This Bridge Broadcasts the Mood of Montreal

The Jacques Cartier Bridge, a workaday steel-truss span in Montreal, now doubles as a Twitter-connected barometer of city life. (Photo: Marc Bruxelle/

Opened to traffic in 1930, the Jacques Cartier Bridge is a complicated Montreal icon.

True, it’s not the most attractive structure. But this hard-working steel truss cantilever bridge — it’s the third busiest bridge in all of Canada — is a bona fide Montreal landmark up there with Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere, the Farine Five Roses sign and the cross that looms over Quebec’s largest city from atop Mount Royal. (Keep in mind that Montreal isn't just the name of a city but the name of the island that the city is located on, surrounded by three rivers. This makes the role of the Cartier Bridge and the dozens of other bridges that connect Montreal, the island, with the mainland all the more vital.)

Essential and emblematic, the Cartier Bridge is, alas, often unappreciated by the nearly 100,000 motorists who cross it every day. Frequently, it’s the object of many-a-gridlocked commuter’s scorn. This year, however, is the Cartier Bridge’s turn to shine — literally — with a dazzling $39.5 million lighting makeover installed in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial and the 375th anniversary of Montreal.

Fancy bridge lighting come to Quebec

Gussying up bridges with state-of-the-art LED systems that pulse, twinkle and put on synchronized light shows is an increasingly popular method of adding aesthetic oomph to aging infrastructure in cities across North America. This is often to the chagrin of taxpayers who help foot the bill for these costly cosmetic upgrades that, at their best, serve as evocative, emotionally resonating works of art and, at their worst, evoke a Friday night at the local roller rink. (And you can decide where you fall on the spectrum after watching the video above.)

As CityLab noted last year, Memphis, Louisville, Little Rock, Boston and most famously, the San Francisco Bay Area, are all home to bridges with exceptionally "fancy lighting." The Big Apple also has multicolored LED dreams, although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has faced steep criticism in recent days for seeming to favor razzle-dazzle light shows over fixing crumbling subway infrastructure.

The cost of Jacques Cartier Bridge’s three-years-in-the-making LED lighting makeover was a contentious issue as well with many Montrealers arguing that the funds would have been better spent elsewhere, 375th anniversaries be damned. But in the several weeks that the 2,800-LED-strong installation, dubbed “Living Connections,” has been up and illuminating, it’s no doubt managed to win over a few skeptics. The Society for the Celebration of Montréal’s 375th Anniversary calls it an "ambitious, innovative new luminous signature that is a tribute to one of Montreal's architectural icons."

It’s pretty spectacular after all, as you can see — and certainly not easy to breath new life into an iconic 87-year-old gateway bridge that most Montrealers love to hate.

“We like to compare it to the Eiffel Tower with the lighting system,” says Eric Fournier, partner and executive producer at Moment Factory, of the installation to the CBC following May's fireworks-studded inauguration ceremony. "It has given it another level of attention and, I think, attraction.”

A Montreal-headquartered multimedia entertainment studio, Moment Factory is responsible for the overall creative vision of the newly lit-up Cartier Bridge. Fournier and his team at Moment Factory collaborated with a half-dozen local lighting and multimedia design firms to execute the concept. Engineering and installation duties were performed by two additional Quebecois companies.

A bridge for all seasons

True to its name, “Living Connections” does boast one thing that its LED-illuminated bridge brethren lack — a human link. Similar lighting systems put on choreographed light “performances." Others are lit to commemorate a holiday or special event. Some, like “The Bay Lights,” artist Leo Villareal’s transcendent light installation on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, are just flat-out mesmerizing. But what transpires after dusk hundreds of feet above the St. Lawrence River on the Jacques Cartier Bridge is next level.

Described as the first-ever “People Connected Bridge” by Philips Lighting (the company supplied the 2,400 intelligent LEDs that comprise the bridge’s “digital skin”), Cartier Bridge is forever changing.

When “Living Connections” slowly twinkles to life each evening as the sun drops below the horizon, the bridge’s hue du jour is dictated by the season. As explained by Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated (JCCBI), the state-owned company that operates the bridge, the span is programmed to take a 365-day-long color journey, gradually shifting each and every day “from an energizing spring green to a radiant summer orange, a voluptuous fall red, and finally an icy winter blue.”

You can even track the bridge’s ever-evolving color cycle via a nifty feature — Rythmé Par Le Cycle Des Saisons — on the JCCBI website. When the installation was unveiled back in May, the bridge cast a crisp, blueish green tone. Now, at the end of July, nighttime motorists will be greeted by a radiant yellow-going-on-orange. Come January, the bridge will be purple.

Tweets, not tolls

In addition to evoking the passage of time through seasonally appropriate colors, “Living Connections,” taps into social media to display the energy and tenor of the city, making the Jacques Cartier Bridge the world’s first networked bridge.

As the JCCBI explains: “The vitality of Montrealers is constantly seen through the subtle flickering of the lights. The intensity, speed and density of these light fragments change depending on how often Montreal is mentioned on social media.”

More specifically, the bridge’s lighting scheme reacts to Twitter. Each time a tweet is generated with the hashtag #illuminationMTL, that 140-character dispatch is transformed into a “moving light” that appears atop the bridge’s two towers. Each time the tweet gets a like, the light expands; each time it receives a retweet, the light moves faster, falling more quickly downwards, like a falling star, toward the five-lane bridge deck. If the tweet receives no additional activity, the light fades away.What’s more, the bridge displays vibrant, data-driven animations — mini light shows of sorts — at the top of each hour in which the city’s mood is visualized based on real-time events including traffic, weather and the current news.

While a press release notes that the dominant colors during these five-minute animations are based on the type of top trending news in Montreal at the moment (green for environment, grey for businesses, light blue for tech and innovation, etc.), you better believe that on evenings when the Montreal Canadiens lose to the Boston Bruins and the traffic stinks, those 5-minute light show will be dominated by angry reds or a dark, somber palette.

If a disaster or major death were to dominate the Montreal news cycle, Fournier tells the CBC that the bridge will react appropriately. "We'll make sure the bridge is not going crazy during a very bad moment," he says.

Traffic statistics are visualized through a series of dots and dashes that symbolize each car or truck that traveled on the bridge across the St. Lawrence from the mainland suburb of Longueuil to the island of Montreal or vice versa. Meteorological conditions are visualized in various forms. Rainy weather, for example, appears as digital raindrops, slanted to fall in the same direction from which the wind is blowing.

When the clock strikes midnight, the installation cycles through the complete 365-color calendar, ending on a new day's color. Although the color shifts can be subtle, the bridge comes to life dressed in a different color every single night. At 3 a.m., although still softly illuminated in the hue of a new day, the bridge falls into a slumber as all of the evening's special light shows and animations — save for shooting LED stars birthed by insomniac Twitter users — come to an end.

“[The Jacques-Cartier Bridge] is a presence that has its own character,” Roger Parent of Réalisations, one of Moment Factory’s creative collaborators, tells CTV News. “It’s not a marathon thing. We want to generate randomness with meaning.”

Good news for those with no immediate plans to visit Montreal during this particularly festive year for Canada's second most populous city: “Living Connections” is due to generate randomness with meaning on a nightly basis at the Jacques Cartier Bridge for the next 10 years.