A Penny Earned

PROJECT Thtre de Quat’Sous, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECT Les Architectes FABG
TEXT Ricardo L. Castro
PHOTOS Steve Montpetit
In the spring of 2009, the Thtre de Quat’Sous, one of Montreal’s three oldest theatrical establishments (the others are the Thtre du Rideau Vert and the Thtre du Nouveau Monde), launched its program in a new headquarters. The theatre, which is a cultural landmark in the city’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, had, since 1965, been housed in a former synagogue, in turn the result of a conversion of three turn-of-the-century row houses located on the corner of Avenue des Pins Est and Avenue Coloniale, two blocks from The Main (Boulevard Saint-Laurent), Montreal’s legendary street that divides the city into its east and west sides. Les Architectes FABG–named for the founding partners Paul Faucher, Andr Aubertin, Andr Brodeur, and Eric Gauthier–was commissioned for this project. Gauthier was in charge of the design and implementation.

The theatre group has significantly contributed to shaping the Montreal cultural scene for nearly 50 years. The well-known French-born theatre director Paul Buissonneau founded the Thtre de Quat’Sous in 1955 and was its artistic director until 1989. Despite its modest size, Quat’Sous became a springboard for many Quebec playwrights and actors such as Yvon Deschamps, Robert Lepage, and Lothaire Bluteau. From its inception, the company and its various directors committed themselves to offer theMontreal public innovative and experimental productions, often centredon collective creation. This attitude has an echo in the name of the theatre, suggested by Claude Robillard and chosen by Buissoneau back in 1955. Quat’Sous is the French phonetic contraction of Quatre Sous (four pennies), which is an echo of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1928). Known in English as The Threepenny Opera, this work has been highly influential in many contemporary theatrical circles.

Les Architectes FABG’s significant enhancement of Montreal’s urban fabric is undeniable as is evidenced by a long list of projects, including most recently the House of Culture for the Maisonneuve Borough (2005), Dawson College’s Theatre and Public Spaces (2007), the Community Centre of Pierrefonds (2008), and the Thtre de Quat’Sous (2009). In the design process of the Quat’Sous, the architects had to confront a series of challenges which they addressed innovatively, turning them into design opportunities. Safety issues and better facilities for the users became paramount in the public debates that began in 2003, followed by design proposals about the future of the theatre, culminating last year with the viable alternative: demolition and new construction.

“Save the soul of the Quat’Sous” was one of the implicit mandates that emerged from the general public and particularly theatre-goers: undoubtedly a loaded criterion, which eventually led the architects to conceive a design strategy based on an inventory of associations to nurture collective memory. They used what Gauthier calls “an archaeology of the Internet”–since the architects were able to research numerous layers of information and data related to the epoch, the site, and the history of the theatre on the Web.

Through this process, they made decisions for a selective yet comprehensive cultural recycling of objects, furniture and materials from the old establishment, which, in turn, were to be combined with the utilization of new materials, colours and textures to evoke and stimulate associations with the history and soul of the Quat’Sous.

The idea of “an archaeology of the Internet” complements temporalconcepts about theatrical practices and theatre buildings themselves. As stated by the architects: “Theatre is about fugacity, a succession of unique moments that barely survive in the memories of those who were there.Theatres are ghostly figures that have witnessed what we are about toforget.”

Gauthier maintains that the project became a sort of phantasm since the panoply of evocative strategies, references, and particularly the spiritual presence of Paul Buissonneau, its founder, loomed throughout the design process. As the architects point out, “We chose to sample textures, images, colours and materials from a cultural inventory of the theatre and mapped them on the assemblage of required volumes (stage, house, foyer, crossover, control booth and rehearsal). Recycling on-site stones, slate, wood, bricks, marble and furniture becomes part of a strategy of cultural sustainability. New materials include silk-screened glass, black brick and perforated aluminum that contribute to making the Thtre de Quat’Sous a ghostly figure accumulating memories.”

The final result is an elegant structure composed of a clearly articulated geometry. On the one hand, reading the building vertically along its most important faade on Avenue des Pins Est reveals three levels: the foyer and administration at ground level; the stage and auditorium with its mezzanine and glazed circulation volume in the middle; followed by a rehearsal hall and terrace on top. On the other hand, a horizontal reading reveals three volumes sitting on a plinth: the stage, the auditorium with corresponding lobbies, and the vertical circulation. The various forms are accentuated by the use of diverse materials that highlight the character of each volume: glass and perforated metal with a paisley motif evocative of the 1960s coupled with stone blocks in some areas, which serve to inscribe the names of donors and supporters of the theatre. This adds a memorable layer to the building’s significance.

For the interiors, broken pieces of marble for the floor and intense red stairs and seats recall the glamour of the former venue. This is complemented by the deployment of found objects from the previous building. There are other alluring devices such as the silhouette of Paul Buissoneau–recalling a surreal Magritte image–which sits on top of a ladder and has been made apparent in the transparent area of one of the rehearsal hall’s opaque windows. The silhouette is easily visible to passersby along Avenue des Pins Est.

All of these devices helped the architects develop a functional and clear organization of spaces on a physically constrained site. One of the results is a definite sense of desired intimacy–evocative of the former theatre–that the users of the new facility experience. The sense of intimacy achieved for either performances or activities in the rehearsal hall results from spatial constraints that the architects have cunningly orchestrated. On the terrace of the building, which opens into a 360-degree panorama of Montreal’s roofscape, with Mont-Royal as an inspiring backdrop, artist-architectHal Ingberg has made a transparent glass wall installation as part of a one-percent art commission requirement, furthering a sense of intimacy, even in the most open area of the building.

One of the most important characteristics of the new theatre is the successful restoration and reincorporation of the most significant traits of the former theatre that evokes a collective memory while simultaneouslyrendering homage to its founder, Paul Buissoneau. The project is also atestament to Eric Gauthier’s skills as an architect and to the distinguished history of a significant Montreal theatrical institution. CA

Ricardo L. Castro, FRAIC, is an Associate Professor at McGill University in Montreal.

Client Thtre de Quat’sous
Architect Team ric Gauthier, Steve Montpetit, Franois Verville, Dominique Potvin
Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Aecom
Acoustics Legault Davidson
Theatre Consultant Trizart Alliance
Contractor Aecon
Area 860 m2
Budget $4.5 M
Completion April 2009