Dendrites, Montreal’s Oddly-Shaped Monument

The Dendrites on the backdrop of Montreal Downtown

photography by: Omri Westmark

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What was once a car-infested thoroughfare turned into a verdant esplanade during the mid-2010’s, when the city of Montreal decided to tear down an existing highway. The newly-created public space was then peppered with multiple artworks, one of which, the Dendrites, has since captivated the attention of motorists and passersby alike.

Shortly before Montreal’s 1967 Expo took place, Bonaventure Expressway was constructed along the neighborhoods of Pointe-Saint-Charles and Griffintown, linking the world’s fair site with the downtown area. Several decades later, elevated parts of the massive 11-lane highway were deemed useless and even harmful, as incoming traffic has dwindled to less than 60,000 car per day.

 

In 2017, the controversial expressway was partially dismantled to a fanfare of schadenfreude. Instead, a large park crisscrossed with walkways and bicycle lanes became the epicenter of the area’s urban revival. Dotting the brand-new esplanade are also several eye-catching works of art, including a rather bizarre sculpture which might seem at first like an unfinished pedestrian bridge.

 

Straddling the Notre-Dame Street, Dendrites are a pair of convoluted stairways, whose muses are as numerous as its steps. The brainchild of artist Michel de Broin, the structures share their name with the ramified part of the neuron that communicates with other braincells by neurotransmitters through the synapses. Much like their source of inspiration, the sculptures comprise several flights of stairs that branch off the main staircase.

 

As the term originally derives from the Greek word “Dendron”, meaning tree, it alludes to one of the Dendrites’ other metaphors. In fact, the multiple trunks were deliberately constructed of weathering steel, whose umber hue is somewhat reminiscent of a tree. Curiously, it is also claimed that the artwork’s rusty tint reflects the area’s industrial past as well as the nearby wrought iron bridges.

 

Aside from the seemingly endless list of tropes, the climbable sculptures offer a series of vantage points of the surrounding streets, as each of which sits at a different height. Unlike museums or galleries where onlookers are expected to refrain from any physical contact with works of art, Montreal’s Dendrites encourage anyone who walk past them to explore the staircases with their entire body, blurring the lines between art and reality.