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PRINT EDITION
THE FRENCH ARCHITECT BEHIND MONTREAL'S OLYMPIC STADIUM
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The structure, built for the 1976 Games, became known as The Big Owe after it went over budget, but he defended his work and insisted poor construction was to blame
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By TU THANH HA
  
  

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019 – Page B17

In Roger Taillibert's fertile, creative mind, concrete was not a mundane construction material but something plastic and versatile that could be moulded, compressed and shaped into the curved forms that he so loved.

However, in Mr. Taillibert's professional life, he had to deal with the realities of budgetary constraints, striking Quebec trade unions and the obsession with the grandiose that marked Jean Drapeau's tenure as Montreal mayor.

Mr. Taillibert, the French architect who designed Montreal's Olympic Stadium, would see his name associated with one of Canada's great public-works boondoggles, the debt-ridden 1976 Summer Games. His most prominent creation would be labelled a white elephant and dubbed The Big Owe.

In recent years, his name had been rehabilitated by some academics and architecture lovers, who praised the scale and elegance of his monumental stadium and acknowledged that it became an iconic part of the city. This summer, his paintings were exhibited in Quebec and the Montreal journalist Alain Stanké, a long-time friend, prepared a documentary about Mr.Taillibert's life.

However, a fall at his Paris home last month forced the 93year-old Mr. Taillibert to be hospitalized. He was eventually discharged, but died in his sleep at home on Oct. 3, Mr. Stanké said.

He felt his friend, Mr. Taillibert, was a genius whose contribution wasn't properly appreciated. "He was understood by some and misunderstood by others. Circumstances here were unfair to him," Mr. Stanké said in an interview.

The stadium that Mr. Taillibert created could arguably be the most important heritage structure in Montreal, said Luc Noppen, an urban studies professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

"Around the world, Montreal is known by the image of that stadium," Prof. Noppen said in an interview. "You show that image and people will say, 'That's Montreal,' more so than [St. Joseph's] Oratory, more so than the Notre Dame Basilica."

The Olympic Stadium is often described as looking like a spaceship or, because of its rib-shaped arches, like a giant extinct creature. Next to the stadium's mast, the Vélodrome, an indoor cycling track also designed by Mr. Taillibert, stands out too, with its sleek contours.

Prof. Noppen lauded Mr. Taillibert's Olympic complex for its dynamic character. "The whole structure exudes a kind of tension, like an athlete who is about to start a sprint, or a diver about to plunge."

Mr. Taillibert often said that he didn't like designs with straight lines and angles, favouring biomorphic shapes that could be fashioned from prestressed concrete. "It allows curves and brings along a more lively space," he told the Quebec weekly Hebdo Rive Nord last July.

He had been handpicked by Mr. Drapeau who, despite his claims that the Montreal Olympics would remain modest, wanted to put a unique stamp on the occasion. At the time, Mr.

Drapeau was basking in the success of Expo 67. Mr. Taillibert, meanwhile, was an up-and-coming architect who had successfully built a series of sporting venues in France.

Roger René Taillibert was born on Jan. 21, 1926, in Châtressur-Cher in central France, near some of the famous castles that dot the valley of the Loire River. His mother, Melina, was a seamstress and his father, Gaston, a cabinetmaker who restored vintage furniture from the Loire châteaux.

Young Roger's first exposure to design and aesthetics came from his father's workshop, and also a childhood trip to Paris, where he was wowed by the Eiffel Tower.

After studying architecture at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, he opened his own agency. One of his first projects was a swimming pool in the seaside resort of Deauville. In a concept that was a precursor to Montreal's Vélodrome, he used thin concrete shells and skylights, emphasizing curved lines.

"We designed that pool to be like a wave," he told the newspaper Paris-Normandie.

By the early 1970s, Mr. Taillibert's successful overhaul and expansion of the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris brought him to the attention of Mr. Drapeau. Hired by the mayor without competition, Mr. Taillibert worked without a contract for four years.

Justice Albert Malouf, who later chaired a public inquiry into the costs of the Games, would blame some of the cost overruns on Mr. Drapeau's poor organization and Mr. Taillibert's rigid, demanding attitude.

Construction, which began late, was further delayed by labour strife, absenteeism, corruption and poor co-ordination. A new factory had to be set up to pour the thousands of prefabricated concrete elements that would be the building blocks of the stadium.

At the site, problems started at the bottom. The ground was porous and had to be reinforced by injecting thousands of cubic metres of lean concrete.

Above ground, the stadium enclosure was made up of 34 giant concrete consoles latched together with steel cables. However, workers found that the holes, through which they were to thread the cables, didn't line up. Worse, the epoxy resin used to bind the cables leaked, then hardened and clogged the holes.

Eventually, by November, 1975, the province took over, appointing a board to assume the construction and relieving Mr.

Taillibert of his duties. The Games opened in July, 1976, in an unfinished stadium.

Mr. Taillibert would always say he was singled out for problems beyond his control. "It was a high-quality concept and it was badly constructed. I'm sorry but I'm not the man who did the construction," he said in a 1996 interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the Games. "My name is linked to this because I was used as a scapegoat for all the mistakes that took place."

Back in the 1970s and 80s, that same attitude didn't win him friends as taxpayers faced an Olympic debt that eventually totalled $1.5-billion and took three decades to pay off. (The city had initially forecast after Mr. Taillibert's hiring that the Games would cost $250-million.)

Mr. Taillibert would shrug off budgetary questions, saying that it wasn't part of his job as a consulting architect. He would mention his work in the same breath as he talked about Roman monuments, medieval cathedrals or the Eiffel Tower. "I am not simply an architect or an engineer. I prefer to call myself a builder," he said.

"He was not very tactful. He was rough-edged and that didn't help him. The public prefers people with [a] smoother tongue," Mr. Stanké said.

Mr. Taillibert had been paid $6.9-million for his work, but he sued the province's Olympic Installations Board and the City of Montreal. He was eventually awarded another $2.8-million.

Despite all the acrimony, Mr. Taillibert kept ties with Quebec.

He spent his summers in Saint-Sauveur, in cottage country north of Montreal. He would appear periodically in the media to protest changes made to his Olympic buildings.

The stadium's original retractable roof, made with Kevlar fabric, ripped up several times, then a concrete beam fell. The roof was replaced by a fixed one, and the province is now looking again at installing a model that could be pulled back. In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Taillibert called the replacement roof "a pile of scrap."

Next door to the stadium, the Vélodrome was converted into the Biodôme, a tourist destination housing habitats for plants and animals. Mr. Taillibert hated that his creation had been turned into a home for penguins and parakeets. "They crippled it. You had incompetent surgeons who cut it up," he said.

Mr. Taillibert did not teach, so there is no school of Taillibert disciples carrying his lineage, Prof. Noppen said. "So it is a chapter in contemporary architecture that opened, then ended with him."

Mr. Taillibert leaves a daughter, Sophie. He was predeceased by his wife, Béatrice Pfister.

Associated Graphic

French architect Roger Taillibert attends the launch of an exhibit on the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal in 2016. Mr. Taillibert designed the site of the Games, Montreal's Olympic Stadium, which is often described as looking like a spaceship or, because of its rib-shaped arches, like a giant extinct creature.

GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Montreal's Olympic Stadium is seen in 1976, just prior to the opening of the Games.

BARRY MCGEE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


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