It begins with love at first sight in the Mediterranean and ends with the current real estate property boom in Montreal—but in between we find out how an unexpected barbershop encounter, a concrete company, and an unprecedented ad campaign, produced a new demand for condos that is still on the rise today.


Roger Desmarais, founder of NEUF architect(e)s, is at his weekly appointment at the barber one evening in 1970. René Lépine sits next to him and starts describing his last vacation in the south of France, where he discovered an exceptional building: the Baie des Anges Marina. 1,300 high-end apartments spread out over four gigantic waves of concrete along the bay. Their open layouts, natural light, breathtaking views, cascading terraces, luxury cars, and a private pool all showcase a lifestyle that the developer wants to bring to Montreal. Except here, the mountains will be centerpiece instead of the sea.
Having acquired a gigantic piece of land near Mount Royal and the neighborhoods of Outremont, Westmount, Hampstead and Town of Mount Royal, René Lépine asked three architectural firms to impress him with an incredible concept.  Desmarais, Tornay, Pilon et Associés won the seven-day competition. This marked the beginning of a collaboration that lasted more than 10 years, realized a pioneering project in terms of typology and sustainable building techniques, and created a working relationship that is still active today.


"A superb view of the Eastern Township mountains, three fireplaces, four marble bathrooms," meant the $1.45 million penthouse was reserved for "la crème de la crème."  Even though he is not referring to Le Sanctuaire but to Les Jardins de l’Archipel, La Presse journalist François Berger  is nevertheless describing the brand new housing concept: the condominium. Con-do-min-i-um? Even if the term is widely used today—referring to a North American property distinction that separates the property from the ownership of the land it sits on—it was unknown in Montreal in the early 1980s.
Despite the initial lukewarm reception from the profession, it became quite popular with Montrealers. It offered more affordable access to home ownership in proximity to urban centers, public transportation, and the different amenities city life offers. The typology contributes to the densification of cities, reduces the need for cars, and is one of the strategies to combat suburban sprawl. How did this concept appear in the metropolis? It seems Le Sanctuare is the one that started it all…


Le Sanctuaire…this word brings to mind a calm and quiet place but also refers to the bird sanctuary found on the 1 million-ft2 site where René Lépine intends to develop his latest real estate operation. After a few delays due to concerns about preservation of the site, a by-law issued on March 30, 1981 by the City of Montreal authorized the construction of "five residential buildings of 11 to 15 storeys, as well as a community and shopping center, in accordance with the plans [...] prepared by the architects Desmarais, Tornay, Pilon and Associates."
After the ground-breaking in 1981, the five phases of Le Sanctuaire were built at a rate of one per year between 1983 and 1987. Two additional phases were added several years later, enabled by the unexpected acquisition of a neighboring lot. Le Sanctuaire is now a complex of seven pyramids, whose characteristic silhouette defines the skyline of the metropolis yet remains totally integrated into its natural environment.


The condominium is “a new kind of housing... a bit like an apartment, except that you own it instead of renting it. There are already some in big cities like Paris, New York, and it's about time it happened in Montreal.” This is how René Lépine explains his project to Gilles Ouellet in 1983 when he asks him to head Le Sanctuaire’s advertising campaign. An unknown product and an unpredictable market: it was quite a risky venture. A new magazine, daily advertisements in the press, matinées, fashion shows, penthouse tours; the formula developed by the publicist turned out quite successfully. 
 Forty years later, the condominium has become one of the most popular forms of housing in the city, if not the most popular. Becoming a desirable consumer good, housing became more affordable for new buyers who could more easily make the shift into home ownership. Le Sanctuaire du Mont-Royal is “the one that started it all,” benefiting not just its residents and neighbours, but also the experts that made it possible. Having become a landmark in the city, it was the crowning achievement of René Lépine’s career, and made NEUF a key player in the residential sector, paving the way for firm’s current operations—more than 21,000 residential units just at this moment!

Photo credit: Alex St-Jean

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