was able to articulate and able to convey his ideas visually and verbally and deliver them in a compelling way."
Vincent de Pasuito Ponte was born in Boston on Oct. 27, 1919, the only child in a rich Italian family that made its money in the importing business. He was educated at the best schools on two continents.
He obtained a fine arts degree from Harvard University in 1949, but began his career conducting public opinion polls for Gallup in New York. A chance meeting with theatrical and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes, who became a fast friend, steered Ponte into architecture.
Ponte won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome but, after his first term, concluded he was not meant to be an architect.
"Some of the guys in my class were better than I was, and I didn't want to be a second-rate architect, so I went into city planning instead."
Henry N. Cobb, a fellow student at Harvard, and a longtime friend, said Ponte exhibited the distinctive attributes that would characterize his professional life in university: "exceptionally broad cultural awareness, exceptionally fastidious intellectual standards, and exceptionally well-focused professional goals."
Ponte joined the firm of one of his professors, the internationally renowned architect, I.M. Pei. When Pei's firm became involved in the design for Place Ville Marie in Montreal, Ponte was asked to do the master plan for the project's developer, William Zeckendorf. Inspired by Antonio Sant'Elia's plans for Rome five centuries ago, Ponte envisioned a new environment for Montreal. He called his design "the multi-level, interconnected city."
The concept was a hard sell. Montreal's planners were afraid no one would want to use underground pedestrian walkways. And most developers didn't want to spend money to plug their buildings into the link.
A hard man to ignore, Ponte did not go unnoticed, especially in the 1950s when Montreal was not as cosmopolitan as it is today.
"His sleek elegance combined with a certain sinister air, generated by the dark glasses he invariably wears, suggests that he is either a smooth playboy or a rather chilling mafioso," wrote the Montreal Star's Lou Seligson.
Ponte was so taken with Montreal that he moved here in 1964, saying it was one of only three North American cities with a distinct personality - with New York and San Francisco.
Ponte continued his transformation of downtown Montreal by planning the site for Place Bonaventure. He later drew up an ambitious plan for an underground piazza between McGill University and Place Ville Marie, which was never built but resulted in the widening of McGill College Ave.
1970 Time Magazine profile described Ponte as the Multilevel Man, whose genius was to separate pedestrians, commercial vehicles and public transit at different levels to create an integrated transportation system.
Ponte also drew up plans for the area in Paris today known as La Defense, was a consultant to developers in Dallas and Denver, worked on the Bank of Canada development for the National Capital Commission in Ottawa and in 1972 did a report on how Regina should reshape its downtown.
He never married. A memorial service in Montreal is being planned.