Quo Vadis? Cui bono? History, bullshit, and the corporate university

A public art competition sounds like a good thing, in the abstract. (Thanks, folks, I’ll be here all week.) On the other hand, people like me tend to think that context counts for a lot. With those two points in mind, allow me to introduce “Legado”, site of a new art competition that bridges the real world of real estate and the Ivory Tower of academe.

The offspring of Quo Vadis, a Montreal-based real estate developer, Legado is “an urban redevelopment project of 27 000 m2 in Montreal’s hottest new neighborhood of Griffintown… centered between Old Montreal and the hustle of downtown.” In other words, condos. Or not? Quo Vadis describes itself on its LinkedIn page as a “multidisciplinary Property Management Company” (a thing I had not heard of before), and the New York-based nonprofit Next City lauds an earlier Quo Vadis effort as community activism:

Salon 1861 …is another example how a collaborative, grassroots approach to development is reshaping Montréal’s neighborhoods. … Little Burgundy is [a] former industrial neighborhood with a rich history in the southwest of Montréal. Historically home to a black Anglophone working-class community, it is also known as the birthplace of local jazz legends Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. St. Joseph’s Church, built in 1861… was one of the neighborhood’s landmark buildings…. It had been abandoned for several years when a local developer named Natalie Voland set her sight on its reinvention. Armed with degrees in social work and political science, Voland joined her family real estate development business…. The family business, Quo Vadis… had purchased the old church with a vision of condos. But… McGill University was doing work in the area with an eye to developing more cultural amenities and Voland soon made a connection with researchers there. From the beginning, the goal was to collaborate with a range of stakeholders, including students and others associated with the university and other civic institutions. The result? A multipurpose space where community groups, businesses, researchers, social entrepreneurs and local residents can meet up to network, share resources and train employees. Salon 1861 hosts a full-service event hall and a restaurant that sources local produce. There are plans to build an urban garden…. The collaborative development has worked out to benefit Little Burgundy in ways that condos, or even a new university building, never would have.

Similarly, Quo Vadis now suggests,

Legado plays on the history of Griffintown being a hub of Innovation, as so many inventions and businesses in the early days of Montreal were created in its boundaries. We have taken best practices of urban planning, and built a building project where citizen design is primordial. We propose to build a vertical city that is inclusive, sustainable, inspiring, cross-generational and a proto-typing zone for a human scale city that welcomes local residents, small and large business, community groups and universities to live, play, work, and learn together. Legado will take a mixed development to the next level or integrating uses to play off each other to be the best of all worlds together.

In short: two decayed working-class communities in Montreal are now being revitalized through development that marries private investment with university expertise — Concordia’s, in the case of Legado. It is literally “the best of all [possible?] worlds.” And, to help decorate it and “tell its story”, Quo Vadis is sponsoring a “public art competition” for Concordia students. The winning design will grace a central spot in Legado and, one presumes, warm the cockles of Legadese hearts from here to eternity.

So what’s the problem? I know virtually nothing about urban development, so I’ll leave critiques from that direction to those who can mount them intelligently.[1] I am, however, a veteran user both of English and of logic, so I wonder a little about what “grassroots” means when I read the following Montreal Gazette interview with Voland, on the subject of Salon 1861:

“It wasn’t started by politicians,” she explained. “It was started by a banker (Ménard). The politicians only got involved later. It was a ground-up movement. “I’ve gotten to know several of the people associated with Je fais Mtl projects, and they are really serious human beings who are dedicated to making Montreal work.”

Now, I’d never deny that bankers are serious human beings. They wear pinstripes! Still, as human beings go, they strike me as collectively somewhat distant from the grassroots. (It may be that I don’t know the right bankers — the real lunch-pail, paycheque-to-paycheque types.) And there’s something about the defensiveness and apparent disingenuousness of Voland’s response to critics — or, to use her term, “cynics” — that makes me suspect that the best of all worlds is still better for some than for others.

And Voland says she has little time for… cynics who are more interested in questioning the movement rather than supporting it. “In fact, there were a lot of cynics who said I could never take a church and create a financial opportunity to rebuild it,” she said. “Well, we’re open today.”

Perhaps it’s just the fawning tone of the Gazette‘s puff piece, which cravenly adopts and endorses Voland’s own epithet for critics without deigning to offer the merest detail about who they might be. Perhaps it’s that, in 2017, I’m suspicious of “family businesses” in real estate development. Regardless, I wonder whether the main criticism of urban redevelopment is really that there’s no “financial opportunity” in it, or whether that’s just the criticism Voland is best placed to answer. But I digress.

Instead, as this is an academic history blog, I’d like to ask a few questions about the academic and historical side of this equation: in particular, the developer’s use of scholarly rhetoric and appeals, the way it appropriates and “plays on history” — play that the university, by its involvement, implicitly ratifies. It will not surprise readers of this blog that I suspect the wedding of corporate and academic interests here is not nearly so propitious for university “stakeholders” as leaders on either side would wish us to think.

The competition “brief” opens on an ambitious-sounding, if somewhat inarticulate, note. Beneath an image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, it invites young artists to

Redefine the connectivity between art and engineering. There are three place holders on the site reserved in this game changing mixed use development. They are earmarked people gathering places that will tell our story. The story of Montreal evolution culture and development in and around the Canal. These landmarks should speak to Montreal’s multi-cultural roots and expression through art. These three areas should underscore the “raison’d’etre” the LEGADO in the heart of the Quartier Innovation.

Having identified the public art “gathering places” with Legado’s story, and Legado’s story with Montreal’s, it pans back again to bring the bigger picture into view:

Centuries ago, the legendary Leonardo da Vinci broke down those boundaries and set his imagination and curiosity free to explore his ideas and create without the limits that come from being one or the other. Art and engineering is, after all, one and the same on many levels and could not exist without each other. We challenge you to be inspired to blur the lines of art and structure through concepts of engineering.

Now, as a historian of the early modern period, I might be expected to want to nit-pick over the accuracy of the historical claims suggested here: did Leonardo really break down the boundaries between art and engineering — just by setting his imagination free? (Wow! Legendary!) Were I a historian of Montreal, I might want to know instead which parts of the city’s “story” were being told, exactly. But I don’t. To my mind, the big problem with this corporate invocation of history isn’t that it’s inaccurate or simplistic or partial, though no doubt if pushed further it would turn out to be all of these. The big problem is that (in the technical sense of the word) it’s bullshit. I don’t care if the history is accurate or even plausible because I know that Quo Vadis doesn’t care, either. It is just there to sell something.

Am I being unfair to these grassroots developers? You will recall that Legado’s very raison d’etre was bound up — somehow — with the ties between its own story and Montreal’s. In that light, we may wonder whether there is some hidden historical significance in Legado’s very name. Sure enough, Quo Vadis has it covered:

What’s in a Name?

The name Legado means “legacy” in Spanish. Why did we choose it? We wish to create a prototype for urban development projects that call to be inspired by our common history, celebrate inclusivity, and build for our future generations. It was selected in Spanish as an ode to the fact that the world is and should continue to celebrate our interconnectivity between communities and between nations. Can we, together, build our history of tomorrow?

Got that? Legado is about Montreal’s history. Also inclusivity and the future. Also interconnectivity between communities and nations. So, you know, Spanish. Let me stress here that I have nothing against the choice of Spanish, nor do I think it is out of place in a city like Montreal. But, and this is the key thing, the pseudo-philosophical explanation Quo Vadis goes out of its way to give for the choice is purest, vaguest bullshit. It makes no connection whatever — least of all any “historical” connection — between the choice it is ostensibly explaining and the reasons it articulates for that choice. It just offers some pleasant globalist drivel and then, in classic corporate bullshit-artist fashion, changes the subject with a nonsensical question. (The answer, by the way, is no.) It cares about history exactly as much as it cares about any other form of advertising, and for exactly the same reasons.

It should go without saying that this is, of course, to be expected from a real estate developer. My real question is: what does it mean for a university to rubber-stamp this sort of bullshit? Maybe nothing, but I have a few thoughts. My first thought is that it is at least a lot less damaging than for that same university to rubber-stamp a whole formal scholarly report that treats opposition to asbestos as an emotional outburst, as it did not too long ago. So as corporate infiltration of the university goes, this is at worst a very mild case. My second thought is that the more obvious problem in this particular case is surely that it appears to involve recruiting unpaid art students (and at least one university course) to compete to provide a large and permanent piece of PR for a private real estate developer.[2] Both seem like bigger issues, overall, than the rhetorical plays noted above.

Still, the histories people tell, and the purposes for which they tell them, matter. I’d like to think the same holds true — though perhaps not in quite the same sense — for private corporations and public institutions, universities not least. What does it mean when an institution entrusted with educating people in history, with housing, promoting and in some ways vetting historical research, is at the same time enthusiastically and very publicly engaged in the cynical reduction of history to a way of selling real estate? I don’t know the answer, but two paths towards possible answers suggest themselves.

One — which I’m tempted to guess might be most senior academic historians’ take — is that these are two different sides of the university that need never meet. If so, it’s a little sad (cue the violins) that an academic institution should be so much more excited about PR pseudo-history than about the work and shape of its own history department. But at least there’s no mystery about why that should be. So perhaps it doesn’t really mean anything, except that the competition for attention and resources goes on, alongside the mostly phony struggle for faculty governance.

The other path, to stick with my hastily chosen metaphor, leads instead to a junction of these two different histories, under the sign of return on investment, employability, and transferable skills. This may not be as far-fetched, or as far off, as it sounds. After all, if we already have an Fine Arts course for artistic pitches to a specific developer, there’s no obvious reason — formally speaking — why we couldn’t have a history course for developing historical “narratives” that specific businesses can use. We are supposed to be on the lookout for new forms of engagement with potential employers — what better way than to let them come right in? Bad as the first path is, this path worries me more.

I once asked a senior administrator whether, after all the enthusiasm he’d shown for the proliferation of initiatives like this one, he saw any similarly exciting future for research or teaching that could not be directly applied to policy or turned into salable product. He seemed taken aback. “Yes,” he said. But he didn’t go on.


[1] For an interesting and critical read on the history and historical memory of Griffintown, however, I can recommend Matthew Barlow’s recent book.
[2] The course looks like it provides very useful training, but then so do a lot of unpaid and exploitative internships. The ethical question is distinct from the practical one.

One thought on “Quo Vadis? Cui bono? History, bullshit, and the corporate university

  1. Pingback: The Rule of the 20th Century (The Shape of Academic History, Part II) | memorious

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