A Fjord Foundation

Project Musee Du Fjord, Ville Saguenay, Quebec

Architect Dupuis Letourneux Architectes in Joint Venture With Beauchesne Carrier Simard Martel

Text Rhys Phillips

Along the north shore of the St. Lawrence and stretching deep into the rugged Saguenay Fjord, the landscape leaves an indelible and inescapable sense of existing on the edge. That edge is marked as a sharply etched line between land and water, between an almost impenetrable wilderness and an ancient but unpredictable base for communication, commerce and transport.

Along the river, wide valleys etched out by powerful ice flows millions of years ago sweep down from the north but remain above sea level and have provided a viable if sometimes precarious agricultural livelihood for its European settlers. In contrast, the Saguenay Fjord was scoured long and deep leaving an awesome shoreline that is dramatic, raw and often uninhabitable. At the same time, its mix of salt and fresh water and the relative shallowness of its entry into the St. Lawrence have ensured a rich aquatic life below its grey-blue surface.

The modest Muse du Fjord (Dupuis LeTourneux architectes in joint venture with Beauchesne Carrier Simard Martel) rests on the shores of Baie des Ha! Ha! in the hamlet of La Baie, 222 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. This village-owned interpretive facility is intended to celebrate as well as explain this unique biodiversity and the socio-cultural history it has helped support. A simple but elegantly detailed box that conceals some difficult functional solutions, the $3.3 million expansion plays transparency against opacity and in doing so, introduces a subversive twist to local convention.

For architects Benot Dupuis and Jean-Pierre LeTourneux (they have now parted with the latter, joining Menkes Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux architectes) the museum represents somewhat of a return to their first major project. Located on the equally dramatic north shore of the Gasp almost across from the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, the 1990 competition-winning design for the critically acclaimed Muse rgional de Rimouski involved the clinical insertion of modern elements into an historic stone church.

It was here that an abstracted “billboard,” played out against the church, and based on an interpretation of traditional eel nets stretching along the local tidal flats, introduced their fascination with the idea of mediating architectural screens. Their use, LeTourneux explains, is about “the whole idea of openness and protection while at the same time you get to see something but you see it through the filter of architecture.” It is a leitmotif they have used with remarkable variety in projects like Newton Restaurant, Cit Multimdia’s Phase 8 Building and the Brbeuf Library. Muse du Fjord is no exception.

Unlike at Rimouski and Brbeuf, the museum is a highly visible addition that plays off a relatively recent but quite different existing structure. After the region’s devastating flood of 1996,which destroyed most of the exhibits and the multi-use facility in which they were housed, the town constructed a postmodern structure reflecting steep-roofed habitant houses. This L-shaped structure included the small museum as well as a community centre, dance and music studios, and meeting rooms for the local Women’s Institute.

In 2001, the consortium beat out three other firms to redesign and significantly enlarge the museum. “It was a very small project but with a certain complexity as the program required a clear disengagement of the museum from the other functions,” explains LeTourneux. In addition, a key constraint was the existing heavy steel I-beam structure. “The high cost of too many structural interventions meant we had to figure out a way of arranging the components without radically shifting this structure.”

By infilling an unnecessary, double-height studio in the building’s short wing, they were able to accommodate all of the other functions and segregate their public entrance. This left most of the narrower, but longer street-facing wing to serve as the museum’s entrance and administrative/service wing. Behind, and facing the fjord, they inserted the new, 2,200-square-metre two-storey exhibition space. And it was here that they challenged a longstanding convention.

“What was immediately apparent with the existing building we confronted,” LeTourneux relates, “was the curious fact that although it was a museum focused on ‘what is the Fjord Saguenay,’ it turned its back against its very subject by having not a single window opening to the water.” Visitors had to exit the building and walk completely around to catch even a glimpse of the fjord.

This was no accident but the way buildings had been designed for centuries in the region. “If you go along the St. Lawrence River or the fjord, all of the buildings traditionally have their back to the river while their fronts and their wide porches embrace the street.” Yet it is the water side that provides the most panoramic and beautiful views. Historically, however, the river and its floods were seen as dangerous, something against which one struggled. “It was interesting,” he muses, “to see how this attitude had survived into the last decade of the 20th century.”

Immediately, the central idea was to design a museum that would reflect the fjord as the principle artefact. Or, as LeTourneux puts it, “from the start of one’s journey in the museum, the space had to announce the Fjord Saguenay.” To achieve this, they organized the museum space along a central “telescope spine,” a double-height opening that cuts straight back from the entrance to the glazed east wall of the addition, thus making visible the fjord from the moment of entry.

Just inside the main entrance, a bridge connecting second-level offices and meeting rooms spans this spine; but, the double height returns on entering a simple but elegantly minimalist reception hall. The spine then continues past an enclosed media room and the transparent “didactic gallery” for interactive exhibits on one side and the more “black box” temporary and permanent galleys on the other.

Although there is a corner window in the permanent gallery, it is the didactic gallery that provides sweeping views of the bay, fjord and rugged landscape. Its entire two-storey faade overlooking the water is glazed, as is the first level on the north wall, which looks out onto a courtyard terrace protected from the often harsh prevailing winds. At the lower level, this skin of glass orientates the visitor on the horizontal towards the fjord and the mountains. In contrast, the upper view of the sky is filtered through wooden screens of grey pine. A mezzanine, reached by open stairs, separates the open and the mediated view. This narrow bridge-like platform serves another purpose. “From the bridge,” states LeTourneux, “you are abruptly re-oriented in another direction to an unfettered window that acts as a kind of riflescope pointing out towards the historic founders’ cross on a distant mountain.”

Le Tourneux likes to work with a layering of different, often transparent architectural skins that separate users from different interior spaces or from the external environment. But the transparency of materials is always changing. The mediation of views through screens, fritted glass, metal mesh curtains as well as carefully directed views, he believes, ensures that while you are looking into or out of a space, you still have the presence of architecture that filters the light and filters what is going on beyond the screen.

In the museum, the screens work with the horizontality of the bay and the horizontality of the landscape while mediating the sky. “It is not about confusing people but it is about filtering nature,” he adds. At night, however, the opposite occurs. “The artificial light within this space brings light outside and acts like a lantern but this light still must penetrate through the filter of that architectural screen.”

Finally, the e
xternal overlapping of the screens from glass to wood-clad galleries acts as a transition from the solid to the open. “They ensure there is a transition from the opaque to the totally transparent, a gradual opening to light.”

The local popularity of the new Muse du Fjord demonstrates that strong modern architecture cannot only enrich the built environment of a small, even isolated village; it can resonate with the people in the community it serves.

Rhys Phillips is Director, Policy and Legislation for Employment Equity at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He has been writing on architecture and urban design for 17 years.

Client Ville Saguenay

Architect Team Jacques Beauchesne, Jean-Pierre Letourneux, Benot Dupuis, Guy Fournier, Agnes Marcoux, Andre Prefontaine, Jean-Sebastien Herr, Paolo Zasso, Annie Lavoie, Mario Theberge, Stephane Larouche, Martin Tremblay

Structural LMB/Genitique

Mechanical LMB/Genitique

Electrical LMB/Genitique

Landscape Beauchesne Carrier Simard Martel / Dupuis Letourneux Architectes

Interiors Beauchesne Carrier Simard Martel / Dupuis Letourneux Architectes

Contractor Construction O.P.C.R.

Technological Integration Go Multimedia

Area 2,050 M2

Budget $3.3 Million

Completion June 2004

Photography Steve Montpetit